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.
In her introduction, Hughes declares that her book is “an experiment to see what new stories emerge when you use biography — which, after all, is embodied history — to put mouths, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century.” That word “experiment” hints that Hughes just might be comparing “Victorians Undone” to A.J.A. Symons’s 1934 classic, “The Quest for Corvo,” which bears the subtitle “An Experiment in Biography.” In it Symons not only delineated the career of a notorious fin-de-siècle writer , but also recalled just how he himself researched and wrote the book. The result revolutionized biography. Might “Victorians Undone” do the same?
While Hughes — a professor of life writing at the University of East Anglia — largely avoids the overtly personal, she does stress that her fugue-like essays build on 25 years of burrowing through libraries and archives. Her topics are, from the get-go, original.
“Why did the young Queen Victoria become obsessed with other women’s figures in the spring of 1839, and exactly what made Charles Darwin grow that iconic beard in 1862 . . . ? Why was the great philosophical novelist George Eliot so conscious that her right hand was larger than her left, and how did the poet-artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti manage to paint his mistress’s lips so beautifully while simultaneously treating them as a dirty joke?” In her fifth and last chapter Hughes relates, with the pacing of a true-crime writer, the 1867 murder of an 8-year-old girl and the trial that followed.
Most of these stories are, in fact, structured like mini-mysteries. For instance, was the unmarried Lady Flora Hastings pregnant, as the teenage Queen Victoria suspected? Hughes tracks the case from suspicion of hanky-panky to rumor and royal outrage, to brutal gynecological examination, to widening public and private consequences. The Fraser case, she writes, had “absolutely everything the British press liked best: young aristocratic women, lascivious doctors, slippery foreigners and, above all, several stripes of illicit sex.” Along the way, Hughes treats the reader to sentences such as this one: “Princess Victoria had yet to master the knack of eating with her mouth closed, especially given her habit of stuffing it so full of food that she resembled a small, pouched rodent.”
In the chapter about Darwin we learn about his eczema, flatulence and sensitive stomach: The young naturalist threw up nonstop during his first seven weeks while sailing on the Beagle. Hughes’s essay touches on the cultural perception of sexual differences, the rise of muscular Christianity, the Crimean War and Julia Margaret Cameron’s propensity for photographing writers as sages or prophets. Charles Dickens, Hughes tells us, joked that “some of his friends welcomed his beard because it meant they saw less of him.” Tennyson not only wore thick spectacles but also ill-fitting dentures, eventually growing his famous “dirty monk” facial hair to hide his hollow-cheeked toothlessness. Picking a wonderfully apt verb, Hughes concludes that Darwin’s theorizing ended by “dislocating the foundations of existence.”
The pages devoted to George Eliot, about whom Hughes has published an entire book, focus on how family members wanted the novelist depicted in biographies. Was, or wasn’t, her right hand larger than her left because, when young, she worked in the family dairy milking cows? Even though Eliot was, in the words of Henry James, “magnificently ugly,” she nonetheless radiated a charismatic allure never captured in surviving images. This hidden but “most powerful beauty,” James added, “in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind so you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her.”
Hughes’s last two chapters are her most shocking. “Fanny Cornforth’s Mouth” opens, “On 23 July 1859, George Boyce agreed to pay Dante Gabriel Rossetti 40 pounds to paint the woman with whom they were both sleeping.” The result was a thrillingly voluptuous canvas entitled “Bocca Baciata” — the Kissed Mouth. From it, and various intimate letters, Hughes deduces that Fanny’s lips were actually “transporting both Rossetti and Boyce to heaven” in ways that didn’t involve ordinary kisses. Hughes dryly notes that, according to one scholar, Fanny was “ ‘warm, open, unsophisticated, uncomplicated, uneducated and vigorous,’ which is about as close to ‘tart with a heart’ as you can get without actually saying so.”
To round out these studies of 19th-century carnality, “Sweet Fanny Adams” presents the you-are-there trial of a mild-mannered clerk accused of unspeakable sexual violence. Hughes’s irony comes into full play here when she observes that, to the mid-Victorians, any little girl who had been raped would be so polluted that it was really for the best if she was also murdered. The account of this crime and its aftermath is simply unputdownable.
As is “Victorians Undone” in its entirety. While some readers may find it gossipy or even sensational in a negative rather than positive sense, I’m not one of them. 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 reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Kathryn Hughes
Johns Hopkins. 414 pp. $29.95