Richard J Evans: The Death of Celebrity Historians is Much Exaggerated
Richard J Evans is regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.
For about 15 years, history has been experiencing a popularity boom. History books now sell more than 5 million copies a year in the UK and feature regularly in the bestseller lists. You can hardly switch on your television without seeing Simon Schama, David Starkey, Niall Ferguson or their younger, often female rivals holding forth in some exotic or historic location. Natasha's Dance, Orlando Figes' study of 19-century Russian culture, was advertised on huge posters in London's tube stations. The latest volume in Dominic Sandbrook's multi-volume history of postwar Britain is prominently displayed in bookshops across the land. "History," a BBC television producer is said to have remarked, "is the new gardening."
Not surprisingly, younger academics are keen to jump on the media bandwagon, given the continuing relative decline in academic pay and the continuing absolute increase in the amount of work they are forced to do by the burgeoning audit culture; continuing cuts in teaching funding; and steep rises in student fees, leading students to make ever-increasing demands on their time. When I set out in the academic profession decades ago, nobody would have thought of using a literary agent or being trained as a television presenter. Now it's almost a matter of course for our more ambitious younger colleagues – as Sir Keith Thomas, chair of the judges of the prestigious Wolfson history prize, has recently complained.
A case in point was Amanda Foreman, whose Oxford history thesis was considered, as they all are, for publication in the respectable but little-read Oxford Historical Monographs series and, after lengthy consideration by a battery of referees, turned down. It was too late anyway: it had already appeared in print as Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, entered the bestseller lists, and been set up for filming with Keira Knightley in the title role. Meanwhile, its young author had featured in a promotional photograph standing naked behind a pile of copies of her book large enough to avoid any serious unseemliness.
Yet the compromises Foreman had to make to reach a wide audience did not in the end seriously undermine the book's scholarship...
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