Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum

By Kathryn Hughes

‘Victorians Undone is the most original history book I have read in a long while’ Daily Mail


A groundbreaking account of what it was like to live in a Victorian body from one of our best historians.

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.

Format: Paperback
Release Date: 25 Jan 2018
Pages: 432
ISBN: 978-0-00-754838-5
Kathryn Hughes is a highly-regarded social historian and biographer whose work has won major awards, including the James Tait Black Prize (1999). Her two most recent books, the best-selling The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton and George Eliot: The Last Victorian, were turned into major dramas by the BBC. She was educated at Oxford, holds a PhD in Victorian History and is currently Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society. For the last twelve years Kathryn has been under contract to the Guardian newspaper, producing fortnightly book and arts reviews and comment pieces. She also writes regularly for the TLS and is a former Contributing Editor to Prospect. Kathryn is very media-friendly and routinely presents arts programmes for the BBC on both radio and television.

”'A page-turner … brilliant all the way through. One of the best books I’ve read in ages” - Lucy Worsley, Sunday Express

”'A dazzling experiment in life writing … Every page fizzes with the excitement of fresh discoveries … Each page becomes a window on to a world that is far stranger than we might expect” - Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Guardian

”'It is rich and scholarly, something fascinating to be discovered on every page … Hughes is a thoroughly engaging writer: serious-minded but lively, careful yet passionate… Some of the encounters in its pages, whiffy and indelible, will stay with me for ever” - Rachel Cooke, Observer

”'It is not often I read a book and think 'Wow! Every historian of Victorian Britain should read this'. It is a lyrical reflection on the corporeal bodies of Victorian men and women, as well as on the way their fleshiness has become invisible to historians … This is historical storytelling at its very best” - Joanna Bourke, BBC History Magazine

”'A work of formidable scholarship … Reading it is like unravelling the bandages on a mummy to find the face of the past staring back in all its terrible and poignant humanity” - Lucy Lethbridge, Financial Times

”'History so alive you can smell its reek … With her love of bodily detail, Hughes does indeed put the carnal back into biography” - Lisa Appignanesi, Telegraph

”'No one remotely interested in books should miss it” - John Carey, Sunday Times

”'I can’t think of a recent social history I’ve enjoyed more” - The Big Issue

”'Beautifully constructed, narrated not only with wit and gusto, but a clear sense of purpose” - Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

”'Sex certainly rears its many heads, but so does every other aspect of Victorian life, from farming techniques to court etiquette, dentistry to oil painting” - The Times, Book of The Week

”'Refreshingly unusual … brilliant” - Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times, Books of the Year