The Scandalous Lady W creator Hallie Rubenhold fills us in her life and career
How did you become a historian?
Being a historian was always in my nature. I was always interested in history – it tended to migrate with where I was living and how old I was. I studied it at university, and as a postgraduate, and there was never really any question about it – it came to me.
You work as a social historian – why does this aspect of history appeal to you?
Social history is the most relevant history we can study – it’s the history everyone’s most interested in. It’s the history of how we lived everyday. Human beings are very selfish and we think: if I lived in this period, what would have happened to me? It’s a very immediate type of history and it gets to the heart of what history should be: it’s a humanity, the story of people’s lives. There’s been this kind of history of looking at kings and queens and dates and battles and I find all that very alienating. We need to look at the human experience of being alive. When people don’t think history has any relevance now, my point is: but you’re a human being, and these are the stories of human beings.
Your career as a published author began with the story of the Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, the 18th century directory of prostitutes. How did that book come about?
I was at a wedding, and sitting next to me was a publisher at The History Press, and he asked, did I know anything about the Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies? I’d written my thesis about marriage and children in the 18th century and it was in my area of general understanding. He asked me if I thought there was a book in it. I spent a week at the British Library and the next thing I knew, I was writing a book – that was 2½ years of work!
Are there any parallels between the 18th century and now that make it chime with modern readers?
In some ways the 18th century wasn’t that different from now. In the 18th century they were completely obsessed with scandal – there was a new middle class and it was largely about keeping up with the Joneses. There was an explosion in the publishing world and they needed content – and people were very interested in what people with money were doing – raising them up with one hand and bringing them down with the other. It’s like today’s tabloid press – like the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame. If they’d had cameras in the 18th century they’d have loved it!
As a historian and historical consultant, how much do you run up against preconceived ideas about the past?
It’s easy to oversimplify the past. What we like to think is that the Victorian era was very circumspect and buttoned up and before that it was all buxom wenches. But there was the same amount of both, in both eras. Certainly the aristocracy behaved the same.
When I lecture on the subject I always start with the question of preconceptions. There’s always a grain of truth in assumptions but it’s a sliding scale. People’s preconcieved notions are not helped by TV and film, and as someone who works as a historical consultant it’s a difficult line to toe – you have to give way in all sorts of things in order to get a story onto the screen. So stories have to bend historical facts, or facts have to be vaguely represented – and this translates into our general understanding of a period.
Do you find yourself fighting stereotypes about what people were like and how they behaved?
It’s not necessarily writing about people who are stereotyped, it’s people who’ve never had their voices heard, and stereotyping them is one way of making sure a voice can’t be heard. I think that women historians writing history have been disregarded, there’s this idea that men can take on big subjects and women take on smaller subjects. Women get relationships, the domestic arena, and that’s not seen as valuable as the history of a battle. Why is it less relevant than the Battle of the Boyne?
Are people surprised when they find out what the reality of life was like for women in the 18th and 19th centuries?
A lot of people say ‘I had no idea that women couldn’t divorce their husbands, I had no idea that they could lose access to their children.’ I’m so glad people say ‘I had no idea’ because that means I’ve done my job. I don’t ever want people to say ‘it was so beautiful then and people wore such lovely frocks’. I want people to see how horrible life was – and that’s wonderful for a writer because there’s so much drama.
What were your most surprising discoveries about Lady Worsley?
Her behaviour surprised me – there were so many things that surprised me about this story. What surprised me most about Seymour was that she was so bizarre! I’m going to go out on a limb here, and as a historian I couldn’t put these ideas in my book because I had to rely on documentation – but there was a lot to suggest that she was bipolar and her husband was autistic – and that together they were calamitous as a couple. This explains her behaviour – this rampage she went on, days and days of highly strung, outrageous behaviour – and other references that she couldn’t get out of bed.
You write fiction and non-fiction. Do they require different kinds of research?
Non-fiction requires a hell of a lot more research, and when I’m writing fiction I kind of miss that – it’s completely immersive and you really have to go through things to do a proper job. I research fiction carefully too, but when I was writing The French Lesson I got too much into the research about the French Revolution and it started clogging up the narrative, and I had to work out, what was this book about? It’s not about the research – it’s a human story.
Do you have a research method?
Every project is different. Every project requires preparation before you start writing. I could go to an archive and find out something and start writing … with The Scandalous Lady W I did 6, 7 months of research. For The French Lesson I went to Paris, walked the spaces where the French Revolution took place. I went to see the insides of buildings, what the interiors looked like, the furnishings.
What’s your favourite aspect of the writing process?
Shaping non-fiction research into a narrative is the fun bit – you have to find the story within the story. You can look at a life in different ways, but a biography is more compelling if you take the most dramatic incident and start with that. I had a very good editor, Jenny Uglow, for The Scandalous Lady W, and having her was like having a mentor – she really helped me hone it. She said, you don’t need to put everything in. Just tell the story.
What is your a target readership for your books?
You want to reach a large audience! Historical fiction has a limited audience and I wanted to write it in a way that captured people’s imagination and taught them about the period. What I write is crossover fiction – one can write very literary fiction but it doesn’t sell very well and your only hope is sitting round waiting for it to win an award. I’m practical – it’s important for writers to be practical and see what the commercial prospects might be.
What have you learned over the course of your writing career?
When I started writing, I thought literary fiction was the only way to go. Things have changed in the past 15 years in publishing, the publishing industry has changed, publishers take less chances on an author – and an astute writer has to keep a finger to the wind and see which way it’s blowing, otherwise you won’t survive.
What advice would you offer to writers who haven’t yet published their first book?
Write what you know, and what you love – but also, study the market. If your desire is just to get published, it doesn’t matter so much. But if you are looking to be published by a mainstream publisher, study the market and how you can make your subject and your interest work for you commercially.