Victorians Undone

Kathryn Hughes

Why did the great philosophical novelist George Eliot feel so self-conscious that her right hand was larger than her left?

Exactly what made Darwin grow that 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?

Kathryn Hughes follows a thickened index finger or deep baritone voice into the realms of social history, medical discourse, aesthetic practise and religious observance – its language is one of admiring glances, cruel sniggers, an implacably turned back. The result is an eye-opening, deeply intelligent, groundbreaking account that brings the Victorians back to life and helps us understand how they lived their lives.

Reviews of Victorians Undone

  • ‘Fascinating and richly illuminating exploration of how the Victorians saw their – and other people’s – bodies … Kathryn Hughes has triumphantly succeeded in re-animating her subjects by concentrating on just one part of their anatomy … Intriguing, gleefully contentious and – appropriately enough – fizzing with life, Victorians Undone is the most original history book I have read in a long while’ John Preston, Daily Mail

    ‘Victorians Undone is history so alive you can smell its reek … an enthusiastic romp through a historical period that Hughes know thoroughly … Victorians Undone offers a jaunty counterweight to more sober volumes … With her love of bodily detail, Hughes does indeed put the carnal back into biography’ Lisa Appignanesi, Telegraph

    ‘A dazzling experiment in life writing … Every page fizzes with the excitement of fresh discoveries … Elegantly sidestepping the usual clichés of Victorian history … Each page becomes a window on to a world that is far stranger than we might expect’ Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Guardian

    ‘Hughes has chosen to focus on the bodies of five famous Victorians, dealing with each of them in a beautifully constructed essay narrated not only with wit and gusto , but a clear sense of purpose’ Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday, *****

    ‘Skilfully unwraps how the repressed Victorians really felt about their bodies’ Sunday Times

    ‘Hughes is never less than intelligent and industrious’ Mark Bostridge, The Spectator