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

Hughes, Kathryn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: May-03-2018


Victorians Undone is no ordinary history book.  If you have ever felt dissatisfied by a sterile biography, wondering if its subject actually possessed bodily functions, look no further.  Here, British historian Kathryn Hughes undoes centuries of sheltering the reader from the unseemly by putting it on full display.  While the very term “Victorian” evokes an image of propriety, it was also a time of population displacement from the country to cities where “other people’s sneezes, bums, elbows, smells, snores, farts and breathy whistles were, quite literally, in your face”  (p. xi). The author seeks to rectify the imbalance by creating a history that puts “mouths, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century“ (p. xiv), which she hopes will “add something to our understanding of what it meant to be a human animal“ (p. xv) during the Victorian Era.  

The book consists of five essays, each following a part of the body of an historical figure. In the first, entitled “Lady Flora’s Belly,” we learn about the tragic saga of Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting.  Did Flora’s protuberant abdomen conceal a tumor or a baby?  It was harder to find out than one might think.  Most women went through their lives without ever exposing their private parts to anyone but their husband.   Medical consultation when unavoidable might be conducted discretely, by post. 

Other essays focus on George Eliot’s hands, Fanny Cornforth’s (the lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter) sensual mouth, and the beard that Charles Darwin’s grew to hide his eczema.  The book concludes with the gruesome tale of the dismemberment of Fanny Adams, an early case study in forensic pathology. The term "Fanny Adams" soon came, in navy slang, to mean unpleasant meat rations.


Victorians Undone provides a unique perspective that the reader may find either trivial or indispensable. Some will feel they do not need to know whether one of George Eliot’s hands was larger than the other.  Others, who savor the highways and byways of history, will not imagine how they have gotten so far without having the answer to this.    

Nevertheless, the author’s lively and engaging style renders this a most enjoyable book, and the essays contain fascinating glimpses into Victorian medical practices. The illustrations include several of Rossetti’s famous portraits of Fanny Cornforth, strikingly juxtaposed with a photograph taken upon her 1907 admission to Graylingwell Asylum. The mouth may no longer be sensual but it is still recognizably Conforth's.


Johns Hopkins University Press

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