While microhistorians have long zoomed in on individual case studies, Hughes pinpoints her subjects even more narrowly ... Hughes’s blow-by-blow accounts of bowel movements, menstruation, menopause, pores and salivary glands shouldn’t be mistaken for celebrity gossip or scatological humor — though it takes guts, so to speak, to depict courtiers fat-shaming one another and guesstimating who had missed a period. Instead, her focus on the body topples great figures from their pedestals. We hear less about the words that emerged from Victoria’s mouth than about her failure to zip her lips while chewing; nothing about the visionary images sparked by Coleridge’s opium addiction, but plenty about his resulting constipation. Made rather than given, these bodies tell an engrossing story about the culture that fashioned them.
Her new book is, she writes in an enticing introduction, an attempt to reverse the situation whereby biography, the writing of life, has become indifferent to the 'vital signs' of that life – to breath and movement, to touch, taste and smell. One can’t help but sense in this a certain weariness. Who can blame Hughes, the author of major books about George Eliot and Isabella Beeton, for wanting to try out a different kind of narrative, one both more visceral and less gargantuan? ... Nevertheless, she has a point. How many times have you ploughed right to the end of a long biography only to find yourself asking: yes, but what was she really like? ...
None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Victorians Undone. Some of the encounters in its pages, whiffy and indelible, will stay with me forever.
Hughes defends her approach by calling body parts 'biography’s precision tool,' but the claim is misleading, especially if one thinks of biography as engaged with the idiosyncrasies of individuals. With the possible exception of the chapter on Fanny Cornforth’s mouth, which brings Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model and mistress to life by focusing on her voluble talk, her eager appetite, and her apparent capacity for oral sex, the body parts in these Tales of the Flesh have comparatively little to tell us about the distinctiveness of the persons to whom they belonged. Nor do they primarily testify to the erotic life of the Victorians, despite the come-on of Hughes’s title. What they do illuminate—sometimes quite brilliantly—is the wider cultural world in which their owners participated. For all their physical specificity, they are parts of the social body as much, or more, than pieces of individuals.
Sometimes a book just bowls you over with how good it is ... Kathryn Hughes’s Victorians Undone is just amazing, and her Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum are so various, so imaginatively structured, so delicately salacious and so deliciously written that I sighed with pleasure as I turned the pages and even felt those tiny prickles along the neck that A.E. Housman once claimed were the sign of true poetry ... As is Victorians Undone in its entirety. While some readers may find it gossipy or even sensational in a negative rather than positive sense, I’m not one of them. This is popularized history done right, done with panache. Hughes has infused new life into dry-as-dust facts to produce a learned work that is brazenly, impudently vivacious.
Victorians Undone contains many such startling illuminations of the gulf between the 19th century and our own. Lively, iconoclastic and consistently riveting, this is popular history in the best sense.
Much the same might be said about the detective work on display in these essays. Every page fizzes with the excitement of fresh discoveries, as Hughes applies her magnifying glass to the tiniest of clues and makes whole new stories spring into life ... What is new here is Hughes’s verve and sheer nerve in encouraging us not just to become more aware of her subjects’ bodies, but also to slip into their skins. Elegantly sidestepping the usual cliches of Victorian history, from foggy streets to whimpering urchins, each page becomes a window on to a world that is far stranger than we might expect. It is writing that takes the raw materials of everyday life, starting with the body’s 'bulges, dips, hollows, oozes and itches,' and makes them live again ... On each page she loosens and unlaces a little more, and by the end the naked truth about the Victorians stands revealed, the most surprising part of which is probably the fact that anyone is still surprised by it. For as Hughes proves in precise and loving detail, the Victorians were not at all the legless angels and whiskery prigs of legend. In fact they were exactly the same blushing, flinching, throbbing, easily bruised creatures that we are.
Life-writing as a discipline owes much to family history, and Hughes’s main object is to lift our Victorian forebears off the page for us, particularly by reminding us that even the most highly placed or high-minded of them had solid presences – sometimes all too solid. Her dismissal of the prematurely aged Coleridge on her first page as a 'dollop of slop' proves prophetic, not only of her sometimes startling style, but of her iconoclasm ... Hughes is a biographer we can trust, then – one who admits that the facts do not always fit, and who refuses to force them to by guesswork or invention.
Meanwhile, the complexity of public attitudes towards the human body – the subject of Kathryn Hughes’s deeply entertaining book ... Hughes has clearly thought long and hard about this paradox ... As the author of well-received biographies of George Eliot and Mrs Beeton, Hughes is a dab hand at dealing with this kind of material, and Victorians Undone is, in most respects, an object lesson in that new style of 'life-writing', which comes in at an angle and takes a positive pleasure in examining its subjects from vantage points that they would not have dreamed of occupying themselves. If there are two minor drawbacks, they lie, first, in the cherry-picker approach that – necessarily – seeks to illuminate the ordinary by way of the exceptional, and, second, in the occasional oddities of the style. You can see the author’s dilemma ... On the other hand, her eye for incriminating detail never fails, and I was appalled to learn that Queen Victoria’s personal physician only discovered that his patient had spent 40 years suffering from a prolapsed uterus when he examined her body after death.
This witty study of the Victorians and their bodily neuroses puts the carnal into biography ... She does so with gusto and panache, a great pinch of wit, and an assortment of tantalising ingredients culled from archives ... Hughes exposes the gorier side of her Victorians with glee. She has a particular fondness for innards ... Victorians Undone is an enthusiastic romp through a historical period that Hughes knows thoroughly. With its integrated pictures and colour plates, which include an image of a clipping of Darwin's beard, Victorians Undone offers a jaunty counterweight to more sober volumes. With her love of bodily detail, Hughes does indeed put the carnal back into biography. If by focusing on it so graphically, the rest of the human picture sometimes grows a little fuzzy, her zest more than makes up for the rest.
In provocative studies of five Victorians—some eminent, some merely notorious—Hughes addresses a 'hole in the biographical text where arms, legs, breasts and bellies should have been' ... The tales are entertaining, but Hughes’s real achievement is historical—amounting to a new understanding of, as she puts it, 'what it meant to be a human animal in the nineteenth century.'