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