Male hir­sute­ness was so prized that, by the late 1860s, only two mem­bers of the 600-strong House of Com­mons in Lon­don went clean-shaven

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a right-handed glove, known to have been worn by the au­thor of Si­las Marner, which checks in at size 6 – the small­est known to Vic­to­rian hab­er­dash­ers.

The same nu­ances jos­tle for space in her ex­tended treat­ment of Fanny Corn­forth, whose sen­sual mouth so alarmed the art crit­ics bid­den to ap­praise Ros­setti’s Bocca Ba­ci­ata (1859) and The Blue Bower (1865). A Sus­sex-born black­smith’s daugh­ter with a pro­nounced ru­ral ac­cent and a hearty ap­petite, she was writ­ten off as a pros­ti­tute by the artist’s mid­dle-class friends.

In fact, as Hughes shows in con­sid­er­able de­tail, Fanny was sim­ply a sin­gle wo­man forced by cir­cum­stance to look out for her own in­ter­ests. The space be­tween pros­ti­tu­tion and per­sonal se­cu­rity could be dan­ger­ously blurred, and, as Hughes ac­knowl­edges, many a Vic­to­rian wo­man much more grandly si­t­u­ated than Fanny ended up “sell­ing her­self” to the high­est bid­der. And to class shad­ings and prud­ish con­ceal­ment may be added irony, much of it painful in the ex­treme. Within a year or two of her death “Fanny Adams” had be­come naval slang for the reek­ing tins of im­per­fectly canned meat pro­duced at the Dept­ford vict­ualling plant. The last pho­to­graph of Fanny Corn­forth, whose ex­quis­ite lips fea­ture in sev­eral of her pa­tron’s erotic po­ems, shows a grim-faced el­derly wo­man with brown-grey hair lately ad­mit­ted to an Ed­war­dian asy­lum. Her breath, the au­thor­i­ties noted, was “ab­so­lutely foul”. Lady Flora’s in­te­rior, as dis­cov­ered shortly be­fore her death and con­firmed in the course of her post-mortem, re­vealed only a series of stringy ad­he­sions, the re­sult of dis­ease, which had dis­tended her stom­ach.

As the au­thor of well-re­ceived bi­ogra­phies of Ge­orge Eliot and Mrs Bee­ton, Hughes is a dab hand at deal­ing with this kind of ma­te­rial, and Vic­to­ri­ans Un­done is, in most re­spects, an ob­ject les­son in that new style of “life-writ­ing”, which comes in at an an­gle and takes a pos­i­tive plea­sure in ex­am­in­ing its sub­jects from van­tage points that they would not have dreamed of oc­cu­py­ing them­selves.

If there are two mi­nor draw­backs, they lie, first, in the cherry-picker ap­proach that – nec­es­sar­ily – seeks to il­lu­mi­nate the ordinary by way of the ex­cep­tional, and, sec­ond, in the oc­ca­sional od­di­ties of the style.

You can see the au­thor’s dilemma. Big, well-re­mu­ner­ated books about Vic­to­rian his­tory need big au­di­ences, and so, darkly aware that her read­er­ship con­sists of a small num­ber of peo­ple who know a lot about her sub­ject and a large num­ber of peo­ple who know rather less, Hughes has opted for a tone that com­bines schol­arly ex­ac­ti­tude and breezy slang. The two approaches don’t al­ways har­monise, and her in­sis­tence that the notes with which Ros­setti bom­barded his lady love are the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of tex­ting, sounds rather like an el­derly rel­a­tive at a party try­ing to en­sure that the young peo­ple are en­joy­ing them­selves just as much as she is.

On the other hand, her eye for in­crim­i­nat­ing de­tail never fails, and I was ap­palled to learn that Queen Vic­to­ria’s per­sonal physi­cian only dis­cov­ered that his pa­tient had spent 40 years suf­fer­ing from a pro­lapsed uterus when he ex­am­ined her body af­ter death.

DJ Tay­lor is a novelist and critic who also writes for The Guardian and The Times.

W & D Downey / Getty Images

Bi­og­ra­pher Kathryn Hughes ex­am­ines as­sump­tions about the age of Queen Vic­to­ria, pho­tographed here in 1876, that be­came syn­ony­mous with so­cial and moral con­ser­vatism.

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