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

  • by Kathryn Hughes
  • Narrated by Jenny Funnell
  • 13 hrs and 43 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

A groundbreaking account of what it was like to live in a Victorian body from one of our best historians, author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton and George Eliot: The Last Victorian.
Why did the great philosophical novelist George Eliot feel so self-conscious that her right hand was larger than her left?
Exactly what made Darwin grow that iconic beard in 1862, a good five years after his contemporaries had all retired their razors?
Who knew Queen Victoria had a personal hygiene problem as a young woman and the crisis that followed led to a hurried commitment to marry Albert?
What did John Sell Cotman, a handsome drawing room operator who painted some of the most exquisite watercolours the world has ever seen, feel about marrying a woman whose big nose made smart people snigger?
How did a working-class child called Fanny Adams disintegrate into pieces in 1867 before being reassembled into a popular joke, one we still reference today, but would stop, appalled, if we knew its origins?
Kathryn Hughes follows a thickened index finger or deep baritone voice into the realms of social history, medical discourse, aesthetic practice and religious observance - its language is one of admiring glances, cruel sniggers, and an implacably turned back. The result is an eye-opening, deeply intelligent, groundbreaking account that brings the Victorians back to life and helps us understand how they lived their lives.


What the Critics Say

"This is a wonderful book, so masterful and scholarly and wise, there will never need to be another. Hughes is an elegant writer, and a capable digger; no stone, however small or inaccessible, is left unturned." (Rachel Cooke, Observer)
"This is a brilliant biography, which tells the absorbing, strange and sad story with great aplomb. Kathryn Hughes has seen quite rightly, that one of the most important parts of the story is what happened after Isabella's death and, indeed, Sam's, and the life of Mrs Beeton is continued to the present day. It is so magical a feat of imagination, of intricate learning lightly worn, that you know that Kathryn Hughes would write a wonderful novel. But this splendid book is as good as any." (Spectator)
"Seriously scholarly yet nonetheless accessible to the general listener...fascinating." (Margaret Forster, Sunday Telegraph)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Warts and All!

Katherine Hughes has definitely amassed a wealth of detailed research for this portrait of Victorians (genital) warts and all!

In five sections she details the cruel treatment of Lady Flora Hastings in the court of the young, vicious Queen Victoria (whose painfully prolapsed womb was found only after her death). Lady Flora was subjected to a humiliating internal examination to prove that her swollen stomach was not a pregnancy. A virgin, she died of a massive tumour not long afterwards. The section on George Eliot has a fascinating recreation of her father’s dairy farm and the role of women in cheese-making in fact, and in Eliot’s fiction. Charles Darwin’s appalling life-long vomiting with resultant rotten teeth (severe acid reflux?) and extreme socially unacceptable flatulence made his marriage something of a miracle, and it’s interesting that a hair from his beard could provide the answer to his condition. Hughes shows that model (prostitute? kept woman?) Fanny Cornforth (she of the sensual lips in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's ‘Bocca Baciata’) was the life partner of the artist (who had at least one testicle surgically removed), even when she became his obese ‘elephant’. She ended her days toothless in an asylum. The trial of the clearly insane Fred Baker for the murder of little Fanny Adams (whose name became immortalised in ‘Sweet F.A.’) is a Penny Dreadful of horrific detail of the child’s innards and body parts draped around the hop field where he killed her, but also a sympathetic unfolding of the tragedy.

Each hour of listening brims with social issues and fascinating detail from Tennyson’s disgustingly filthy beard and unwashed clothes, Rossetti’s wild animals running amok after his death, the dark skin of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, to weak chins, bad skin and blubbery lips masked by excessively hairy beards. The whole is written in places in an over- slangy way which I felt unnecessary – it’s all fascinating enough without trying to be uber-accessible, and it does stray from the central thesis and become repetitive in places.

But the narrator should have been given some guidance! She clearly knows no French and should have asked for the pronunciation: ‘femme fatale’, ‘aide-de-camp’ and ‘Neuchatel’ are just three examples of words grotesquely mis-pronounced. One of her worst offences came at the very beginning where Hughes discusses biography and one of the greatest biographers Lytton Strachey is called ‘Stracky’ four times. Many words are given completely the wrong stress, for example ‘archipelago’, ‘legumes’, ‘calumniator’. For an academic work based on a decade of research, these many errors are unforgivable.
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- Rachel Redford

Fascinating - an unusual angle on the victorians

The essential subject matter of the book - the Victorians - feels like it has been done to death - but this is such an interesting take on the subject. The different chapters exploring different topics relating to the body (but including a huge amount of interest around Victorian society) are all fascinating and fun - except the final one, which is fascinating but very disturbing (I'd leave that one out if you don't like dark stories.). I highly recommend this.
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- Fiona

Book Details

  • Release Date: 26-01-2017
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Limited