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Victorians Undone

Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum

In Victorians Undone, renowned British historian Kathryn Hughes follows five iconic figures of the nineteenth century as they encounter the world not through their imaginations or intellects but through their bodies. Or rather, through their body parts. Using the vivid language of admiring glances, cruel sniggers, and implacably turned backs, Hughes crafts a narrative of cinematic quality by combining a series of truly eye-opening and deeply intelligent accounts of life in Victorian England.

Lady Flora Hastings is an unmarried lady-in-waiting at young Queen Victoria's court whose swollen stomach ignites a scandal that almost brings the new reign crashing down. Darwin's iconic beard provides important new clues to the roles that men and women play in the great dance of natural selection. George Eliot brags that her right hand is larger than her left, but her descendants are strangely desperate to keep the information secret. The poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, meanwhile, takes his art and his personal life in a new direction thanks to the bee-stung lips of his secret mistress, Fanny Cornforth. Finally, we meet Fanny Adams, an eight-year-old working-class girl whose tragic evisceration tells us much about the currents of desire and violence at large in the mid-Victorian countryside.

While 'bio-graphy' parses as 'the writing of a life,' the genre itself has often seemed willfully indifferent to the vital signs of that life—to breath, movement, touch, and taste. Nowhere is this truer than when writing about the Victorians, who often figure in their own life stories as curiously disembodied. In lively, accessible prose, Victorians Undone fills the space where the body ought to be, proposing new ways of thinking and writing about flesh in the nineteenth century.

About the Author

Kathryn Hughes is the professor of life writing at the University of East Anglia and a literary critic for The Guardian. She is the author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton and George Eliot: The Last Victorian.


"Sometimes a book just bowls you over with how good it is. For instance, I can remember starting my review of A. S. Byatt's Possession with the sentence 'Sometimes a critic just wants to say Wow.' Still, I never expected to feel anything approaching Nabokovian bliss when reading five lengthy biographical essays about figures and incidents from 19th-century British history. But Kathryn Hughes's Victorians Undone is just amazing, and her 'Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum' are so various, so imaginatively structured, so delicately salacious and so deliciously written that I sighed with pleasure as I turned the pages and even felt those tiny prickles along the neck that A. E. Housman once claimed were the sign of true poetry... This is popularized history done right, done with panache. Hughes has infused new life into dry-as-dust facts to produce a learned work that is brazenly, impudently vivacious."

- Michael Dirda - Washington Post

"The average biographer peers into a Great Man's mind. Kathryn Hughes's Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, in contrast, narrates the lives of five body parts."

- New York Times

"The tales are entertaining, but Hughes's real achievement is historical—amounting to a new understanding of, as she puts it, 'what it meant to be a human animal in the nineteenth century.'"

- The New Yorker

"Lively, iconoclastic and consistently riveting, this is popular history in the best sense."

- The Wall Street Journal

"The body parts in these Tales of the Flesh... illuminate the wider cultural world in which their owners participated."

- New York Review of Books

"Victorians Undone is excellent at providing a sniff of the 19th century that other forms of life writing have discreetly ignored."

- Public Books

"Intriguing, gleefully contentious and—appropriately enough—fizzing with life, Victorians Undone is the most original history book I have read in a long while."

- The Daily Mail

"A page-turner... brilliant all the way through. One of the best books I’ve read in ages."

- Sunday Express

"This lively study goes behind the frills and furbelows to explore aspects of the Victorians’ notoriously strange attitude to the body."

- The Guardian

"Elegantly sidestepping the usual clichés of Victorian history, from foggy streets to whimpering urchins, each page becomes a window on to a world that is far stranger than we might expect. It is writing that takes the raw materials of everyday life, starting with the body’s ‘bulges, dips, hollows, oozes and itches,’ and makes them live again. A dazzling experiment in life writing... Every page fizzes with the excitement of fresh discoveries."

- The 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."

- The Observer

"Victorians Undone is a work of formidable scholarship, but Hughes has a fluid, jaunty style that propels the reader from idea to idea. Reading it is like unraveling the bandages on a mummy to find the face of the past staring back in all its terrible and poignant humanity."

- 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."

- The Telegraph

"No one remotely interested in books should miss it."

- The 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."

- 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

"Hughes regularly surprises us by showing just how much her subjects’ physical selves impinged on their contributions to our culture, and sometimes on the very course of history."

- The Times Literary Supplement
Johns Hopkins University Press
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