“How did the Victorians feel about their bodies, compared with how we feel about ours,” asked John Carey in The Sunday Times. It’s a “subtle question”, and one that biographer Kathryn Hughes tackles in this “observant, original” book. Instead of constructing a “general thesis”, Hughes offers five corporeal conundrums, each focusing on a body part of a well-known Victorian. In “Lady Flora’s Belly”, she considers the tragic case of Lady Flora Hastings, Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting, who in 1837 developed a mysterious abdominal swelling. Though it later emerged that this was cancer, “Victoria, with malicious glee, spread the rumour that Lady Flora was pregnant”. Later chapters deal with Charles Darwin’s beard; George Eliot’s right hand (supposedly bigger than her left, a legacy of her youth milking cows); the mouth of pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Cornforth; and the body of the eight-year-old murder victim Fanny Adams. All these tales are “detective stories, picking up on clues other scholars have missed”. Starting with “some musty archival fragment”, Hughes opens up “vistas of social history”.
We think of the Victorians as a prudish lot, loftily detached from the affairs of the body, said Lucy Lethbridge in the Financial Times. But Hughes rediscovers the Victorians in their “fleshy selves”, detailing the “spots, toothlessness, bad breath and messy sexual appetites” that historians and biographers have usually ignored. Hughes has a “particular fondness for innards”, said Lisa Appignanesi in The Daily Telegraph. She reveals Darwin to have been a “martyr to wind”, and elsewhere describes a subject’s “kinked and puckered guts”. Written with “panache” and a “great pinch of wit”, Victorians Undone offers a “jaunty counterweight to more sober volumes”.