Bettany Hughes was once described as the ‘Nigella Lawson of History’. Ask her about it now, and she bursts out laughing. In that moment, the similarities between the two women could not be more obvious — vivacious, uninhibited and good looking, both exert a magnetic pull on TV viewers across the world. However, the focus on Hughes’ appearance is not always intended to flatter.
She remembers one reviewer posing the question ‘Is Bettany Hughes a real historian?’ as he imagined her standing by ancient ruins, ‘her hair streaming in the wind’. “He was reviewing a radio programme, so clearly this was all in his mind,” she says, and adds with a grin, “As for Nigella, I think she is a beautiful, successful woman, who is very good at what she does. I’ll take the compliment.”
Hughes has an intimate understanding of sexism, not least because she was the first female historian to be invited by the BBC to host her own series (Breaking the Seal, 2000). Chatting with a BBC producer in the ’90s, she remembers her excitement as she pitched idea after idea. The response she received was less than enthusiastic. The producer told her: ‘One, no one is interested in history anymore. Two, no one watches history programmes on television. And three, no one wants to be lectured by a woman!’
She has since proved him wrong on all three counts, and has even added a fourth category that is likely to have only engendered greater ire in the erstwhile producer: history programmes about women, narrated by a woman for television.
In fact, the last time Hughes was in India, it was to film a series on divine women, which included segments dedicated to the goddess Durga in Bengal and Muti, who is venerated as the Great Mother in Rajasthan. Hughes likes to point out that while women may account for around 50 per cent of the population, they’ve never had a proportional representation in the history books. (It’s why she takes such pleasure in noting that “97 per cent of the deities of wisdom are women”.)
This void is only more marked when it comes to one of the most famous women to have ever walked the earth — Helen of Troy. Hughes admits being obsessed with the beautiful queen for over a decade. “From the moment she entered the written record in book two of Homer’s Iliad, for the next 2,700 years she never once left the human radar,” she says. When Hughes wrote her book Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, she set out to unravel the woman whom she identified as the ‘embodiment of absolute female beauty and a reminder of the terrible power that beauty can wield’.
With a historian’s eye, she imagined Helen’s life as a historical figure of the late Bronze Age, using current research to recreate what life would have been like for a Mycenaean princess of the time. What it would have meant to grow up in Sparta, what she would have worn and even what she would have seen as she stepped out of the ship and into the bustling port at Troy. Though she falls short of delivering a verdict on whether Helen was ultimately a goddess, princess or whore, Hughes does find the woman behind the fantasy, allowing us glimpses of the people Helen walked among, the palaces she inhabited, and her fate after the Trojan War.
Hughes adopted the same techniques when she tackled her next subject, the Athenian philosopher Socrates. She recalls her dismay when a fellow writer pointed out that she had chosen a “doughnut subject”, a fascinating, rich story with “a big hole right in the middle, where the main character should be”. Socrates, famously wary of the written word, never put pen to paper himself, forcing us to rely on the reports of his three contemporaries — his devoted pupils Plato and Xenophon, and the parodist Aristophanes.
Hughes looks for verification of their accounts in the archaeological record, but also uses what we know of Athenian history to recreate a “dirty, electric” city whose streets would have been redolent with the scent of frying fish and the clamour of foundries churning out exquisite statues. Socrates would wake to a view of the Parthenon every morning, but in a time when the region had experienced bloody strife “it would have been mutilated and blackened by the heat of Persian fires”.
Socrates is often best remembered by the world for the manner in which he left it — as the title of Hughes’ book (The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life) confirms. Hughes chooses to highlight how in a world pulled apart by plague, civil war and invasion, Socrates looked for his inspiration all around and prized the pursuit of happiness. “I think he has utter and direct relevance to all of us, because he sees us coming as a civilisation, as a society. He asks: ‘What is the point of walls and warships and glittering statues if the men who build them are not happy?’”
Hughes’ great gift and her true passion seem to lie in how she brings history alive, and finds its relevance in modern life. Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival, she hailed the Greek philosopher’s dedication to living ‘the examined life’ and charged her audience with doing the same. Standing up, she had the whole audience shout “philosophy!” as they posed for her camera. Smiling back at her, they seemed to provide confirmation that her own work resonates with the times.
Published in The Hindu Businessline on March 6, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Jaipur Literary Festival.