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  • Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes
  • Alison Booth (bio)
Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum
Kathryn Hughes
Johns Hopkins UP, 2018. xvii + 440 pages. ISBN 978-1421425702, $29.95 hardcover.

The cover and title of this book promise something along the lines of bodice-ripping neo-Victorian fiction, or, since it comes from an academic press, a scholar's rediscovery of perverse sexuality amid corsets and drapery in the spirit of Steven Marcus's classic, The Other Victorians. The cover and title are not entirely misleading, but Victorians Undone is not predictable, and I was surprised by some of its provocative and even jaw-dropping turns. It is a rare achievement, a fact-rich page-turner, but its "tales of the flesh" are not just about what we would consider to be sex or hidden pleasure. The book ingeniously experiments with biographical cultural history, focusing on a different body part in each of its five chapters of what might be called detective or forensic biography. Kathryn Hughes, an award-winning biographer of George Eliot and Mrs. Beeton, offers less a guide to the illicit sexuality of supposedly prudish ancestors, and more an artful venture into the backstories of several scandals that staggered the newspapers or roused feuds between heirs and biographers.

In the first chapter, we learn even more than recent televisual "biopics" have revealed about Victoria's early reign, specifically about the national uproar, fueled by the resentful queen herself, over whether the Duchess of Kent's lady-in-waiting Lady Flora Hasting was pregnant by the duchess's comptroller, John Conroy. Blundering medical men probe and misdiagnose, as Lady Flora lies dying of a terrible disease. Chapter two shifts from the Gothic gossip of palace obstetrics, in which all parties seem driven to maddening cruelties, to hirsute peculiarities in Darwin's lifetime, when the full beard shifted from being a sign of the sailor, savage, or [End Page 415] criminal to a sign of the genius or sage. The book's illustrations and episodic vignettes treat well-known men of the day with the bemused inquisitiveness of a fashion magazine depicting the daily hygiene and public relations of likeable female celebrities. While Hughes raises doubt that Victorian women enjoyed their partners' shaggy, odoriferous beards, she deftly weaves "these beard-growing dramas" (124) into a sharp assessment of Victorian theories of evolution and gender. In chapter 20 of The Descent of Man, "Darwin mumbles—there is no other word for it"; he "tinkered with his findings on sexual selection, including the crucial role that beards played in the delicate business of human desire in order to make his findings fit [in] . . . a Victorian drawing room" (142–3). Hughes, having peered into those drawing rooms, shows clearly how mores influence scientific argument. It is as if Hughes has blended into a concoction of fresh biographical tidbits the essences of Carlylean clothes philosophy—an identity as an effect of socially-coded outfits— and at the same time of Woolf's alertness to gender as the spirit of the age, in Orlando and elsewhere. Darwin grew a beard not to follow fashion but to hide his illness, but it befits a Victorian influencer. The beard, consisting now of a cluster of hairs collected posthumously from his desk and held at the Natural History Museum, will help diagnose just which disease he suffered from most of his life. Represented and interpreted as a whole, the beard indelibly reminds us of the simian caricatures of Darwin based on Juliet Margaret Cameron's photograph (134, 148–9).

In most biographies of George Eliot, whether short or long, popular or authoritative, an unstoppable anecdote appears, in spite of her nephew's denial: "It is . . . a mere figment of the imagination that George Eliot acted as dairy maid, and that cheese-making was the cause of one hand being larger than another. My father [Isaac] always said she could not be induced to touch a cheese." Biographers influenced by the inner Evans circle equivocated on her suspicious knowledge of dairy work, yet still echoed her having told a friend (Cara Bray) that...


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