Her-Story January: Helen Carr

Each month, Herstory Club will be a featuring an interview with a woman currently working in History. We are aiming to share the experiences women face in the industry (the good and the bad!) and to shine a light on the incredible work currently being undertaken by women across a wide range of specialist disciplines.

Helen Carr

Herstory Club: Thank you so much for taking the time to share you story with everyone. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and your work.

Helen Carr: My name is Helen Carr. I am a freelance history documentary producer, writer and medieval historian and I live and work in Cambridge. I usually work on one large, or a few small, documentaries a year and the rest of the time I use to write or research. I have made documentaries for the BBC, Sky, CNN and HistoryHit. I also used to work for In Our Time, presented by Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4. I run a podcast called Hidden Histories and have just finished my debut book, a biography of John of Gaunt, called The Red Prince. Currently, I am working on a PhD in medieval history and co-editing a volume of essays with Professor Suzannah Lipscomb, called What is History, Now? – inspired by the seminal work of my great-grandfather, E.H Carr in 1961, What is History?

Herstory Club: What period of history are you interested in?

Helen Carr: I am interested in fourteenth century English history, particularly between 1348-1400. The combination of massive social upheaval following the Black Death, alongside the war of succession that was the Hundred Years War, and the popularising of the English vernacular and English artistic style is fascinating to me. 

On a social level, I am interested in the emotional impact of the Black Death, and the recurring outbreaks of plague on the women of England during this period. John of Gaunt was alive between 1340-1399, so this period also interests me politically. With the Peasants Revolt, the war and the rise and fall of popular concepts such as chivalry. 

Herstory Club: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history. 

Helen Carr: I have always admired Christine de Pisan, a French writer who lived at the French court in the late 14th, early 15th century. Her husband died, leaving her a young widow with young children. She wrote to survive and the French Queen Isabeau patronised her work, gaining her prominence at court. She wrote without gender constraint and produced commentary on women, war and politics. She could be considered as the first feminist. I love her strength and her discourse still endures even today. 

Herstory Club: How did you get to where you are now? 

Helen Carr: Hard work, but also a lot of good luck! I have always loved and had a passion for history, from as far back as I can remember. On a scholarly level, I have studied history since 2007, with my first degree in history of art. Subsequently, I worked in an auction house in the Old Masters department, and when I realised my passion lay in the Middle Ages, I went on to study a masters in medieval history. Following this, I tried to build my CV in writing and the media, following a passion for documentary history. My big break was working as a researcher and writer for Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, and following this, I moved into TV, as a researcher, assistant producer and now, I specialise as a history producer. I also now have a podcast which allows me to interview historians about various subjects (i think this came naturally following my experience on In Our Time). Alongside TV work, I write factual history and enhance my academic study: I couldn’t do one without the other. I try to balance both with family commitments — not always easy— but it is essential, for me. I do this by trying to stick to one big TV project per year, and one big writing/ research project, with smaller commitments peppered in between. 

Regarding my first book, my interest in John of Gaunt emerged from an interest in the history of the Savoy Palace, following reading on medieval London. His was a name I was familiar with, but as I read on, I became fascinated with his character and importance in history, so readily brushed aside. I enrolled to study a masters and focused on the Savoy Palace for my research dissertation. The interest inevitably continued and I eventually, over time, decided to write a new biography: The Red Prince. My book is now out on 15 April this year. 

Herstory Club: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests?

Helen Carr: I am currently now working on What is History, Now? A volume of edited essays, compiled and edited by myself and Professor Suzannah Lipscomb. This is going to be the first popular, readable, history theory book, covering womens history, black history, queer history, disability history, history in the movies, amongst other topics. We have collaborated with a series of top historians to provide an informative book about what history means, how it is subjective and interpretive, and how we can study the past to help us navigate the now. I am so excited about this project as it marks the 60th anniversary of my great-grandfather’s work What is History? Published in 1961. Most importantly…this is a book for everybody! 

2021 for me, also means a return to academia to work on my PhD: women’s emotional response to recurrent epidemic in the 14th and 15th centuries. 

Herstory Club: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences within the wider historical field/your line of work? (Both positive and negative are welcome)

Helen Carr: My work is niche in that I bridge academia and the media. This can work in tandem, but can also be very very different. I sometimes find those periods of opposition difficult.  However, because I have spent years sharpening my expertise and knowledge — history as production and showcasing academic study in an accessible way — I find I am now able to mostly take on projects that are exciting, fun, and able to incorporate my two loves: academia/writing and TV history. It has taken me a long time to realise I can do both. 

Herstory Club: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector/this field?

Helen Carr: In production, I have never experienced gender discrimination. In fact, the last series I worked on was an exclusively female production team. Academia and in writing, however, is very different. Like many other women, I have experienced objectification, misogyny and pushing down. I think it is SO important that women support each other and see there IS room for us all! 

It sometimes feels like archives get a little forgotten about compared to other cultural and heritage organisations, but they are great place to work, especially if you love lots of contact with original material.

Herstory Club: If you could give any advice to females in this sector or those wanting to get into history, what would it be? 

Helen Carr: For production: Get some experience. You can enter the industry as a runner, or researcher. You can do this by contacting production companies. Tip: look at the credits at the end of the documentaries you like. This will give you all the information you need to network. 

For writing: Read, read, read and if you feel you have a great idea, write a proposal and approach an agent. 

For academia: it is never too late to learn. Opt for part-time if you have work/family commitments and be brave. And don’t be afraid to ask questions whilst you work out the right path for you. 

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