No marginal subjects

April 28, 2000

David Starkey scorns histories of the working-class.He prefers 'big and important' topics such as Elizabeth I, who, it seems, was abused as a child. Harriet Swain meets the 'rudest man in Britain'.

Like any good user of rhetorical techniques, David Starkey has a list of three things he wants to do once he finishes publicity for his new book on Elizabeth I.

First, he says, ticking the items off, he is producing a set of articles to accompany an exhibition on Henry VIII and his court at the National Portrait Gallery. Second, he wants to finish his biography of Henry VIII, using some of the lessons gleaned from writing about Henry's daughter. Third, he hopes to restore a small 18th-century chteau in France. Describing this latest project, he gets all excited and superstitious - the sale has yet to be completed - recalling the way it really looks like a chteau, with "two little pepper-pot towers" and a "proper enfilade of rooms with two sets of double doors - each". "Weeeeee," he breathes, "I can't wait to get my hands on it."

Starkey already owns the Victorian villa in Highbury where he sits now, on the opposite side of the drawing room, below the mantelpiece with its marble ornaments and chiming clock, near the window seats with their perfectly placed plant pots, under a set of portraits.

"You fall in love with things," he says, "in the same way that I semi fell in love with her." He motions towards the crisp new copy of Elizabeth on his coffee table. He could mean either the princess or the picture of her on the cover. For it was the picture that first attracted him, he writes in his preface. "It is not the mannequin of her maturity. Nor is the Elizabeth of this book the familiar queen." Instead, it is the young Elizabeth who displays what Starkey claims most drew him to her - humanity.

In fact, what drew him first was the idea of a television series. Originally, Elizabeth was to be the book of the series, which runs for four weeks from next Thursday on Channel 4. It follows Starkey's successful three-parter on Henry VIII two years ago, which attracted 2.8 million viewers, but Elizabeth, says Starkey, will be "much straighter".

Like Henry, it uses reconstruction, but it forgoes the kind of references to the present that saw Starkey retracing the king's steps on a double-decker bus and, controversially, using shots of Princess Diana's funeral to illustrate the death of Henry's mother.

Starkey is a bit unhappy about this restraint - which was not his decision - but suggests that if he, as a man, used the same jokey attitude to tackle the life of an iconic woman, it could jar. He also believes it would sit uneasily with his more psychological approach to Elizabeth's story.

This is something he emphasises even more in the book, which developed in its own right once he became so hooked on his subject he could not stop writing.

Starkey tackles the effect on the child Elizabeth of early neglect, her closeness to her father and her desire to continue Henry's policies, sexual abuse by her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, and the religious influence of her stepmother, Catherine Parr.

All is told with "ruthless chronology" because he has become convinced that "narrative is the only way of doing things". "Fashionable contempt for narrative" developed "because historians find it too difficult." Also, the narrative drive helps his book read like an historical thriller. "The story has genuine qualities of historical romance," he says, "and this is not something that we as historians should be sniffy about."

Starkey may be sniffy about a lot of things - not for nothing have his performances on Radio 4's The Moral Maze earned him the tag "rudest man in Britain" - but he is all in favour of appealing to a mass audience. He says he cannot see why serious scholarship has to be unintelligible.

Take, for example, his detailed analysis in Elizabeth of her sister Mary's funeral in 1558. Describing the funeral arrangements, he shows how royal ceremony was used to "lubricate" the change of religion from Catholicism to Protestantism by delaying the introduction of Elizabeth's new regime until it was ready.

"No one has done that before because nobody really understands how a royal funeral works," he says. "But not only is it an interesting story, it has all the qualities of the macabre, of the undead, of the viscerations, of bits of viscera being buried under the chapel floor of St James'."

Starkey intends to be more scholarly in a sequel to the book, which he already has planned. To be called Queenship, it will deal with the rest of Elizabeth's reign. This will probably not have a television series, says Starkey, although, he adds, it would be lovely if it did. Then, of course, there is the quatercentenary of Elizabeth's death in 2003, and there are schemes afoot for him to do a national exhibition at one of the museums. It would all fit together quite nicely.

"I have always felt that one is operating in the public domain," he says, criticising the invisibility of most leading historians. "Most historians are publicly funded, and it seems to me that one of our most obvious duties is to make our findings accessible in the public domain. There are serious questions to be asked if they aren't accessible."

Starkey, of course, is not wholly publicly funded - at least not now. Two years ago, he left his job at the London School of Economics to become a fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and an independent writer and broadcaster. A presenter on Talk Radio in its first three years, he has become known as an outspoken panelist on Question Time and Any Questions, and is regularly asked to comment on modern-day royal issues.

"My public image," he says, "is of something slightly malign and naughty. I hope naughty rather than malicious, a little teasing." This is partly down to his character, partly to his belief in the importance of humour in communicating serious thought.

So what are the serious thoughts - the new historical discoveries - in Elizabeth?

First, he says, very little has been written about Elizabeth's early years. He has tried to look with fresh eyes at her relationship with her father and her reintegration to the succession, as well as making clearer her relationship with Thomas Seymour.

Also new is Starkey's emphasis on Elizabeth's power during her sister's reign. Elizabeth was a territorial magnate, directly involved in plotting. He says he has tried to bring out the characters of the people around her and to emphasise the role of her female attendants and the mutual attraction between Elizabeth and the male adventurer types who surrounded her, drawn by her "star quality". He has also tried to emphasise the importance of patriotism in Mary's restoration of Catholicism. He argues that Mary attempted to reclaim for Catholicism the popular nationalist feelings that Henry sparked by establishing the Anglican church and asserting England's independence.

But most novel, Starkey argues, is his account of the succession - the way Elizabeth's council is shaped much more quickly than is generally thought, with Mary's long, drawn-out funeral ceremonies providing a smoke-screen behind which the new government is put in place, using enough Catholic ritual to keep people happy.

Elizabeth, he says, "is a real Elizabethan - this understanding of how your reputation is shaped and made, this translation of rhetoric from simply a tool of the schoolroom into a genuine instrument of policyI there is such a degree of spin".

These are contemporary themes: non-traditional families, England's place in Europe, image-making. They are also themes that mean a lot to Starkey personally. He makes no apologies. "In the writing of history, inevitably we draw on our own experience: our own experience of our own families, our own political experience, our own social experience. That is what informs and helps us to understand people of the past."

His own early experience was in Kendal as the son of a shop-floor engineer and his wife, "an extraordinarily forthright woman".

They were unusual in being working-class Quakers, which meant, says Starkey, that when his parents wanted him to do something it had to be argued. But they also supported him as it became clear his future lay in academia. For a clever child from his background, it was one of few options available, he says. "My mother recognised early my talent for language and told me, 'I'll never forgive you if you go into advertising'."

What she also passed on to him was the view that if everybody believes something, it is almost certainly wrong. Yet the subjects Starkey tackles as a historian - the monarchy, the constitution, the machinations of power - are hardly unconventional.

He agrees. "I live conventionally. I like elegant furniture and I like an agreeable life. I have never been particularly interested in working-class history or immigrant groups in the East End of London, or whatever. I like big and important subjects. I don't think the history of the marginalised and dispossessed is an important one."

Elizabeth is published this week by Chatto, Pounds 20.00. See Higher Channels, page 20, for details of the television series.

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