Victorians Undone – Kathryn Hughes
Biography is a tricky literary genre and one of the key challenges is to find a new angle for your treatment of someone whose achievements and feats of derring-do are familiar to the reader. One of the features of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, which made it stand out from the crowd and shock the more genteel reader was his glee in pointing out the physical characteristics and deformities of his subjects. Hughes follows this approach. Her thesis is that standard biographies reveal the life story and achievements of the subject – after all, that is what biography is – but apart from some air-brushed paintings and carefully posed photographs and sniffy remarks from contemporaries, we have little idea of what they were like as human beings.
I had never given this much thought, always believing that Bob Dylan had got it right in It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), “even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked” – a troubling thought with the present incumbent, for sure. As human beings I took it for granted that they belched, farted, smelt, had runny noses, coughed, sneezed and may have had some minor physical deformity.
I was delighted to read in Hughes’ book that Charles Darwin was a martyr to the wind and always had to leave a meal early so that he could belch and fart to his heart’s content. His digestive system was clearly not the acme of evolution. To make matters worse the scientist suffered from severe acne and blubbery lips which is why he grew his prodigious beard. But do these facts make us think more or less of the man’s achievements? More interesting to me was that his conversations with his hair dresser, a keen dog breeder, helped him formulate his evolutionary theories.
Although I have severe doubts about the validity of Hughes’ underlying thesis that knowing about the physical characteristics of someone enhances our knowledge of them, there is no doubt that this is a rip-roaring read with interesting facts on pretty much every page. Hughes’ style is bright and she writes with considerable verve. What we have is a collection of five essays dealing with the Victorians’ attitude to and preoccupations with the body.
The book opens with the shocking account of the young Queen Victoria’s persecution of Lady Flora Hastings whom she alleged to be pregnant, although she was in the final stages of a painful and mortal stomach cancer. The recent ITV series seems to have omitted that – I wonder why.
Then Darwin and his beard, followed by for me the most interesting, the discussion of George Eliot and her enlarged right hand. Eliot lived on a farm and possible worked in the dairy. Milk maids were sought after because of their fair complexions, their exposure to dairy products gave them a natural immunity to smallpox, a disease which scared survivors and was no respecter of class or position. But the downside of pulling on teats was that your dominant hand increases in size. The tittle-tattle at the time was Eliot’s larger right hand enlarged because she was engaged in manual work in her youth? Tut, tut. Revealingly, her right hand glove, found recently, is the second smallest size so it may all have been a storm in a milk churn.
The book concludes with two Fannies – Cornforth, the courtesan, whose bee-stung lips inspired Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Adams, whose body parts were scattered throughout an orchard in Alton, prompting a discussion of Victorian attitudes to children as sexual objects.
If nothing else, this book shows that the Victorians were humans but then, why wouldn’t they be?