NewnhamWrites … Keeping a Straight Face
Ever considered writing a history of Stonehenge? Eminent historian, Rosemary Hill did. In fact, she’s the only woman to have written an entire history of the place and did so while keeping a straight face. At the age of nine she was bedridden with a bout of measles, and got hooked on a book about Elizabeth I. That marked the start of her love of history and today, she’s a much-lauded expert on Romantic Britain (that’s the period 1789-1850). Rosemary talks about hanging out with Druids, why she loves Grand Designs, who she would invite to a dinner party and how she would tell her 18-year-old self to learn how to apologise. Properly.
What got you so interested in history?
I don’t remember ever not being interested in history, but I became obsessed with Elizabeth I after reading Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth Captive Princess when I was nine and recovering from measles. (Never despise historical fiction.) Then my mother took me to the Tudor Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery. Roy Strong was the dashing young director then and he had introduced an early version of the acousti-tour. These were reel-to-reel tape recorders which you carried round your neck. They weighed a ton and I was only small but I staggered round again and again listening to him describing the pictures and their meaning –‘the first representation of a parasol in western art’, ‘the crescent moon in Raleigh’s portrait is a reference to Elizabeth’ and so forth. I was completely captivated.
You’re drawn to ‘Romantic Britain’ – how did this fascination arise?
Publishers like the word ‘romantic’, I’m not sure I would have used it quite so much otherwise. What I like about the Romantic period – as it’s broadly seen, about 1789-1850 – is that so much is changing. The Romantic theory of experience as the interchange of objective and subjective is the beginning of the psychology of perception, of a new way of understanding consciousness. It is a period in which the conception of history itself is being formed – or rather reformed. There are no rigid barriers between ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ so ideas flow more freely.
As for Britain, well I am British but I try to follow the material where it leads, which is often to France and Germany and sometimes to the Netherlands. Though I wish my German was better …
You took on the mighty task of writing a history of Stonehenge. Aside from its ambition, what were the biggest challenges you faced when writing about it?
Keeping a straight face for a start. Stonehenge brings out the best and the worst in people as well a great deal of eccentricity.
Another thing was not letting English Heritage see what I was writing until I’d finished. They were very helpful about the archaeology but they get annoyed when you point out that the stones are now all set in concrete and what we see today is an arrangement completed in 1964 (AD) as if that means it’s a fake, which of course it isn’t.
I discovered, comparing Stonehenge with Pugin, it is much easier to write a short book about a large subject than a large book about a relatively obscure one. With Pugin the research took years. For Stonehenge it was mostly a matter of reading and assessing what had already been done. And going to the solstices and spending some time with Druids, which was very enjoyable. The best time was one winter solstice in the snow. We had a Druidic ceremony in the middle of the stones and then a spontaneous snowball fight broke out all round and in and out of the circle.
A reviewer pointed out that I am the only woman ever to write a book about Stonehenge. There have been essays and chapters, but never a complete single-author work. I find that interesting though I didn’t realise that when I was doing it.
When you wrote the biography of the Victorian architect, Augustus Pugin, among your source material were many unpublished letters. What surprised you most when you delved into his life? What drew you to him in the first place?
To answer in reverse order: I was interested in him for the same reasons I like the period. He wasn’t really a Victorian, he was a child of the Regency and his life illustrates the extent to which those labels if taken too far cease to be useful and become limiting. Pugin had been studied as an architect, as a Roman Catholic, as a furniture designer, and so forth, but everyone kept to their own little area and as a result he seemed a puzzling figure. The Catholics saw him as a religious hero with sadly impractical ideas about architecture; the architectural historians saw him as a pioneer of modernism sadly afflicted with religious mania. Either way, like Hamlet, he was mad north-north-west. My hope was to put him together again, to see him in the round and in the context of his time.
What most surprised me about him from reading all those thousands (literally thousands) of letters was his integrity. He never said anything behind a person’s back that he wouldn’t say to their face and this often got him into trouble. He was generous to a fault and touchingly candid. He had a great sense of humour, but not much self-awareness and no sense of irony at all. I became very fond of him.
What’s your view of architecture in the 21st century? Should we be constantly looking at the past, or moving forward? There’s a constant tug of war between traditionalists and those that espouse modern design. Where do you stand?
I rather dislike the idea of ‘camps’ I’m afraid. But there is a lot of banal and derivative Modernist architecture too. It doesn’t matter about the style; what matters is the quality. I watch Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs obsessively because he talks so perceptively about the buildings as they progress and the programmes show how many possibilities there are from German kit houses (which are very well designed) to completely self-invented buildings.
What object do you most admire and why? Is it the design, or the idea behind the design?
Difficult to pick one – but the latest piece to have really thrilled me is Katie Walker’s Windsor Rocker, a chair that takes a traditional form and manufacturing method and reinvents it with brilliant simplicity. She works at Sitting Firm Chairmakers near Coventry.
If you can see the idea behind a design then it’s not a very good design.
If you held a dinner, who would you invite?
Sidney Smith, the brilliant Whig wit. When he arrived at a party there would be a shout of ‘Mr Smith is on the stairs!’ and everyone would rush to the banisters to catch as much of his conversation as possible. I’d put him next to Elizabeth I as they would charm each other. I’d invite John Lingard, the nineteenth-century Catholic priest and historian, another man I know through his letters to be clever, shrewd and kind. Emily Bronte – I find her impossible to imagine physically so I would love to see her. Dr. Johnson who is a hero and Fanny Burney who would keep him happy and would remember it all and write it up beautifully afterwards. I would ask Jane Grigson, a great historian and reviver of English traditional cookery to do the catering.
If you could be anyone from history, who would that be and why?
I don’t think it’s possible to imagine being someone else. However much you know about another person you never know that. Maybe Shakespeare because we all long to know more about him and he seems to have had a prosperous and successful life and died of a hangover.
If you could go back in time to when you were 18, what advice would you give yourself?
I think at 18 I was pretty impervious to advice from middle-aged people so I suppose I would first of all have to get me to listen. If I succeeded I would say:
Be more confident intellectually, you’re more intelligent than you think. Be less confident about the way the world works. You are much more naive than you imagine.
Don’t worry about offending people. Don’t do it deliberately but don’t be inhibited by the fatal female need always to please.
Be kind to other people when possible, but if that doesn’t work pick your battles, fight hard and win.
Move towards people you like and admire and who cheer you up and avoid anyone who brings you down.
Enjoy your friends’ success that way you rise up with them. Envy is corrosive.
Learn to apologise. Properly.
If you don’t want to have children don’t. People will tell you you’ll regret it later. You won’t.
Tell us about Newnham College. Did you apply directly, were you pooled? Why did you decide to go there?
I applied directly, mostly because of Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. Also I had been educated at a Church of England Missionary Society School and I loved the idea of a college with no chapel (the first to be built without one) and a library at its heart instead.
What’s the most defining memory you have of the place?
Long corridors, big baths and being in a state of constant nervous crisis for reasons I cannot now reconstruct.
What word springs to mind when you think of the following:
Career (Woman): Eh???