Earlier this week I blogged about news values and the Richard III discovery. One comment noted that I had a book to promote: wasn’t I doing exactly the sort of public engagement work I was criticising?
The point I was trying to make is that news values – and indeed commercial values – can shape the way that academic research is presented to the public. I’ve found this in the course of my own trade (non-academic) history writing.
Look at the three book covers in the image above. They’re all the same book, but from left to right you have the UK hardback edition (Bodley Head), the US edition (Palgrave) and the UK paperback (Vintage). As you can see, the title has changed. What started out as Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador has become The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story. But the book’s the same. It’s still the story of the diplomat who spent six years trying (and failing) to get Henry his ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon. It’s just being marketed differently. Though I liked my original title, and if you read the book you’ll get the reference to Our Man in Havana, I understand why my publishers wanted to put the iconic Henry image on the front and to tie the book more immediately to its best-known feature: the divorce.
Beyond the marketing, the book has worked for a wider public, I think, because it tells an ‘untold story’ related to a piece of history most people in the UK know a bit about. The academic research it drew on wasn’t, particularly, about Henry VIII’s divorce. It was about the way that ambassadors operated in Rome: how they socialised, how they dressed, how the rules for the ceremonial world of diplomacy developed. That was interesting for scholars of the Renaissance but it was detailed, technical stuff and didn’t have obvious, direct appeal for a general audience. But using that work as a backdrop for the divorce story did. The Tudors are iconic figures in British culture. They’re taught in schools, feature widely on TV and have the ever-attractive qualities of royalty, sex and violence to boot. The Henry angle made for a book with much broader interest.
Does this matter? Well, despite the pressures to deliver research ‘impact’ I don’t think news agendas or commercial imperatives are about to ruin the values of the historical profession. There’s still scope for the less-sexy research topics, and most historians are pretty clear about what’s acceptable or unacceptable in public presentations of their work. But it is important to talk about how we do public engagement. That way we have a better chance of making sure we do it well.
Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield. Her book, The Divorce of Henry VIII, comes out in paperback on 7 February.
You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.