Alison Weir's life of Elizabeth I demonstrates why history should be left to historians, says Christopher Haigh Elizabeth the Queen by Alison Weir, Jonathan Cape £18.99 14 ISTORY is a funny business. It is hard to explain why some do well at it and some do not. Most of those who write it are university teachers, first apprenticed to the trade. We do a first degree in the subject, then have a long period of supervised professional training, then submit a test-piece for assessment by our seniors, and then we are grilled at an oral examination. The lucky ones might just get the jobs. We write learned articles for refereed journals, learn from peer review, and then produce a book which would take four or five years to research and a year to write.
Of course, the quality varies. Some find interesting subjects, some do not; some can write well, and some cannot. But who wants to know? Few publishers are interested in academic monographs, royalties are minimal. print-runs are small, prices are high, sales are poor, newspapers won't review, the public won't buy, and students expect packaged "readings" rather than the toil of whole books.
But there is another branch of the history business.
Authors with little professional training and no formal credentials are snapped up by publishers: their books are promoted, reviewed in the newspapers, puffed by fellow biographers and stacked high in shop windows. I take it that authors, publishers and bookshops know what they're doing, and that "popular" history really does sell. But why? By every relevant criterion, academic history can be better than popular history — better researched, better organised, better written; more evocative, more interesting, more innovative. Not always, but often. Yet publishers seem to prefer the shoddy version.
Am I being snooty? Is it just sour grapes and special pleading? Welt, look at biographies and books about Queen Elizabeth I. There are hundreds of them — and at least one biography a year for the last century. The best are by academic historians — JE Neale, Joel Hurstfield, Wallace MacCaffrey and Susan Dorm: they are intelligent and stylish. Of the non-academics, Paul Johnson had a decent shot but couldn't get his quotations right. Most of the rest should be charitably ignored.
Surprisingly, it seems to be easy to write a dull book about Elizabeth; unsurprisingly, it seems to be hard to write an original one. Alison Weir's attempt is no worse than most, but it is certainly no better. The style is cumbersome, the prose imprecise and slipshod, the structure (when not chronological) chaotic. Quotations and documents are often inaccurate, editorial summaries are treated as original material, and there are misunderstandings and factual errors on almost every page. We all make mistakes, but there are limits. The primary bibliography is respectable, but the secondary is not: Ms Weir lists only one scholarly work published in the last decade, and seems oblivious to the new insights offered by Simon Adams, Patrick Collinson, Susan Doran, Norman Jones and Helen Hackett.
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Alison Weir tells a story, even if it is an old and familiar one. She gets her events in the right order, and adds a bit of colour and a lot of detail But it's uninspiring stuff. Do the punters want more? Do the punters deserve more? For £18.99? Perhaps accuracy doesn't matter, if a book is supposed to be for fun. Did the publisher know about the mistakes and not mind, or did nobody check? Must a biography take account of changing interpretations and recent research? Who cares? Surely buyers would, if they knew. Try selling a ten-yearold car for the price of a new model. Try selling a vacuum cleaner that's guaranteed not to work. Try putting a government fact warning on the back of every book. Or put historical biographies in the fiction section of libraries and bookshops. When a biographer of Elizabeth I doesn't understand Reformation religion or Court politics or the workings of Parliament, she (or he) can't understand Elizabeth. And anyone who wants to know why Elizabeth treated Catholics as she did had better read somebody else.
So why did Alison Weir write the book? Well, it's what she does: she's done the War of the Roses, the wives and the children of Henry VIII and Elizabeth's reign comes next. She wanted to write a personal history of Elizabeth, a "private life", but found it impossible. Not enough is known about Elizabeth the woman, and Elizabeth the politician cannot be ignored. Indeed, the book gives little sense of what its central characters Elizabeth herself. Robert Dudley, Mary Queen of Scots — were really like. But Ms Weir does provide a sensible, sensitive account of Elizabeth's relationship with Dudley. Is that enough to justify yet another hefty biography? Presumably there is a market, and Elizabeth was quite a phenomenon. But Jonathan Cape published a much better biography of Elizabeth in 1934, and had to reprint it five times in this first year: it was by JE Neale, a University of London professor and it still sells.
Well, is this just sour grapes and special pleading? A bit, perhaps: I have written a book about Elizabeth though not a biography. But not much, I hope: I have been lucky. and Longman and I are content with sales so far. So there!
Christopher Haigh teaches History at Christ Church, Oxford. The second edition of his Elizabeth I has just been published_