Review: Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes

DNVX0212[1]I’ve been on a bit of classics hype over the last few weeks, rediscovering some authors I’d previously had a bit of a rockier relationship with, and realising that I do actually enjoy some of their works. If you’ve seen either my Ethan Frome post or my Silas Mariner post then you’ll know what I’m talking about, but if you haven’ t, let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised! Delving back into, not only classics, but also the Victorian period (which is my favourite!) was completely refreshing, and having finished both of the above books I was craving something a bit more focused on the historical aspect. That’s where Kathryn Hughes’s Victorians Undone came into play.

Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, is actually a non-fiction book, something I’m trying to make more of an effort to read. The premise is fairly straightforward and has an interesting concept; through five different Victorian body parts Kathryn attempts to not only look at what their owners lives were like, but also what it was like to be them, as well as calling into play the society they lived among. I was pretty instantly sold on the entire idea and loved the thought of discovering the Victorian in a slightly different way, so it was a fairly easy decision to pick this as my next read.

Firstly, I have to say just how much I loved the book’s subtitle, ‘Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum’. That jarring juxtaposition between the respectable idea of decorum and the somewhat seedier connotations of the word flesh really promised a book that was going to be deliciously shocking and at odds with any preconceptions I may already have had in my knowledge of the Victorians.  There’s also something quite explicit in the use of such a subtitle, with the introduction continuing such a theme with its title of ‘Parts and Holes’. It shows that the author isn’t afraid to step outside of the stereotypically dry academic world and that she possesses this amusing sense of humour. Needless to say, the book opened for me with a whole lot of promise.

What I will say straight off is that whilst the author does examine various different body parts, I would say that the body aspect is more of a conduit for her to take a different way of looking at the Victorian period. It reads very much as a historical biography of sorts as we learn so many precise details about each person’s life, and whilst the body parts do add colour to the book in a way many others don’t, enabling the author to take a different look at each person’s life, I was still expecting slightly more grisly and somewhat disgusting bodily stories within it. This really didn’t take away from my enjoyment at all, as I think this is an excellent and original non-fiction book, but it is something to thing about for any potential readers.

The book itself is set out in a very clear and controlled manner. We are given five separate case studies to look at. Each of these five chapters focuses on a different person, looking at the anatomical body parts as a way to further explore each individual. Each chapter is very immersive and extremely well researched. There were times where I actually found myself beginning to forget that this wasn’t a book dedicated to whoever I was reading about at the time, and that it was actually a collection of different people. I think this was purely down to the skill and knowledge with which the author writes, taking us not only into their deeply private lives, but also their public personas and the wider social contexts surrounding them as well. I did think that sometimes the book as a whole felt slightly disjointed in the way that each chapter was so specific and so detailed concerning the respective individual, and as such they didn’t always seem to fit together cohesively as one piece. Having said that the author was always very careful to bring the attention back to the uniting theme of body parts, and the book was then able to flow into the next chapter with the reader’s attention fully alive again.

As I have touched on in the above, Kathryn Hughes’s writing is incredibly detailed and well researched, and you feel completely confident in the information she is relaying to you. She also makes great use of other sources, such as photographs, articles and letters, to enhance her work and to make it even more accessible to outside readers. Her writing itself also follows this, being intelligent and specialised in her field, yet also refraining from being overly wordy and inaccessible. She often has her own little asides as well which bring some of the authors own thoughts and personalities into her work. This makes her seem all the more human, as opposed to a far removed omniscient narrator we are expected to blindly follow. It’s clear from this book that Kathryn Hughes is far from a distant scholar tucked away in a dark and stuffy room!

One of the things which intrigued me immensely when I was actually only as far as the introduction, was a sentence that Kathryn wrote explaining how ‘. . . if our great-great-grandparents have a reputation for denying or concealing the body, it is only because they were obliged to live with it so intensely’ (p. xi). It’s easy to forget that despite their reputation for respectability and decorum, the Victorians were actually forced to encounter bodily parts and functions on a day to day basis. People lived in extremely close quarters where there was little hygiene and knowledge of disease, with even the rich paying for doctors that more often than not inflicted more pain on the body that need be. The very idea that we have so many biographies nowadays of memorable Victorians which completely skip over the importance their own bodies had in their lives is a weird one to reconcile, and through this book you get that sense that these vital body parts are being reclaimed. The author, in breaking down the body into its most vital and specific forms and parts, is able to take her work in directions we may never have before discovered, and that is where this book truly excels.

I adore the Victorian period, so this was always going to interest me massively, but I think that anyone interested in  history or personal lives is going to find this a very immerse and well conceived book. The author maintains the balance exquisitely between factual and entertaining, enabling you to delve into a wealth of information without feeling overloaded. I would highly recommend it!

‘This book is more than a piece of non-fiction; it offers up a whole new perspective from which we can delve into Victorian life. Kathryn Hughes reclaims the importance of bodies and body parts, breaking them down into their most specific forms to enable us to discover the Victorians in a whole new way. Humorous and entertaining, but above all incredibly well researched. You trust the author implicitly on the journey you are about to undertake.’

Publisher: Fourth Estate

Rating: 4*/5*

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