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Book review: 'Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum' by Kathryn Hughes

Posted by. Lauren Padgett
Posted on 15 June 2017

blogs, blogs:Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies

​​In the latest blog from the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, Leeds Trinity University PhD student, Lauren Padgett, reviews the latest book by author Dr Kathryn Hughes: Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum.

As a PhD researcher, I am constantly rea​​​ding academic publications for my research. But when I manage to grab a spare hour or so to indulge in some past-time reading, it is still 'academic' or non-fiction books I'm drawn to, particularly books about the Victorian era. When I saw that Dr Kathryn Hughes, the author of the critically acclaimed The Victorian Governess (1993), George Eliot: The Last Victorian (1999) and The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton (2005), had a new publication, I ordered it and consumed it quickly when it arrived. So enamoured with it, I just had to share it with others. For her latest book, Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum (2017), Hughes has stuck to her literary and historical roots, publishing another biography but this one has an extraordinary twist.

Victorians Undone uses five body parts belonging to five Victorians to explore not only the personal and intimate lives of those persons of interest on a micro-level but wider Victorian history, society and culture on a macro-level. A b​ulging belly bares the goings-on in the innermost sanctum of Queen Victoria's court. A bushy beard uncovers the Victorian science scene. A hand exposes anxieties about social background, standing and reputation. Plump lips talk about adulterous affairs in artistic circles, and a divided body comes together to explain the origins of a phrase in our daily vernacular. 

Hughes tells the tragic tale of ‘the Lady Flora Hastings affair’. A lad​​y of Queen Victoria’s court, Lady Flora Hastings was un-wed and yet her stomach appeared to be expanding after an unaccompanied chaise journey with Sir John Conroy. Lady Flora was forced to defend her dignity and chastity in quite an undignified way. Emotively written, you feel the embarrassment, humiliation and shame that Lady Flora must have felt when the Queen’s and country’s eyes were on her midriff. Through Lady Flora’s growing waistline and Queen Victoria’s own speculative diary entries and letters, Hughes exposes the volatile relationship between Queen Victoria and her mother, the political ‘bedchamber crisis’ and Queen Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne. 

The next body part for inspection is Charles Darwin’s beard, one of the most famous bearded Victorians. A must read chapter for any pogonophile, but best avoided by anyone with pogonophobia. Hughes circumnavigates Darwin’s snuff-stained stubble to reveal the chronic skin condition that plagued Darwin (causing him to grow a beard when it was not in vogue) and discusses his scientific travels in his youth (during which the beard kept him warm), his in-breeding concerns regarding his own marriage, and competitive beard-growing by members of the Victorian scientific and literary community. For me, the in-depth personal and social history humanises Darwin. Hughes disrobes him as a titan of Science who created ripples world-wide with his scientific thought and theories, and dresses him up as a mere mortal, a man with anxieties, severe wind, a consanguineous marriage and an itchy face.                                        
George Eliot’s hand, the right hand specifically, is examined next. Hughes addresses the popular culture belief that George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evan’s) right hand was bigger than her left. Hughes focusses on the life and death of Eliot – from a childhood on a dairy farm to living openly with a married man later in life to disastrous attempts by others to biographically immortalise the posthumous Eliot – to trace where this belief came from. Hughes presents evidence about the size of Eliot’s hands to put the rumour or myth to bed. Was Eliot’s right hand bigger and if so, was this due to manual labour? Did it this lessen or cheapen Eliot’s talent or celebrity as an author to have such humble beginnings? These were some of the questions Hughes explores. George Eliot is a familiar name to many, but until you have read Hughes’ chapter on her, you don’t truly know who the woman behind the nom de plume is. 

Hughes intricately paints a biographical picture of a mouth that inspired many artists and, as a consequence, is recognised to this day – the mouth of Fanny Cornforth. Born Sarah Cox, she left home in her early teens before she moved to London where she caught an artist’s eye and became Fanny. A muse and mistress to Pre-Raphaelite painters, most famously Dante Gabriel Rossetti who had plucked her from obscurity, she is instantly recognisable by her voluptuous curves, red hair and full lips. She is the woman with the ‘kissed mouth’ in Rossetti’s painting Bocca Baciata as well as his Lady Lilith, Fair Rosamund and unfinished Found woman. Hughes cleverly sketches the tangled web of love, affairs and betrayals that Fanny was trapped in. Rather poignantly, Hughes traces Fanny through her youth with captivating looks to old age when Fanny, no longer a muse and needing a source of income, was forced to sell off Rossetti’s artwork and personal effects to the highest bidder. The lips and face that had captured a nation and generation of artists recedes and melts back into obscurity. Rossetti’s ‘kissed mouth’ ended its days in an asylum, concealing dentures, a furry tongue, stumps of few remaining teeth and bad breathe.  

The final chapter focusses not on one body part, but several. It focusses on the dismembered body of murdered Fanny Adams from which we get the phrase ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’. Hughes traces the series of events leading up to the murder and the subsequent court case. While examining the evidence and issues with the investigation, she also examines Victorian attitudes to children and childhood, and to those who might want to harm them. This chapter in particular reads like a novel, as Hughes has dramatised the murder, arrest, investigation and court scene.​

Although this is not a new method of writing biographies – Hermione Lee’s Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing (2002) has essays devoted to ‘Shelley’s Heart’ and ‘Virginia Woolf’s nose’ – it’s an exciting one. One would hope that it inspires English and History students to think imaginatively and innovatively about their own research and encourage them to experiment with different methodological and presentational forms and approaches. Hughes’ meticulous and painstaking research and creative writing offers a fresh new look at those eminent Victorians warts (wind, weight, whiskers) and all.  

Lauren Padgett is a PhD researcher at Leeds Trinity University and Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies where she explores the representations of Victorian women in contemporary museum displays. She is Peer Learning Mentor for History, English, Foundation and Postgraduate students with the Learning Hub. She is also a Trustee at the Peace Museum in Bradford. ​


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