History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

York History Weekend: 5 minutes with Juliet Barker

Mrs Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) is one of the most famous and powerful biographies ever written. But how much of it is true? What did Mrs Gaskell leave out – and why? At our York History Weekend this November, Juliet Barker separates myth from reality to discover the real Charlotte Brontë...
Published: July 19, 2016 at 12:58 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed
Ahead of her talk, ‘Fact or Fiction? Mrs Gaskell and her Life of Charlotte Brontë’, we caught up with Juliet to find out more and learn about her passion for history…
Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history? 
A: I’ve been passionate about history since childhood. I always preferred to spend my holidays visiting castles, abbeys and historic houses, rather than sitting on a beach. As I was outnumbered by my siblings, however, they would generally win that battle and I would immerse myself in reading historical novels instead.
Q: Why do you love your period of history? 
A: The medieval period remains my favourite above all others: it hasn’t been written about to saturation point (unlike the Tudors), and its sophistication is massively under-estimated. It’s full of colourful characters at all levels of society – just think of the Peasants’ Revolt – and there are so many untold stories that are begging to be revealed. It’s a period that (unlike the Tudors) just doesn’t grow stale because there’s always something new to discover.
Q: Which other historical areas fascinate you and why?
A: I’m a medievalist through and through, but I’m also a 19th-century literary biographer with a particular and life-long passion for the Brontës. Where the 19th century scores over medieval history is in the level of individual literacy, which opens up a wholly different seam of personal responses to life and its struggles. Through reading diaries, letters and other autobiographical material you can get to the heart of a person in a way you simply can’t in earlier periods, which lack such resources. Without her extraordinary legacy of forthright, beautifully written and often deeply moving letters, what would we really know about Charlotte Brontë? Personally I find them even more powerful and illuminating than her novels. 
Q: Which history book(s) are you reading at the moment? 
A: I’m really fortunate to have been sent an early copy of Malcolm Vale’s latest book Henry V: The Conscience of a King, which will be published later this year by Yale University Press. Vale has an enviable knowledge of the detailed workings of medieval government. This pays dividends in shedding a more nuanced light on a man who is often portrayed simply as a brutal warrior king but was also conscientious and thoughtful in fulfilling his administrative role as monarch.
Q: Are there any developments in your field that are really exciting you at the moment? 
A: The growth of websites offering swift and easy access to original manuscripts and documents that were only previously available in obscure publications. This opens up a world of new information and transforms the ability of the historian to make sense of the past. 
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York History Weekend? 
A: The audiences! My favourite part of any event I do is the Q&A session at the end: there’s nothing more rewarding as a speaker than to engage with an informed and interested audience, knowing that you are telling them what they want to hear, rather than what you think they ought to hear.
Q: What can we expect from your talk at York? 
A: The 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë this year provides the ideal opportunity to re-examine the life and work of one of our most enduringly popular novelists. In what I hope will be an entertaining, but thought-provoking, discussion, I’ll be looking at how and why so many myths have grown up around Yorkshire’s most famous family and challenging the conventional view of the Brontë story.
Juliet Barker is a bestselling author and historian who has written books on subjects such as the battle of Agincourt, the Peasants’ Revolt and the Brontë sisters. You can find out more about our York and Winchester History Weekends and Juliet’s talk, ‘Fact or Fiction? Mrs Gaskell and her Life of Charlotte Brontë’, here.

Sponsored content