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The Shrinking Violets of History?

Published: August 19, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Female historians are too timid to write about men. So says Helen Rappaport, biographer of Lenin. "Women should try big male subjects rather than limiting themselves to wives and mistresses", she asserts. Her views chime with those of David Starkey, who earlier this year caused a "high-heeled stampede" (his words) by complaining about the ‘feminising’ of British history. It is enough to make my blood boil.


Now, before I launch into an attack upon this narrow-minded, bigoted and grossly inaccurate view, I must confess that I may appear to be throwing stones from the glass house of my own (admittedly very feminine) publishing background. My first book was about a royal mistress: Henrietta Howard, long-term confidante of King George II. My new book, published this September, is about one of the most famous women in history: Elizabeth I.

Worse still, it is written from the perspective of the women who surrounded her: from her mother, Anne Boleyn, to rivals such as Mary, Queen of Scots and the sisters of Lady Jane Grey, and the ‘flouting wenches’ who served her at court. Surely I am therefore far from justified - if not downright hypocritical – in feeling outraged by Ms Rappaport’s comments? I would argue not.

True, I am a female historian who has so far written about female subjects. But I am just starting out in my writing career and have plans for books on much more ‘macho’ subjects – notably that most famous of historical events, The Battle of Hastings. Moreover, I only need point to far more established female writers and historians to prove that the argument about female historians being too timid to touch ‘big male subjects’ is just plain wrong.

One of Britain’s most popular historians, Alison Weir, has given just as much attention to men as to women in her prolific writing career. Henry VIII: King and Court, The Princes in the Tower, and The Wars of the Roses are three of her bestselling works. Likewise Dame Antonia Fraser, whose books on Charles II and Oliver Cromwell have received worldwide acclaim. Meanwhile, the relative newcomer, Claire Tomalin, caused a storm with her illuminating biography of Samuel Pepys. I could go on.

One can only conclude that Rappaport’s and Starkey’s comments are based more upon the desire for publicity (an effective ploy, as it happens) than upon an accurate appraisal of the world of history publishing. But, loath though I am to admit it, there is at least an element of truth in what they say.

The majority of historical male figures have been written about by men. Ditto for female subjects and women historians. But I would argue that this has little to do with ‘timidity’ and more to do with empathy. Historians are almost bound to have a greater natural understanding of the motivations and outlooks of subjects that were of the same sex as themselves. This in itself is a gross generalisation, but I believe that it is true in the majority of cases.

However, it is taking the point too far to say that women can never write about men and vice versa. The books I have cited above disprove that, and there are many more examples besides. Therefore, while I remain outraged by the collective comments of Rappaport and Starkey, they do highlight a genuine trend in history writing. It is not a trend to be ashamed of, but rather to be celebrated. Historians play a crucial role in bringing characters and events from the past to life, and if they are able to empathise with their subjects then surely that is all to the good.


What do you think? Do women have a natural empathy with female subjects? Or are they really too timid to explore the male bastions of history? Over to you...


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