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In October 2017, we sat down with Hallie Rubenhold, historian and author of several non-fiction books that are the source material for recent 18th-century costume dramas The Scandalous Lady W and Harlots. Her book Lady Worsley’s Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce (2008) was inspired by the striking portrait of Lady W in military gear and uncovered a wild biography that would be shocking even by today’s standards. And her first book, Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies: Sex in the City in Georgian Britain, revealed details about prostitution in 18th-century London previously unheard of.
Along with her historical research and writing, Rubenhold has advised a number of British historical drama TV series, and she shares her behind-the-scenes insights from working with producers and screenwriters. Plus she talks about her upcoming book and TV projects.
Frock Flicks: Tell us about your background…
Hallie Rubenhold: I didn’t necessarily want to be an academic. In fact, I wanted to work in museums. I worked as an assistant curator at the National Portrait Gallery. My expertise was in 18th-century portraiture. You learn so much about dress history from that because part of the way you identify a date is by the very specific fashions shown. It goes hand in with social history, when you can look somebody’s clothing and say that’s probably 1778 to 1779 because by 1780 we know the hair’s changed.
After getting out of the art world, I started teaching American university students on study abroad in London. The classes included the history of London from the Great Fire through the 18th century and another class on the English country house. From teaching, I transitioned into writing.
Frock Flicks: How did you get interested in Lady Worsley?
Hallie Rubenhold: That came out of when I was doing my post-graduate work in portraiture. I was up at Leeds, and the Reynolds portrait was at Harewood House, a country house that’s quite close to the university. I was looking through a catalog entry that said something about Lady Worsley and there was this scandal, blah blah blah … and I thought, ‘I’m going to file that away and come back to it someday.’ And when I did, I couldn’t believe how it kept unfolding and unfolding, and no one had ever probed that, just there was this scandalous incident and this criminal conversation trial.
What really made that amazing for me was I found about 350 pages of trial transcripts in an archive that no one had ever used in any way, and it literally documented everything that happened from when she ran away with Bisset all the way through to the actual trial, and told, because they’re all witnesses, told from about 9 different perspectives in first person. The amazing thing about these sources is you learn so much about life — what people do in the course of their day, what things they use, what they eat, where they go, how they speak, and you just go down this rabbit hole. It fleshed out the story so much more.
The difference between the book and the television adaptation was that we only had an hour and a half. We’d originally fought for a series. It did really well, and the BBC turned around and asked if we could do a sequel to it. We couldn’t cover all that happened after the trial.
I was very closely involved with the making of that show, as much as I could be. They came to me and said they really want to do it. Of course, liberties were taken, and, of course, I just had to hold my tongue. The budget was much smaller than we wanted it to be, and corners were cut with costuming. I was there for some of the filming, but the days I wasn’t on set, stupid things happened.
I worked with the screenwriter closely — the wonderful thing is, he integrated a lot of my writing into the dialog and a lot of that writing came from actual things from the documents. There’s a whole conversation Sir Richard is having with his lawyer and Mr. Hess where they’re sitting in his drawing room that’s actually from Hess’ testimony — and they actually wrote the dialog, and I was getting shivers to hear the real words and to watch it come alive. That was amazing.
The whole process of book to film is passing through filters, which you, ultimately as the writer, have very little control over. If you think, I started with these amazing documents, and I’m, of course, shaping that into something which is a narrative history. Then that’s given to a screenwriter who shapes that into 90 minutes of drama. That’s barebones pared back.
And then the actors and the directors and the set designers and the costumers, and they all contribute. And the network has input and then the editing. Then you have this final piece, which is so far from I started with and so many layers. And then it’s given to the critics and social media, and they’ll find different things in it.
One of the things I was fighting from the outset is people saying she was a feminist. You had people like Mary Wollstonecraft saying women should be treated equally, but we still have our place. But this idea of a strident, air-punching feminist, no fucking way are they doing this. The production company got that, they were OK, that’s fine.
But the press and social media were ‘She’s a feminist!” No, she’s not a feminist; she’s a spoiled rich woman who wanted her money back. I think there are reasons why she behaved the way she did, and I also think she also didn’t have as much decision-making power as she thought she did because the trial was between Bisset and Worsley, it wasn’t about her. It was about these two men and what they were entitled to. She became the pawn in their game — so if we can demonstrate she is not worth that amount of money than we can denigrate her and he gets off. She had to agree to that, but it doesn’t mean she was instrumental in proposing that as a possibility.
Frock Flicks: What about The Covent Garden Ladies and Harlots?
Hallie Rubenhold: The first book I wrote was The Convent Garden Ladies. Nobody else in academic circles knew about Harris’ List at the time. It became like a cult thing, and it really took off. More people became interested in it, and then I did a documentary about it.
The interesting thing about Harlots is that it took a very long time for that to happen. I had filmmakers approaching me for years saying, ‘I want to do something with this.’ So I thought one day, somebody will. Eventually they had the means to, it was just a little bit bumpy.
Now there’s a second season, and I’ve been consulting on the first three scripts. I can’t give too much away, but they did get the green-light very quickly for the second season so they had a very short time. I think Hulu and ITV really liked the show because it’s doing something original.
Frock Flicks: Can you tell us the process of making historical dramas?
Hallie Rubenhold: The problem with a lot of filmmakers, and I’ve discussed this with other historical consultants, is often, they say, ‘Great let’s make a historical drama!’ But what they want to do is effectively make a story about “now” in costume.
But people want to understand that other world just a little bit. Making it “us” set “then” doesn’t work. It’s completely not understanding what makes it unique and historical. People like the weirdness. In fact, that’s what makes Harlots successful, the things where you go, ‘Holy shit, that’s what people wore, that’s what people did!’
I tell filmmakers, ‘The sooner you bring me the material and tell me what your storyline is, the more I can help.’ Because what happens is the mistakes get woven into the larger fabric of the story, and you can’t undo it. You start veering more and more off course, and it gets more and more ridiculous.
Start from the position of letting the history tell the story. A lot of filmmakers and screenwriters are really hesitant to do that because they think that means, ‘Oh god, it’s going to get in the way of everything we want to do.’ No, you don’t understand, it opens up more possibilities for more drama that you hadn’t even thought about. What you’re doing is just saying, ‘We can’t make her do this.’ No, actually it’s even better because it’s more super-charged.
There’s always this kind of tussle, polite or otherwise, in the pre-production stage where they bring me in either too late or they bring me in at the right time. And that’s really frustrating because you can’t undo what’s done.
The meetings I go into at the development stage, I get producers asking me, ‘What’s the relevance? Why are we doing this now?’ I respond with, ‘What’s the relevance of Shakespeare? Why are we always performing Shakespeare?’ That’s the point of drama — drama is the human story. Yeah, it’s wonderful if you somehow you can relate it Harvey Weinstein or such, but sometimes what we find is that comes up naturally, and people can draw comparisons, and you don’t need to ram it down people’s throats or make it OTT because it’s there.
Behind the Scenes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Hallie Rubenhold: Every historical consultancy job is different. Sometimes they just want you to read the scripts and give advice, which they don’t take. Sometimes they want you to give tutorials to the actors, which I did for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I love doing. At the very beginning you have a tone meeting, which sets what we’re going to do with tone of the production, and they decided this is a fantasy set in the Regency period, but we’re going to make it feel authentic so you can layer the magic on and it made it feel that the magic is really happening and it’s bizarre. They wanted things to feel like the early 19th century.
So I met with all of the actors and had this day of intense, one-on-one tutorials where they all had an hour to 90 minutes with me to ask questions, everything you can imagine. For some questions, I did say, look I’m not Google, as much as I know about this I cannot give you absolute answers for everything, I’ll have to go away and check this. It can be tricky because you’re a historian, and you’re expected to know everything.
On Truth in Historical Drama:
Hallie Rubenhold: There’s a huge ethical question with historical drama: Does anybody have responsibility for telling the truth? This is so relevant in this era of fake news. We’re living in an era when our national stories are being hijacked and recast for nefarious ends. If people say, ‘It’s always been that way because of this or that,’ they won’t even be able to cite where exactly they got that information from. It’s been fed into the cultural understanding. We have a real problem. But if you speak to Hollywood — Hollywood in the broader sense — it’s a story of buck-passing.
The reality is people do not read history books. Maybe if you’re lucky, a non-fiction history book may sell a couple thousand. Compare that to viewing figures of historical drama or film, and you know how to get your message out more effectively. What do we have that can counter that, if the message is, this is the story? Some of those people will be inclined to go read a history book, but most won’t.
On the Realities of Filmmaking:
Hallie Rubenhold: Every single second on screen costs money. There isn’t a moment of screentime that hasn’t been thought about, and that’s what audiences don’t realize. There’s not a thing on the set that hasn’t been thought about. There isn’t a thing that somebody’s wearing that hasn’t been considered — though it may not have been considered very well, it has been considered. And knowing that consideration has to go into all of these things, that’s what makes it so teeth-gritting when you see how stupid some of these mistakes are.
On Jane Austen:
Hallie Rubenhold: I have a major issue with what we’ve done to Jane Austen — we’ve embraced the romanticism via Georgette Heyer, whose stories are the ultimate romance novels. What’s dropped out is the context of the late Georgian period, which was gritty, filthy, class struggle, horrible for women, women were chattel, it was about male privilege. If you think about it, three-quarters of the population basically lived in poverty or just above the poverty line.
An Historical Accuracy Pet Peeve:
Hallie Rubenhold: One of the things that drives me crazy is very modern modes of address like the use of first names. When I go through a script, it’s a really basic thing, I’m ripping out first names. You have to understand that every time people speak to each other, it’s a power game. This was a world that was so acutely aware of class, all the way through the early part of the 20th century, you were constantly re-asserting your position over somebody else, and that comes out in what you call that person and what the person calls you. And, yeah, a lot of that has to go by the wayside when you’re creating on-screen drama due to time and the momentum of the drama.
Frock Flicks: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
Hallie Rubenhold: We’re trying to do another true story about a girl who was sent as an indentured servant to Maryland after trying to steal Queen Charlotte’s jewels. She escaped from her master and traveled with a young man and perpetrated a fraud on these Southern plantation owners, by pretending to be Queen Charlotte’s sister, and got money off them until she was reclaimed by a bounty hunter and then she escaped again. Then in the middle of the American War for Independence she went to New York and married an officer. It’s a drama still in development so we don’t know when if it’ll actually come off.
Jack the Ripper Project:
Hallie Rubenhold: The book I’m writing now about the Jack the Ripper murders has been optioned as a series, which is really exciting. I switched centuries because I’m always really interested in telling the flipside. We have these assumptions about things, and if we closely examine them, nine times out of ten, they aren’t true. I wanted to write about some famous under-class women, and I realized it’s been 128 years and no one has done a biography of these five women. Only two of the five were prostitutes — where is the evidence? Everything is hearsay, supposition, and police prejudice. It’s about these women being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and people saying they must be prostitutes. The press plays such a role in this. It’s what comes of thinking the worst of women and women without power, just assuming she’s a whore. She was poor, and she’s an alcoholic, so she must be a whore.
All five of them, all five women came from some place different, they were not East End women. Every single story is a different story and a different set of circumstances. I’ve just been to Sweden to go and look at Elizabeth Stride’s life. She was a Swedish immigrant, and she grew up on a farm. All of their lives start somewhere you wouldn’t think. Annie Chapman was middle-class. She lived her life between Knightsbridge and Windsor. You would not think that about a Jack the Ripper victim.
What I’m proposing to do is give context to their lives. People will say things about their lives because they don’t understand about how the poor lived, how women lived, what the restrictions were on their lives. One thing I’ve found is that the poor had completely different ways of partnering. A lot of poor people didn’t marry, they just had a series of monogamous relationships. Well though the eyes of the Victorian middle-class, these women were all whores. But if you ask these women as they were asked by rescue workers or in trial transcripts ‘How long have you been a prostitute?’ they look at you like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ To a Victorian society that only recognized marriage as a legitimate form in which you could have sexual relations, these women were all fallen women, they were all outcast, and if they were alcoholics or if they had children out of wedlock or they lived in lodging houses that were dodgy, that’s all wrapped up in one ball, and you see how they get misconstrued as prostitutes.
One of the lovely licenses that making television can offer is that we know the contexts of these women’s lives, we know where they were, and I’m filling in the blanks by saying we know that servants at this time had these experiences, and it’s possible she could have done this. With TV you can kind of take that and run with it a little bit.
Have you read any of Rubenhold’s books? What do you think of the dramas based on her works?