Self-publicity and celebrity almost certainly require the readiness to make a fool of oneself. Among ‘media historians’ David Starkey, more than most, has made an art form of this. Starkey’s credentials as an historian are impressive, even if his attachment to the traditional field of high politics seems increasingly narrow and dated in an historical landscape that takes a much broader view of how we might study the past. But even more impressive is his fondness for pronouncing on topics about which he knows little, but on which he will reliably offer deliberately controversial soundbites. I recall his consistent entertainment value on the Moral Maze with his abrasive rent-a-quote shock-jock style designed (one can only assume) purely to upset those liberals and lefties who failed to see how lacking in substance his contributions were.
Starkey’s infamous, embarrassingly inept and staggeringly ignorant appearance on Newsnight in the wake of the 2011 riots stands out. Given how well-liked Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is within far-right circles, declaring that Powell was ‘absolutely right’ might not seem the wisest way for a supposedly intelligent historian to begin an interview. Not unless, that is, one’s aim is to be controversial rather than intelligent. His commitment to controversy rather than reasoned and thoughtful consideration was evident throughout the interview as he provocatively declared that ‘the whites have become black’ and made a crass argument that amounts to the claim that white culture is good and black culture is bad. Missing the point entirely, nothing he said offered any sensible insight into the riots. But he made some headlines for himself which may well have been his primary purpose. That he was prepared to risk coming across as a racist buffoon in the process suggests that all publicity may indeed be good publicity.
Deliberate perversity is a necessary trait of the good controversialist. Consider the following situation: you are asked whether you have watched a recent television programme; you reply honestly that you have not, and nor, you add for good measure, have you read the book on which the programme is based. Most people would refrain from making any comment or judgment on something about which they are ignorant; but ignorance is no bar to the controversialist. And so Starkey, after admitting that he had neither watched the television adaptation of Wolf Hall nor read the original novel by Hilary Mantel, nevertheless somewhat pompously proceeded to accuse the novel of ‘a deliberate perversion of fact’.
Quite what he means by this is unclear, since the novel is consistently faithful to the known historical facts of its subject—of course, Starkey is not likely to know this since he hasn’t read the book. The example he gives of a ‘perversion of fact’ is the ‘great deal of emoting’ by Thomas Cromwell over the death of his wife and daughters. As Starkey notes, there is no evidence to suggest that Cromwell was emotionally affected by this loss; but nor is there evidence to suggest he was emotionally unaffected. As with most of the past, the historical record is here silent. Many historians would claim that an appropriate response to this silence is one of silence themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, that some historians have little time for the historical novel in which the areas of silence become fertile ground for imagination.
But it is one thing to shun the imagination of the novel and quite another to suggest that imagination amounts to a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’. Had Starkey actually read the novel or watched the programme on which he confidently passed judgment, he might have discovered that Cromwell’s emotional response is one of great restraint by modern standards. It hardly seems to form a solid basis on which a sympathetic portrayal of Cromwell might be built. But one suspects that Starkey’s real objection is the possibility of a sympathetic portrait of this traditionally reviled figure (and, conversely, what he has heard about the apparently unsympathetic depiction of Thomas More). Again, had he read the novel (and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies) he would find that Mantel draws a nuanced, complex portrait of her central character. In so far as she makes Cromwell a sympathetic character, it follows from her overriding interest in the human story of Cromwell’s life and career. Unsurprisingly, Starkey misses this important point.
There is of course a wonderful irony here: Starkey criticizes Mantel’s interpretation of Cromwell on the grounds that it is not built on the evidence, yet his own criticism of Wolf Hall stems from a spectacular ignorance of the evidence. The contrast between Mantel’s years of diligent research before writing about Cromwell and Starkey’s inability to spend a few hours reading her novel before passing comment on it is striking.
I have argued elsewhere that Wolf Hall can be considered a legitimate and valuable contribution to our understanding of Tudor history. How we might reconstruct human stories where the historical record is lacking, in ways that have historical value, and whether such attempts should even be made, are interesting questions; in my view, Mantel’s sequence of novels about Cromwell are intelligent and thoughtful answers to those questions that deserve the attention of historians. I do not expect that argument to be shared by all historians, and I am certain that Starkey, given his forceful (albeit, in my view, wrong) distinction between ‘empirical fact’ and ‘fiction’, would not agree with me. What I’m not sure about is which of these is the more deliberately perverse: that an eminent Tudor historian chooses not to engage with a book and television programme that, whether for good or ill, will almost certainly contribute to the way the Tudor period is understood; or that the same historian is prepared to pass public and misguided comment on a book that he has not read.