Interview: More than Bishops and Kings

This is Amanda Vickery’s year. On 1 August 1714, Queen Anne died and the Hanoverian King George I succeeded to the British throne. Three centuries later, the Georgians are everywhere. And Georgians are Professor Vickery’s specialist subject.

‘I wasn’t always focused on the Georgian period,’ she explains, ‘I began as a historian of the nineteenth century, but the records drove me back in time. And I must admit I loved Jean Plaidy’s romantic Georgian novels.’

In the past few months you may have seen the historian and writer presenting a programme on BBC2 about the charity première of Handel’s Messiah at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. Her three-part series The Story of Women & Art has just aired on the same channel and a new series of Voices from the Old Bailey – dramatised extracts from eighteenth century court cases – starts soon on BBC Radio 4.

Vickery came to broadcasting relatively late. She was born into a family of former cotton weavers in Lancashire and grew up listening to stories of everyday life in the mill towns of industrial Britain.

After taking a BA in history at the University of London and a PhD at Churchill College, Cambridge, Vickery started teaching. She is now Professor of Early Modern History – a period that in Britain stretches from the late middle ages to the Great Reform Act of 1832 – at Queen Mary, University of London.

Vickery’s first book, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, published in 1998, grew out of her PhD thesis, which focused on the letters and diaries of a young eighteenth century Lancashire gentlewoman called Elizabeth Parker Shackleton.

‘In the Lancashire Record Office in Preston I found 39 diaries by Elizabeth,’ she says, ‘and what was exciting to me was that her love letters from her first courtship had survived.’ That relationship, between Elizabeth and her second cousin, took place in 1745 and in the best romantic tradition her parents disapproved of the match.

‘They had this thrilling courtship,’ explains Vickery, ‘He used to come to meet her secretly and stay until the early hours, riding back home at 3am.’

Elizabeth eventually defied her parents, married her lover and gave birth to three boys. Her husband died young and at the age of 38 she eloped with a wool merchant 17 years her junior. ‘She caused a local sensation,’ says Vickery, with relish, ‘and she became known as the “Jolly Widow of Alkincoats”.’ It is this delight in the human side of life that makes her so good on telly. She likes people.

‘Television happened after my first book was published,’ she says, ‘Janice Hadlow, who was then Controller of BBC2, really believed in getting in experts, whatever they looked like, whatever their style. She wanted an expert, not an omni-presenter. “Authoritative history” it’s called and long may it last!’ Vickery is a natural.

She acknowledges the British fascination with all things Georgian, but points out that the darker aspects of the period are often ignored. ‘The enduring fascination with Georgian England we owe to the enduring popularity of Jane Austen,’ she says simply, ‘It’s hard to get through school without reading her, and Pride & Prejudice regularly tops the charts as the nation’s favourite novel, but she was very much at the end of the Georgian period and there’s a stately calm about her work, a politeness, a distance from the real ructions of her world.’

In stark contrast, the first two king Georges spoke very little English and were seasoned warriors. ‘They weren’t very attractive and they were culturally barren, but they were Protestant,’ Vickery says, ‘and they brought with them the fighting tactics from years of European wars. Their defeat of the Scottish Jacobites at Culloden in 1746 was one of the filthiest battles ever fought on British soil.’

‘Hindsight has persuaded us that the Hanoverian dynasty was bound to survive, when in fact it wasn’t at all’, she adds. ‘Many monarchs had been deposed in the past and, as she observes drily, we had killed a king just 65 years before.’ All this is safely offstage in Jane Austen’s novels. ‘She was well aware of it,’ says Vickery, ‘what did she write? “Other pens dwell in misery and guilt” – it wasn’t an oversight.’

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What intrigues Vickery is the class of people between these two Georgian realities, often referred to as ‘the middling sort’. The ones she really likes are the ambitious, fallible, ‘scrambling middle.’

Three of them were featured in her Messiah programme. The Foundling Hospital, set up in 1739 by sea captain, Thomas Coram, who was shocked by the numerous abandoned children he saw on London’s streets, was greatly aided in its charitable activities by the composer George Frideric Handel and the English painter, William Hogarth.

‘That’s what I like about that story,’ says Vickery. ‘Coram was a scrambling, self-made man, Hogarth was a struggling painter who made it and Handel’s career as a writer of religious works was on the skids until he reinvented himself as a composer of naughty Italian operas. That ‘scrambling middle’ is so distinctive of the eighteenth century; men and women with an eye on the main chance.’

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She explains that although Messiah is by far the most popular oratorio we have, many people don’t realise that it really caught the public’s attention only when it was performed at the  Foundling Hospital. ‘There had been two performances before this, but it didn’t really take off,’ she says, ‘this was when it found its moment. And there’s something very moving about these three childless men – Handel, Hogarth and Coram – all involved with a hospital for foundling children. I suppose you would call it enlightened self-interest, really. They were well aware of the advantages to themselves, as well as to the hospital.’ The evening was a huge success. It was, in effect, the first ever charity première.

There’s a clear consensus of opinion from television critics and public alike about Amanda Vickery’s broadcasting. They like the fact that she is down-toearth, not pompous, and she likes digging up the human aspects ofhistory. They like her attention to domestic details and the strong sense of humdrum, everyday reality she brings to her analysis of the past. People always ask her if she lives in a Georgian rectory with flowers around the door. To which she replies ‘I wish!’

A bit of gritty texture to her history, that’s what Vickery really likes. ‘There’s more to history than bishops and kings,’ she says, ‘I love political and economic history, but social and domestic history is my passion. There are many rooms in the mansion of history!’

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Factfile

Amanda Vickery is the prize-winning author of The Gentleman’s Daughter and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England She has recently been appointed Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London. She lectures on British social, political and cultural history.

Amanda writes and presents history documentaries for television and radio. Her TV series ‘At Home with the Georgians’ aired on BBC2 in December 2010.

Amanda’s greatest weakness is a love of clothes.

To find out more about Amanda Vickery’s upcoming books and programmes, see www.amandavickery.com