Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Meeting Lucy Worsley

Dr Lucy Worsley is of course the well-known historian and Head Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, often seen on TV, but also the author of several books on interesting and intriguing aspects of social history. While I was down in North Devon, she was giving a talk about the early nineteenth century author Jane Austen, whose classic novels - each combining a sure-fire romantic story with wry social commentary - hardly need any introduction here. Lucy Worsley's purpose was not so much to promote her own recent book about the real-life Jane Austen and her background, but to give an entertaining talk about her family, her upbringing, her private life, and how the restrictive social conditions of the day affected her chances of happiness and personal fulfilment. 

She did it to a packed audience at The Plough Arts Centre at Great Torrington on Monday 26th March. I had secured a ticket in advance, way back in January, and had got myself a good seat. But I was amazed to learn (from talking to other people there) that many had booked seats well before Christmas! So I was in fact rather lucky not to find the event sold out.

Great Torrington is not exactly a place that buzzes after dark. It's a small, plain, inland Devon town: locally important but otherwise nothing very special, although it was the locality for a decisive Civil War battle in 1646, and is nowadays home to the Dartington Crystal Glass factory. The town has a nice old-world square in the centre, and it has a good feel, with friendly local shops, including an interesting 'pannier market'. The Plough Arts Centre is definitely the main cultural draw. If you want to see an arty film - or indeed a regular film - or study an exhibition of paintings, or attend a craft or drama workshop, or watch live comedy or talks, or just drop in to meet and eat with friends, then you come here. Really, it's the only bit of night-life in the town, unless you venture into one of the pubs (which I never have). Here's a plan of the place from the current events brochure. (Click on the picture to enlarge it)

Underneath that plan is my Lucy Worsley ticket, as it was before I went into the auditorium. Here it is again, larger.

Ooops! Somebody mis-spelt her name. I hope she didn't see that! At least it wasn't spelled Wurzely.

This was the front of the brochure. See if you can spot her face!

And this was the event description inside.

I dare say quite a lot of people would also have gone to see Griff Rhys-Jones two nights previously. It's a pretty good celebrity line-up for a small Devon town in March. If I'd ever moved down here - a notion I played with a couple of years ago - I would at least have had events like this to go to throughout the year. If not at Torrington, then at Barnstaple or Ilfracombe - or for certain at Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol.

The red blob in the brochure signifies that The Plough were offering a Meal Deal if you bought a ticket. I plumped for 'Spanish Chicken', which turned put to be this:

Hmm. It was somewhat lacking in Iberian passion - I didn't hear castanets clicking, nor frenzied flamenco guitars - but it was, for the price of £9.50, a perfectly good main course. And it was hot and tasty. I scoffed it with a glass of wine, and coffee to follow. I forewent a dessert. Later, I bought a second glass of wine to take into the auditorium, and then a third at the interval. All this (main course, coffee and three glasses of wine) came to only £20 - definitely good value then.

While drinking my coffee, I noticed this upcoming event in the brochure, apparently a free public meeting in the auditorium to discuss a proposal to build a trio of monster wind turbines, shaped like giant otters with revolving whiskers. (Click on the picture to enlarge it) It must be a spoof, surely? But of course you can't really tell. 

I decided to take my seat as soon as I could. That's why the auditorium looks a bit empty behind me in this picture... 

...but believe me, it soon filled up. By the time the lights were dimmed for Lucy Worsley to come on, as here, I couldn't see a single empty seat.

There were even people off to one side, perched on temporary seating set up for the overflow. They probably had less comfortable seats, although still a good view. 

I was a bit concerned about whether I could take photos or not. I saw a 'no photography or videos' notice near the auditorium entrance, but then, during the interval, I spotted another which suggested that only flash photography was prohibited. The Plough's current policy on members of the audience taking casual shots with their phones was nowhere to be found on their website, nor in the brochure. I decided that one or two quick snaps wouldn't offend anyone. I wish in fact that I'd taken more. Here, anyway, is Lucy Worsley on stage.

I wondered how she would be. The same as on TV? Actually, she was. I thought she came across as warm and engaging, lucid and enthusiastic about her subject, full of humour, and here and there touching on topics that were a bit risqué. For instance, she tackled the question of whether Jane Austen ever had sex. In her view, probably not. She was a rector's daughter, and belonged to the 'pseudo-gentry' - that class of educated people in Regency times who had a fragile social status between the impoverished 'lower classes' and the genuine aristocrats with land and a large income. The poor, with no social status whatever, might indulge in sex before marriage with a light heart, and happily tie the knot if a baby resulted. Apparently 30% of women in the period went to the altar with a bump on display. It was accepted as proof that the union would be fruitful, large families being the norm, and no especial shame was attached to it, provided the marriage went ahead before the actual birth. The aristocracy would of course have their fun with little concern for any consequences. But the pseudo-gentry couldn't afford to be so lax. They were forced to observe strict notions of respectability, and obey 'the rules'. For Jane Austen - no matter what the biological imperatives on her - pregnancy while still unmarried would have been a social disaster. And no doubt she feared the possibility of death in childbirth, which was still remarkably frequent.

Lucy Worsley's talk was full of similar interesting sidelights into the social realities of the period Jane Austen grew up in, and you could see how Jane's precarious position in society, dependent on a father with only a clergyman's income, and the uncertain charity of better-off family members, shaped her outlook and aspirations - and the subject-matter of her books.

During the interval, I bought the book. There were only a few copies left. Upstairs in the gallery the Zoë and Ric Hyde exhibition was still going on. I had another look at it. I don't suppose I will ever now get a chance to ask Ric Hyde what that painting was all about. I looked down onto the people having a drink and chatting. At smaller venues, there is space to breathe. My general experience of intervals is that it's hardly ever worth the effort of leaving your seat for a drink. The queue at the bar is often impossible. I suppose that's why they always suggest that you pre-order your drinks.

Back in the auditorium, it was soon question-time, and - would you believe it? - I took the mike and actually asked Lucy Worsley whether, in her last (and unfinished) book Sanditon, Jane Austen had begun to get rather political in her satire of the world as she saw it. How bold of me! Lucy corrected me at once, by saying that in every book she ever wrote Jane had been subtly (or even blatantly) political. But the question enabled her to say much about Sanditon and Jane's final days of poor health and eventual death.

Jane died pretty young. She was only forty-one. What she died of is not certain, but it seems her health may have been compromised from birth, and she simply grew weaker and weaker and died. It was such a shame: she was on the verge of making a good income from her writing, and had she survived she would have achieved financial independence and enjoyed a more comfortable life altogether.

Well, I did enjoy seeing Lucy Worsley live. The only slight disappointment was that, contrary to what she does on TV, she made no attempt to get into period kit. (Damn, I should have asked her why not) Still, there was still the chance to exchange a few words as she signed my book. I joined a long queue.

Talking with other people in the queue, the common theory was that she couldn't be staying anywhere in Torrington. She might indeed have come up from Exeter that evening (about an hour's drive), and was facing a late-evening return journey in the rain. If so, she seemed in no great hurry to rush the signings and depart. Which is a display of very good manners, in my view. She had a little to say to everyone. When it was my turn, I said that I'd thoroughly enjoyed her talk, and that as we were namesakes, could she put 'To Lucy' in the book I'd bought? 'Ah,' she said to me, 'What an excellent name Lucy is!' And so I ended up with this:

The girl behind me was on next. Her mum was instructed to take a picture of her talking to Lucy Worsley. I stood next to that mum, and got a couple of nice shots in too.

I was very tempted to linger, in case Lucy Worsley was going to have a last coffee before departing, and perhaps an informal chat with anyone still around. But the remaining queue was still long, and I thought I'd better quit while ahead. So, with a slight sense of anti-climax, I stepped out into the drizzle.

I'd been a Lucy Worsley fan before this. Even more so now. I do hope the book is a meaty read.


  1. I see that Lucys Worsely and Nelford have something in common!

  2. Yes, Nelford not Melford! It could of course be just the way I come across over the phone, my Ms sounding the same as my Ns. But perhaps whoever does the lettering at The Plough has dyslexia!



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