TV Historian Kate Williams tells Blue Badge Guide Sophie Campbell about her fascination with the past passing time.
Spare a thought for Kate Williams’ younger brother. As a child, she would entice him into her Time Machine – the box the new washing machine came in, cunningly converted with cling film and foil – and tell him they were going to see the pyramids being built, or the court of Henry VIII in Tudor England. “I used to shake it as if it were moving and he was always desperate to get out and see it all,” she says, “but I never let him. It would have spoiled the story.”
The grown-up Williams is one of a crop of energetic female British historians writing about the past and exploring history on television and radio right now, so she’s about as close as she can get to time travelling for a living. She writes fiction and non-fiction (mainly historical biographies), does ‘telly’, is Director of Life Writing for postgraduates at Royal Holloway College in London, and is co-writing a film script based on her 2012 novel, The Pleasures of Men.
She is one of the experts on BBC2’s Restoration Home series and is the resident historian on Frank Skinner’s Radio 4 comedy show, The Rest is History. She must be one of the few people to describe being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys (she often comments on news items) as ‘brilliant fun.’
This March, the first of her trilogy of novels set in the early 20th century and based on a half-English, half-German family called De Witt comes out in paperback. The second volume, The Storms of War, is published in July. She lives in Camden with her husband and young daughter. Isn’t she exhausted?
“I love it”, she says simply, “I think it’s really engaging. This morning, I’ve done a voiceover for the film I’m making about Wolf Hall for the BBC, I’m talking to you, then I’ll answer students’ emails and then I’ll write. I love the fact that I’m always working in the past, in history, and I feel incredibly privileged to do so.”
She thinks that her interest in history began as a child in Staffordshire, where she lived ‘on a modern estate, very 1980s or 90s, just outside a quite modern village,’ and the past seemed an entirely different world. She specialised in the 18th century at Somerville College, Oxford, and her PhD examined the reading and letterwriting culture of women around the middle of the century.
“For the first time you heard the voices of women, actresses, writers and so on, who weren’t aristocratic,” she says, “so I was looking at a lot of letters, some quite dull. Then I found a letter from Emma Hamilton to Nelson.” She was electrified by her idiosyncratic style. “Emma wasn’t educated”, she says, ‘”and much of the knowledge she had came from men. Her handwriting is insane and so is her grammar. She never learned restraint. She tells Nelson she is melting for him; she wants him to come to Naples. I was totally gripped.”
As a result, alongside her PhD and lecturing, she wrote England’s Mistress, her first book, published in 2006 to excellent reviews. She appeared on Richard and Judy to discuss Emma and Nelson. It was live and she loved it. She made a programme about Nelson with Michael Portillo (she’s a big fan) and put her academic career on hold to write books and ‘do TV’. Her second biography, about a youthful Queen Victoria, came out just as The Young Victoria film was in production, so she made a Timewatch Special about the young queen.
Academic history has its limitations. “Historic characters are famous for not telling you what you want to hear,” she says ruefully. “Emma writes about meeting Marie Antoinette, for example, but just mentions it in passing. And you want to know what happened, what she was like. I think that’s what drew me to writing novels. I wanted to know, to get inside peoples’ heads.” She says that, just as you can’t put imaginative flights of fancy into a factual book, you can’t pack too many facts into a historical novel, “because it can kill it dead.”
The Pleasures of Men focused on a young girl in grimy 1840s London, who becomes terrified by a mysterious character, the Man of Crows, who preys on women. The idea came to Williams when she was away from home, walking the streets of Paris, which seemed to her to have changed very little since the 19th century. Her trilogy is very different; it’s a huge family saga in three parts, covering the years 1914 to 1939, inspired by research she did many years ago, on quite another subject, which turned up ‘some amazing material on a half- English, half-German family living in Hampshire, and it just stuck in my mind.’
She loves family sagas, but was also intrigued by the abrupt switch in Britain’s relations with Germany in the early 20th century. “We forget that for most of the 18th and 19th centuries France was the enemy. We loved Germany and the Germans. Many of our royals married Germans. The future Edward VII was going to marry a German princess, but Victoria said she wasn’t pretty enough. We loved their music and culture and we had a large German population, butchers, bakers, tailors and so on. When war was declared in 1914 they became The Enemy; I wanted to write about how their lives changed overnight.”
When I ask Kate where she would take her Time Machine in Britain, she is silent for a few seconds. Then she says, “It’s got to be Greenwich. I love the National Maritime Museum and the river, it lives and breathes Nelson and Emma. It’s like a place in a snow globe, it’s so unreal, yet you can see Canary Wharf and modern London right across the river.” She says she always tells visitors to go to Greenwich and if nothing else, they should see the Painted Hall, where Nelson lay in state before his spectacular funeral in January 1806.
Emma, she adds, had to join the line of mourners to see him, just like everybody else, and wasn’t invited to the funeral. “Women didn’t go to funerals, to be fair,” she says, “It was men’s business. A few sneaked in to Nelson’s, but Emma didn’t. She was in their house in Clarges Street in Mayfair entertaining his relatives who ate all her food and drank all her wine. Then they dropped her.”
She’ll have a chance to redress such wrongs over the next year or two. She is working with the National Maritime Museum on an exhibition about Emma – a companion piece, if you like, to the recent comprehensive show about Nelson – to open sometime late in 2016. That should keep her on her toes while waiting for the third part of her trilogy to be published. And for the moment, she’s far too busy to need a Time Machine!