— But you will be ready to say, what was your hope in doing this? — What did you look forward to? — To any thing, every thing — to time, chance, circumstances, slow effects, sudden bursts, perserverance and weariness ... Every possibility of good was before me, and the first of blessings secured ... — from Emma, by Jane Austen
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April 25, 2018

Victorians Undone



This book, as it turned out, wasn't what I expected.  Maybe it's that thing that happens in the time between when you discover a book and put it on reserve, and the time when it comes in and you've forgotten why you wanted to read it. Or maybe it's the subtitle:  'Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum.'  But it's OK, because I knew as soon as I read the introduction that I would like what it was even more than what it might have been.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer; I remember reading and enjoying her book about Mrs. Beeton, and her book about George Eliot has been on my reading list for ages.  In the introduction, she talks about the fact that most Victorian biographers 'behaved as if their subjects had taken leave of the body, or had never possessed such a thing in the first place' -- in other words, it was rare for them to pay any kind of attention to how people looked, or talked, or any of their physical attributes or experiences.
In fact, in today's biographies the body barely makes an appearance at all. It might be there, in its cradle in Chapter 2 (Chapter 1 is for the forefathers and the Condition of England), at which point it gets a quick once-over and is assigned its father's brown eyes or its mother's long, loose limbs. From that point on  we hear little about the biographical subject's  physical passage through the world until the penultimate chapter, at which point he or she develops a nasty cough, or a niggling stomach pain, and someone calls the doctor. If the subject of the book is a woman there may be a bit of blood in the childbirth chapter, but there won't be any mention of menstruation, hiccups, a headache or any of those fluxy oddities that we all know about from our own bodily lives. Finally, in the closing pages, the subject takes to their bed, mutters a few last words, and is committed to the grave, whereupon they duly crumble into dust.
      As a result, even the most attentive reader may finish a biography of a Victorian, eminent or otherwise, feeling that they'd be hard pressed to pick them out in an identity parade. ...

So, this book, Hughes tells us, is 'an experiment to see what new stories emerge when you use biography -- which, after all, is embodied history -- to put mouths, bodies, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century.'  She tells, or retells, five stories, each one focusing on a body part --  a stomach, a beard, a hand, a pair of lips, and the bits and pieces of a murdered and dismembered child -- and shows us how looking more closely at the subject's physical presence changes the stories told about them.  As it turns out, these aren't really tales of the flesh, as it were, but what I wasn't expecting, and loved, was how much Hughes focuses on the actual writing of biography.

The first example is one that I've read about several times:  the story of the very young Queen Victoria deliberately and cruelly creating a scandal by insisting that Flora Hastings, one of the ladies of the court, was pregnant, as the result of an affair with the hated Sir John Conroy. (As it turns out, Lady Flora was dying, possibly from an old illness that caused adhesions to build up in her abdomen and cause it to swell.) To prove that she is not pregnant, Lady Flora agrees to allow the court physicians to examine her, even insists on it; what this telling brought home to me was how new, and unthinkable, it was for a woman to undergo a pelvic exam, especially by a male doctor, and what a violation it would have been.

The section I enjoyed most {though they were all good} was the one about George Eliot's hand, because it was the part of the book that talked most about biography. Hughes describes how Eliot's biographers often collected random anecdotes, that were passed down to later biographers without further investigation, eventually taking on a life of their own.  In a nutshell, this one involved a family friend who described Eliot's concern over thinking that one of her hands was larger than the other, because it was stretched and broadened when she spent time as a child milking cows on the family dairy farm.  As it turns out, the significance of this story is not so much about her hand as the efforts made by her descendants to insist that Eliot had never milked cows, because of their urgent need to insist that Eliot, who lived in a common law marriage for many years, had never done such common work, or work that was sometimes associated with sluttiness.

All in all, this book was very readable, and completely engaging, and I'm so glad it was what it turned out to be.


Victorians undone:  tales of the flesh in the age of decorum, by Kathryn Hughes
John Hopkins University Press, 2018
Borrowed from the library

1 comment:

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

What a fascinating premise for a book!

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