“When I first went into the BBC a producer said, ‘nobody wants to be lectured at by a woman’.”
Some 25 years, three books and 250 million viewers later, I think it’s safe to say that the producer was wrong. Since 2000, when she became the first woman to present a TV history programme (a date that seems shockingly recent), Bettany Hughes has been tackling the big issues: sex, power, politics and religion. I’m exhausted just reading the string of achievements and accolades on her website and am a little nervous as the phone rings. I needn’t be. Hughes is as chatty, charming and enthusiastic as you’d expect from her onscreen persona, with a down-to-earth manner and ready answers – I’m in safe hands.
From her first book, Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, to her recent TV documentary Venus Uncovered, Hughes has studied history to explore and understand some of the most pertinent and pressing questions of our time. She’s spent the past ten years researching the creation of our modern world, as told through the history of one of its greatest cities: Istanbul. The result is her latest book, the product of a lifelong love affair.
First published in January 2017, Istanbul delighted reviewers and reached The Sunday Times bestseller list. It was published in paperback on December 28. It’s a doorstop of a book, 800 pages covering 8,000 years (satisfyingly proportionate) which tell a vivid, compelling story. What comes over strongly is Hughes’s genuine love for her subject, a city she first encountered at the age of 18.
“I just fell in love with the brio, brilliance and bravura of the city,” she tells me. “I love its innate character. Because it has always been a meeting place, not just of east and west, but also, critically, of north and south – and people forget that – that the Bosphorus links Russia in the north to Africa in the south. So, if you explore the story of the city you end up exploring the story of the world.”
Imagining the depths of research material she much have waded through, I wonder how on earth she decided what to keep in, and what to leave out. She says the latter was one of the hardest choices to make, so she set some rules. “I had two guiding principles. One was seeing how Istanbul has been affected by the rest of the world, and how what has happened in the city rolled out to impact the global story – so there had to be an international connection. But it’s always been a citizen’s city, so it’s very much the story of the inhabitants too, both great and small, rich and poor. And also, critically, women as well as men.”
Hughes is well known for championing female figures, real and mythical, and much of her work concerns how women have been viewed across time, and how that impacts our modern culture. That subject persists in Istanbul; several extraordinary women are placed front and centre of the narrative. Does she have a favourite?
“I love Theodora. I’m determined to make her a household name before I die,” she laughs. “She was Empress of Byzantium in the 6th century AD. I discovered her 20 years ago and have been gently writing about her ever since. She’s the most incredible character. She starts out as an erotic dancer in the Hippodrome and ends up being the Empress in charge of a million square miles. I just love the fact that she puts her money where her mouth is. As soon as she had power, she and her husband, Justinian, start to implement reforms. They try to outlaw sex trafficking, pandering, pimping, and infanticide. She builds a safe house for prostitutes and welcomes refugees into the Imperial palace. It’s remarkable that she was brave enough to be a pioneer of social justice.”
I mention another strong female whose story leaps off the page: Safiye, consort of Murad III, who established a correspondence with Elizabeth I. Hughes quotes a letter that exposes a politically motivated but friendly relationship; the two women discuss diplomatic matters before exchanging make-up tips. It’s a fabulous example of how history can sometimes feel so intimate and familiar. I mention that I’ve just published an article on Historia by Jerry Brotton about Elizabeth I’s links with the Ottoman Empire – Hughes is enthusiastic about his work – but her book places that relationship in a wider context of ancient diplomatic and trading links.
She’s eager to tell me about new archaeology that backs up this point. “One of the reasons it was the right time to write the book…Excavations at Tintagel have turned up more Byzantine pottery than anywhere else in Europe, and Rendlesham, a site associated with the Sutton Hoo ship burial, is scattered with Byzantine coinage, so we’re talking about links going back to the 6th century AD.”
Her delight is evident as she talks about the Varangian guard. “The Byzantine Emperor’s personal bodyguard were made up of Vikings, Russians and Anglo Saxon nobles, who fled England because they didn’t want to live under the Norman boot. They became this elite guard and then, amazingly, they got pensioned off. In the 11th and 12th centuries there are settlements around the Black Sea with names that reflect English places – Londinia for example – it might feel like we’re at opposite ends of the earth in terms of that ancient and mediaeval civilisation, but actually we’ve always had these very intimate connections.”
With Hughes’s own intimate connection with Istanbul so apparent, surely the recent political upheaval in Turkey must have affected the book? “I’m very careful to make sure that I’m writing history with a historian’s eye, so I’m not being skewed, but practically it was sometimes quite spicy being there. I was flying out there when the coup happened last year, and I was there during the Taksim square riots, so I’ve been caught up in the political history. It didn’t impact on the book itself but it did mean I had to rewrite the introduction and conclusion a number of times because the history was changing as I was setting it down.” Nevertheless, her ‘spicy’ experiences haven’t put her off. “It’s a modern city with all the issues of a modern city, especially being in that very febrile region, but it’s an incredibly safe city too. There’s very little street crime, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. I’m always happy to visit.”
It’s clear Hughes is no ‘armchair historian’ and always tries to experience the places and politics she’s writing about – the key to the authenticity she brings to the screen. I ask about the challenges she’s faced over her own career, to work in this way, especially as a woman in a traditionally male domain.
“There’s no doubt my gender has affected my life as a TV historian. People said, ‘why should we take you seriously?’ They never asked that question of male colleagues. So, right from the very beginning I’ve been quietly political about it. When I was starting off writing about Helen of Troy, fellow academics said you shouldn’t do that, it’s a very fluffy subject. It obviously isn’t. She’s an amazing literary character with a history across 2,700 years. As she’s travelled through time so she holds up a mirror to the world, to what people think about her and therefore about women, so she’s incredibly cogent. But that was the reaction 15, 20 years ago. But I’m not surprised by it because I know that’s the story of the world that I was born into. It’s an unequal world. I always try to deal with it positively. Robustly but positively.”
Easy then, to assume she has strong views on the sex scandals that have rocked the media and political world in 2017. “I take the very long view. The last time I see real parity between male and female roles is about 3,500 years ago, so we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. What I see as a historian is that although we make mistakes as a species, we’ve also got a lot of common sense. We’re very good at survival, and when we see that something is going to help our survival we often chose to go with that change. Allowing women to have an equal role in society is obviously going to be better for the story of the world. I think these watershed moments do end up changing cultures. I’m in no way saying the fight is over but we’re beginning to move in the right direction.
Hughes’s genuine commitment to furthering the cause comes across, not only in her writing but also in her role as committee member for Women of the World – a global network of festivals that explores questions of gender equality. In 2011 she was chair of the then Orange Prize for Fiction, reading 140 books by female writers while filming a TV series and dealing with all the challenges of a working parent. “The best thing about that experience was discovering that there is always time to read, even a two-minute gap while you’re waiting for a bus. It changed my attitude.”
We move on, as writers often do, to talking about writing routines and it strikes me that she approaches her writing the same way. As well as late night writing sessions, Hughes is one of those lucky authors who can write “anytime, anywhere, as long as I’ve got access to a cup of coffee” and has found her hectic schedule helpful. “I found it useful – waiting to pick up the kids, sitting on the floor outside some smelly gym hall – it made me think ‘does this matter?’ Is what I’m writing relevant to this real world I’m living in? I found it helpful discipline to make sure there was a point to my writing.”
And what about fiction? Has she ever wanted to escape the constraints of the historical record and venture into imagination? “People have always asked me. Who knows? I’ve never done it so I’ve no idea if I’d be any good at it. I think there’s a lot of amazing fiction writers out there so the world doesn’t need a mediocre one. Never say never, but it’s not in my life plan for the next five years.”
Instead, she wants to continue bringing history to the masses, in whatever medium best suits. Alongside her own research, writing and presenting, she’s also creative director of a TV production company and teaches at several universities. With so many strings to her bow, I have to ask where her heart lies.
“I think they are all part of the same thing, which is trying to uncover hidden or neglected stories of the world and share them. That’s what gives me joy and delight in the morning. Whether it’s writing, teaching or making a telly programme, it’s all driven by that same desire to uncover the past and those who have been neglected, overlooked or censored by history, and write them back into the story of the world.”
That strikes a chord with me – it’s the same impetus that drives many historical fiction writers. Hughes agrees enthusiastically. “Yes, exactly. We’ve understood the value of storytelling. Scientists are now on our side and tell us that we are creatures of memory and creatures who communicate through stories. The birth of the modern mind is when we begin to understand the world by telling stories about it. So, hopefully, it feels like a worthwhile way of spending your life.”
Main image: Bettany Hughes © Channel 5
Find out more about Bettany Hughes on her website.
Katherine Clements is the author of The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart and is editor of Historia Magazine. Her third novel, The Coffin Path, an eerie and compelling 17th century ghost story set on the dark wilds of the Yorkshire moors, will be published in February 2018.