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Five minutes with… Hallie Rubenhold

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Hallie Rubenhold is an author, social historian and broadcaster. Her second book, Lady Worsley’s Whim, about a notorious 18th century Criminal Conversation (or adultery) trial has been adapted for screen by the BBC. Starring Natalie Dormer (Hunger Games, Game of Thrones), it will be broadcast in August.

What is an historian?

An historian is someone who is dedicated to an examination of the past in all of its forms. I think these days the definition of this term has become a very grey one. There are academic historians and popular historians and often a great deal of cross over between these two.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

A love of the human story – ultimately this is what history is. The grand panorama of history is fascinating, but personally I find the individual stories of how people lived and what they experienced far more gripping. I wanted to know what all of these great politicians and monarchs and generals did when they went home at night. I was more interested in what sort of people George III and Thomas Jefferson were than what documents they put their seals and signatures to. More to the point, I wanted to know what sort of underwear they wore and what their food tasted like. I wanted to get into their heads and the heads of everyone around them and hear their thoughts. I wanted to know their prejudices, what it felt like to be sick, what it felt like to desire, what it felt like to be alive in their world. The historical narrative is as much about the personal narrative as it is about the grand panorama, but we’ll fail to see this if we’re always examining it from a distance.

Seymour Dorothy Fleming, 'Lady Worsley', (1758–1818).
Seymour Dorothy Fleming, ‘Lady Worsley’, (1758–1818).

What is the one history book you couldn’t do without?

Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England. An oldie but a goodie. Over the years the hardback copy on my shelf has been dog-eared and post-it noted within an inch of its life.

What is your favourite website for historical research?

The Old Bailey Sessions Papers On Line. This is the single most remarkable trove of information about the history of ordinary people. You can learn a vast amount about daily life simply by reading through the cases.

What is your favourite historical site?

The ruins of Pompeii. The scale of it is far larger than I ever imagined and it not only presents a fascinating picture of life in that Roman town but an insight into the history and evolution of archaeology. On my first visit I was so overwhelmed by it that I couldn’t move. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out what I wanted to see and how I was going to take it all in.

You have a time-machine for twenty-four hours… where do you go?

London c. 1780, but with a full arm of jabs and a bag of my own food.

What is your normal working pattern?

I’m really a night owl. The first part of the day is basically a write off for me. I tend to do admin and then settle into research and writing after lunch. My best writing is usually done after 5:00 and I find the absolute silence of the midnight hour one of the most inspirational times to work. I love to work in libraries after they empty out.

Your area of historical expertise no longer exists. What would you research instead?

c. 1900 – 1914, such an interesting time in western history. One really feels that socially, economically, politically and culturally the world is about to tilt on its axis. Extreme and sudden periods of change really fascinate me which is why I’ve always been drawn to the late 18th century.

Why is history important today?

I find it quite shocking how many people regard the past as irrelevant. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard those employed in the media say things like ‘why should we care about anything that happened before WWII – or 1970!? It needs to have some modern relevance’. To that I’d like to say, what’s not relevant about the universal human experience? Why is the story of an innocent person being denounced by their neighbour as an enemy of the state and being dragged from their bed any less interesting because it happened in Revolutionary France rather than in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia? Why is the experience of death or birth or some unexpected triumph any less compelling if it happened in the 9th century or the 14th century rather than today? When we close ourselves off to these stories, we shut down our imaginations, our ability to think beyond our current circumstances, our ability to feel empathy for others and to understand what it means to be human. Certainly our perennial interest in Shakespeare’s plays demonstrates that these sorts of tales are never irrelevant, regardless of the century in which they are set.

What is your best historical fact?

According to statistician, Patrick Colquhoun, in 1814 the population of England was roughly 17.1 million. Of those 17.1 million, nearly 12 million lived in or right on the fringes of poverty in conditions of deprivation almost inconceivable to modern westerners. The clean, moral and chaste image we have in our minds of the Regency era was the reality for only a small fraction of the population.

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