Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes

Most of us have a picture of the Victorians in our minds. Straight-laced (on the surface). Women bound into suffocating corsets. Piano legs covered for the sake of decency. Industrious pioneers in science and technology. Innovative creators of our railway system. Capitalists. Ruthless exploiters of the industrial poor whilst at the same time being great philanthropists. Builders of iconic structures such as The Royal Albert Hall, Kelvingrove, The Houses of Parliament, The Natural History Museum and countless other edifices which grace our cities to this day. Highgate Cemetery. Kew Gardens. Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook. The thundering poetic voice of Alfred Lord Tennyson. The scientific colossus Charles Darwin. The great novelists Eliot, Dickens, Hardy. These are all known public perceptions, but what about the more intimate, private detail? This is the territory Professor Kathryn Hughes ( has chosen to illumine.

What made Darwin grow his iconic beard in 1862, a good five years after his contemporaries had all retired their razors? Who knew Queen Victoria had a personal hygiene problem as a young woman and the crisis that followed led to a hurried commitment to marry Albert? What did John Sell Cotman, a handsome drawing room operator who painted some of the most exquisite watercolours the world has ever seen, feel about marrying a woman whose big nose made smart people snigger? How did a working-class child called Fanny Adams disintegrate into pieces in 1867 before being reassembled into a popular joke, one we still reference today, but would stop, appalled, if we knew its origins?

The answers to these, and other, questions allow Hughes to bring the Victorians back to life in full technicolour and smell. Victorians Undone comprises a collection of five essays, each a different biographical¬†study. The first essay tells the story of Lady Flora Hastings, who arrived at Kensington Palace in 1834, a new member of the court-in-waiting whose first role was to spy for the then Princess Victoria‚Äôs mother, the Duchess of Kent. A victim of court intrigue, when her stomach began to swell it was said she‚Äôd fallen pregnant by her mistress‚Äôs scheming comptroller, Sir John Conroy. In fact, still a virgin, she was dying. Her bulging belly was the result of a tumour. The second essay¬†tracks the development and shifting meaning of the luxuriant whiskers without which, now, it is impossible to picture Charles Darwin; the third essay¬†is about George Eliot‚Äôs right hand, supposedly larger than her left thanks to the years she spent working as a dairymaid for her father. ‘Fanny Cornforth‚Äôs Mouth’ stars Rossetti‚Äôs longest-serving mistress and the model for Bocca Baciata, his sensuously knowing portrait of 1859. Hughes concludes with an account of the murder of eight-year-old Fanny Adams, whose body parts were found scattered across a Hampshire hopfield in 1867 (it‚Äôs to this dead child that, courtesy of some old naval slang, the expression ‚ÄúSweet Fanny Adams‚ÄĚ refers).

At times this book is a bit digressive, but made up for by the rich and scholarly content. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Enquire at your local library to check if this important book is in stock.

There is a vast industry of publication concerning every aspect of the Victorians. Start with the following, which I have found useful.

Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875 by Geoffrey Best

The Victorians by A. N. Wilson

The Victorians by Jeremy Paxman

A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture edited by Herbert F. Tucker

A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain by Michael Paterson

A web portal exists for the subject here


Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes

400 pages in Fourth Estate

First published 2017

ISBN 978-0007548361

Kathryn Hughes

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