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.
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.