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.
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.
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.