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Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum (2017)

by Kathryn Hughes

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17711151,792 (3.91)11
"A groundbreaking account of what it was like to live in a Victorian body from one of our best historians ... brings the Victorians back to life and helps us understand how they lived their lives"--Publisher's description.
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Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
A tour of the Victorian era through body parts. The first four sections were excellent. The last, detailing the investigation and trail of a young man accused of a child’s death and dismemberment, is decidedly de trop, regardless of what insights are to be had about mental illness or the court system in the time. Aside from that caveat, the book is very written and very interesting. My advice: skip the last bit. ( )
  PattyLee | Dec 14, 2021 |
Victorians Behaving Badly

Can you write a credible history of an era by focusing on parts of the body; or, more correctly regarding Victorians Undone, by using body parts as launch vehicles into interesting aspects of Victorian mores, style, medicine, law, social life, and more? Kathryn Hughes demonstrates that you can do a pretty good job of it as you entertain your readers with a wicked wit. At least the subjects of her history a long gone and thus saved from blushes.

The subjects here are “Lady Flora’s Belly,” morals, medicine, young Queen Victoria, and wild rumor; “Charles Darwin’s Beard,” beards out of control, and Darwin’s earthquaking theory; “George Eliot’s Hand,” rural life in real Middlemarch, dairymaid reputations, illicit love, and family squabbles; “Fanny Cornforth’s Mouth,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites, their models, the meaning and gradations of prostitution, and art; “Sweet Fanny Adams,” murder, status of children, plight of female children, English jurisprudence, insanity, and salty English seaman slang.

Hughes, with these body parts as starting points, manages to paint an illuminating landscape of 19th century England, some of which contradicts, at least anecdotally, perceptions that have come down to us in the literature of the day. For instance, in exploring the murder of “sweet Fanny Adams,” the real sweet here, not the slang pejorative, Hughes finds life in a law office quite the opposite of Bob Cratchit’s dismally hunched existence; clerks seem to come and go as they please throughout the day.

She makes her observations with considerable wit in a way Edwardian Mary Poppins would certainly approve. From the text on Darwin’s beard discussing the separation of genders in the context of societal roles, “ …the middle-class body had never appeared more gendered. Women’s crinolines, comprising a metal ‘cage’ over which a full skirt was displayed to braggardly effect, became so wide as to render physical activity both inside and outside the home tricky, if not quite as dangerous as satirical magazines liked to suggest. Husbands and brothers, meanwhile, adopted conspicuously long beards as a reminder that, no matter how many evenings they might spend in the drawing room listening to someone mangle Chopin, there was a warrior hiding under all that fur, just waiting to spring out and defend his territory. Stretched in different directions, horizontal and vertical, the two sexes could never be mistaken for one another.” As for pertinence, the latter on men might be something to ponder in the presence of 21 century facial fur.

This thoroughly enjoyable, well told romp through Victorian life will engage readers curious about the not-so decorous past. Readers should be aware, however, that the subtitle promises more than the book delivers. These readers attracted by the flesh might find the literary porn of era contained in the classic The Pearl. ( )
  write-review | Nov 4, 2021 |
Victorians Behaving Badly

Can you write a credible history of an era by focusing on parts of the body; or, more correctly regarding Victorians Undone, by using body parts as launch vehicles into interesting aspects of Victorian mores, style, medicine, law, social life, and more? Kathryn Hughes demonstrates that you can do a pretty good job of it as you entertain your readers with a wicked wit. At least the subjects of her history a long gone and thus saved from blushes.

The subjects here are “Lady Flora’s Belly,” morals, medicine, young Queen Victoria, and wild rumor; “Charles Darwin’s Beard,” beards out of control, and Darwin’s earthquaking theory; “George Eliot’s Hand,” rural life in real Middlemarch, dairymaid reputations, illicit love, and family squabbles; “Fanny Cornforth’s Mouth,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites, their models, the meaning and gradations of prostitution, and art; “Sweet Fanny Adams,” murder, status of children, plight of female children, English jurisprudence, insanity, and salty English seaman slang.

Hughes, with these body parts as starting points, manages to paint an illuminating landscape of 19th century England, some of which contradicts, at least anecdotally, perceptions that have come down to us in the literature of the day. For instance, in exploring the murder of “sweet Fanny Adams,” the real sweet here, not the slang pejorative, Hughes finds life in a law office quite the opposite of Bob Cratchit’s dismally hunched existence; clerks seem to come and go as they please throughout the day.

She makes her observations with considerable wit in a way Edwardian Mary Poppins would certainly approve. From the text on Darwin’s beard discussing the separation of genders in the context of societal roles, “ …the middle-class body had never appeared more gendered. Women’s crinolines, comprising a metal ‘cage’ over which a full skirt was displayed to braggardly effect, became so wide as to render physical activity both inside and outside the home tricky, if not quite as dangerous as satirical magazines liked to suggest. Husbands and brothers, meanwhile, adopted conspicuously long beards as a reminder that, no matter how many evenings they might spend in the drawing room listening to someone mangle Chopin, there was a warrior hiding under all that fur, just waiting to spring out and defend his territory. Stretched in different directions, horizontal and vertical, the two sexes could never be mistaken for one another.” As for pertinence, the latter on men might be something to ponder in the presence of 21 century facial fur.

This thoroughly enjoyable, well told romp through Victorian life will engage readers curious about the not-so decorous past. Readers should be aware, however, that the subtitle promises more than the book delivers. These readers attracted by the flesh might find the literary porn of era contained in the classic The Pearl. ( )
  write-review | Nov 4, 2021 |
What a disappointment! I was looking forward to this book but nearly cried when I realised how bad it was. By that time I was already and long way in and it was too late to go back. I plodded on hoping against all hope that it would really start but no, it just petered along.

Why was I so disappointed? It was so bland! How many paragraphs about a moustache? it felt like a whole book about a moustache! It was like gossip!

This WAS NOT in the book:
Lytton Strachey, a decade before his hatchet job on the Victorians, walked into the drawing room and pointed at a stain on Vanessa Bell’s dress. “Semen?” he inquired. “With that one word,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down … It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation.” ( )
  Ken-Me-Old-Mate | Sep 24, 2020 |
This is a magnificent volume of Victorian history. Victorians were people, just like us, and had physical likes and dislikes, performed bodily functions, had fads and fashions, and generally saw the world as much through their perceptions of each other as through news or views or knowledge. This is Kathryn Hughes’ thesis and she presents us with five examples of how this approach is reflected in Victorian life.

Hughes has carefully selected episodes from the Victorian world that allow us to see how that physicality was seen by them. These episodes range from an apparent pregnancy that almost brought down the monarchy to the male fashion for bushy beards to the way people were judged for an apparent minor deformity to the life of a major model for Victorian art and finishing with a a most brutal crime.

Hughes writes with erudition and wit (this is a funny book) and a deep understanding of the history. This is excellent. ( )
1 vote pierthinker | Jan 20, 2020 |
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For my parents, Anne and John Hughes
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It is the last week of June, 1839, and a young woman lies dying in Buckingham Palace.
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"A groundbreaking account of what it was like to live in a Victorian body from one of our best historians ... brings the Victorians back to life and helps us understand how they lived their lives"--Publisher's description.

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