Helen Castor: In Conversation
Helen Castor is an award-winning historian and Bye-Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. She has graced our bookshelves and televisions on the ever-fascinating subjects of Joan of Arc, the Wars of the Roses, and powerful medieval women. This year, she graced the fields of Chalke Valley History Festival, and we were lucky enough to catch five minutes to talk to her.
Your newest book is Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity for the Penguin Monarchs series. How much of a challenge was it to write a book that was so short?
25,000 words was the limit, which for the book is just under 100 pages. Clearly it is very, very challenging to write that much about some of our monarchs, who were barely there; but for Elizabeth the challenge is the other way round. How do you fit nearly seventy years, and forty-five years on the throne, into what is little more than a pamphlet? The challenge was to make a book out of it and to make it work as a book.
And so how did you manage to filter all of that information down?
It took a very long time. It is sometimes said that it takes longer to write something short than it does to write something long. The book was germinating for a long time, and for me the essence of it was to find the angle, to find the argument. I wanted the book to have an idea, to have a theme, to have something that I was trying to say about her life. For me that idea was insecurity, by which I don’t mean lack of self-esteem, but the fact that she lived from almost the very beginning of her life in a situation of great risk, great danger, and I think that played itself out both in practical terms – she always had risks to calculate and decisions to make – and also psychologically. I think it's essential to try to interpret what this does to a person from the available evidence. We don’t have private letters and diaries, we don't have those behind-the-scenes bits of evidence. But we need to understand what it did to a person, to a woman, whose father had her mother killed before she was three and who grew up with that extraordinary sense of psychological instability. It is difficult because we are hearing from silence, but it doesn’t make sense if we simply ignore the silence and say, ‘oh well, it didn't affect her’. So that is what I was trying to explore. There was a lot of thinking and reading, and the book unfolded quite late in the process. I was amazed I didn’t write a lot more and then cut it down. I wrote each chapter as it came in order, and it came to the correct length. So I felt very lucky!
Biographies are known for being tricky because one can become too attached to the subject. Did you experience this, and how did you manage to avoid it when writing?
I think that is always true; one has to be aware of it and attempt to guard against it. When I had a conversation with a very brilliant Tudor historian who has written about both Mary and Elizabeth but who wrote about Mary first, it became very clear that she was arguing in some senses for Mary and I was arguing in some senses for Elizabeth. We had a very, very interesting conversation but it was an important reminder that it can be difficult not to over-identify with the subject. I do find it difficult in a way having tried to get myself into Elizabeth's head, insofar as that's possible, not to see everything from her perspective. However, quite a lot of the existing biographies of Elizabeth have been written largely from the point of view of her ministers because they are the ones who've left letters and other personal sources saying the queen's an absolute nightmare to deal with, she won't make up her mind, and so on. So the perspective that there might have been a good reason not to make up her mind, that it might have been deliberate rather than pure indecisiveness, is a perspective that has been left out. An awful lot of those very brilliant historians – and I'm not at all saying I could have written my book without other people’s work first – are men writing from the point of view of male ministers, and I think the whole issue of being a female ruler in a system set up for male power needs to be at the centre of understanding what Elizabeth was doing and trying to do.
Do you feel that the writing you've done on medieval women set you in good stead?
I really do. I had been thinking about these issues for a number of years and so I enjoyed coming to Elizabeth in more detail than I was able to do in She Wolves, my previous book on the subject, where Elizabeth appeared for a few pages at the very end. I could bring years of looking at these issues in different contexts into an understanding of Elizabeth’s particular situation. In fact, when researching Elizabeth I found what I'd been looking for when I wrote She Wolves – and hadn't found at that time – which was a contemporarySomeone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time. French poem describing Elizabeth as a she-wolf.
I also think there’s a structural problem in the way we tend to study history in this country, in that obviously there have to be divisions between periods. We have to organise our thinking about history but the way we organise it, while there is a rationale behind it, also has arbitrary elements: there is this enormous divide between medieval and early modern which in English history tends to sit at 1485 because a battle was fought on 22 August that year. The difficulty then is that – and I encountered it myself when I was studying the Tudors as a history student – you come to the Tudors with only a very sketchy sense of the Middle Ages. You are an early modern historian reading other early modern historians who are seeing the world within the context of the sixteenth century. Of course, it sounds like special pleading for why my perspective is particularly useful, but I think it's interesting to consider the Tudors through the perspective of a medievalist.
Christine Carpenter is very convincing about how one should look at the medieval period to understand the early modern. I understand she had a great effect on you?
She taught me as an undergraduate and then was my PhD supervisor, so I couldn't agree more. I'm one of her school, if you like, but it certainly had a very powerful effect on me. These dividing lines are useful, they make sense, but in whatever aspect of history we're working on we have to question ourselves from first principles to make sure we're not just trundling along tracks that are already there. The more we can question those divides and bring an understanding of the longer term to the particular events we're looking at, the better it's going to be.
So, who else has had an impact on you academically and who has inspired you?
There are lots of very brilliant medievalists, fifteenth-century specialists, that I worked with early on. John Watts, who's another of Christine's former PhD students and is now in Oxford, and his writing on the reign of Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses was a very early influence. There is wonderful work going on throughout the sixteenth century. John Guy has written on Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots, and he has recently written on the later years of Elizabeth. You bounce off people as well as drawing on their work. There's a lot of very interesting work about Elizabeth and gender. I think it's also important to engage the imagination as well as that academic analytical tradition. I would say Hilary Mantel has been a huge inspiration and influence because of her insistence that we have to understand people in the past as living, breathing, three dimensional human beings who are every bit as complex as us. Sometimes the nature of academic writing means that the human elements of the person can become a little bit flattened, a little bit depleted, and so a reminder that these people lived and were full of contradiction, just like us, is something I'm very definitely trying to build into my work.
You bridge the gap very well between narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis.A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. history and academic history. Do you find it difficult?
I would never want to lose the rigour, that sense that we have to know, we have to interrogate ourselves as well as the evidence in front of us, to make sure that we are seeing what is there and what is not there. I wouldn't ever want to lose that. But beginning to write deliberately-narrative history felt very important in terms of my work as a historian, as well as being what I wanted to do as a writer. The important thing for me was trying to stand in the shoes of the people I'm writing about, trying to see through their eyes and remembering at all times they didn't know what's coming next. It is possible to forget the effects of uncertainty in a present moment, and that's been important in all the books I've written. Joan of Arc was the last one, and I made sure to remember that Joan didn't know she was going to die, she didn't know how little time she had. In fact, I don't think she realised she was going to die until almost the last day of her life, and we're not going to understand what she was doing and attempt to understand how she was thinking if we don't see and interpret her decisions in those terms.
A few final questions: if you could go to any day in history what would it be and why?
Oh this is difficult! Are you making sure I can get back?
Yes! Perhaps there should be two answers. One with a safety bubble around you and one without..
My safety bubble answer would probably be, and I can't give you the exact day because it all depends on what happened, but I would so love to be able to clear up the mystery of the Princes in the Tower once and for all. I don't think it would be a very pleasant trip, because my suspicion is that it would be a day in the summer of 1483 and something very nasty would happen. My non-safety-net trip would be more experiential. Having written about her and feeling as though, I hope, I understand her more than I ever have, I would love to spend some time in the presence of the enigma that is Elizabeth I. I would love to see her in her full pomp and experience what that charisma was like up close.
The younger Elizabeth then?
Whatever you are prepared to give me! I think she's always interesting and whichever day, stick a pin in the time line and I'm there!
One last question: what is your next project?
I feel a bit superstitious talking about it, but I am definitely going backwards again because after 1603 I begin to get historical vertigo. We were just talking this afternoon about big data and the difficulty of too much information. I get too much information once I get into the seventeenth century! I have to head back again to recalibrate, reacclimatise with some good old holes in the jigsaw in the middles ages.
Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, Helen Castor’s latest illuminating and infinitely-readable book on the reign of Elizabeth, is available to buy from all good bookshops.