Book review: ‘Victorians Undone’ by Kathryn Hughes

Victorians UndoneI was given this book as a birthday present by a friend. I presume it was the chapter entitled Charles Darwin’s Beard that made her think I might like it. What can I say: my friends know the kind of topics that interest me.

At first glance, judging the book by its over-salacious subtitle, I was worried it might be crammed with scores of gossipy, titillating titbits from the hypocritically strait-laced nineteenth century. But Victorians Undone is a more serious book than that, taking a warts-and-all approach to history, with a particular emphasis on the warts. In other words, it discusses the sort of stuff you don’t find in most history books. It turns out our Victorian forebears weren’t the stern-faced, black-and-white characters staring back at us from daguerreotypes; they were flesh and blood, just like us.

The book comprises five essays, each of which might easily have formed the basis of a book in its own right. The titles of the essays are:

  • Lady Flora’s Belly
  • Charles Darwin’s Beard
  • George Eliot’s Hand
  • Fanny Cornforth’s Mouth
  • Sweet Fanny Adams

But to list these headings is to give nothing away. Kathryn Hughes uses the nominal subject of each essay as an excuse to go off on all sorts of interesting, occasionally obscure tangents. It’s a technique I enjoy very much indeed (and have been known to adopt myself).

I won’t spoil the book by going into specific details. But I’ll certainly never look on the young Queen Victoria in the same light again. And now I’ve finally learnt who Sweet Fanny Adams was, I kind of wish I hadn’t.

Definitely my kind of book. Recommended.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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