Meeting Victorians - in the flesh...
Non-fiction: Victorians Undone, Kathryn Hughes, Fourth Estate, hdbk,400 pages, €28.00
This witty study of the Victorians and their bodily neuroses puts the carnal into biography.
Our fascination with the Victorian epoch continues unabated. Last autumn, a sizzling young Victoria (played by Jenna Coleman) enlivened our Sunday evening screens on UTV Ireland. This year, Judi Dench will play the ageing monarch in Stephen Frears's Victoria and Abdul, about her late infatuation with a young Indian man. The books, too - scholarly, popular, even for children - keep coming.
Whether our interest is sparked by nostalgia for that age of economic boom and household servants, with its professed moral coherence and patriarchal rectitude, or instead by a distrust of all the above, is a moot point, since the one inevitably shadows the other.
Perhaps what intrigues us most from the vantage point of our own age of instant, unfettered global communication are the very different lines the Victorians drew between the private and the public: what could be talked about openly and what was intimate and, often enough, unspoken - even at home. Here, sex and the body in all their peculiarities loom large.
It is into this last and fleshly terrain, documented in diaries, medical or psychiatric textbooks, and sometimes the proceedings of the divorce or criminal courts, that Kathryn Hughes, prize-winning biographer of George Eliot and Mrs Beeton, guides us. She does so with gusto and panache, a great pinch of wit, and an assortment of tantalising ingredients culled from archives. For Hughes, body parts are "biography's precision tool". Often omitted from general history or obscured from personal accounts by families worried about their reputation, anecdotes about bodies, sex and illness can lay bare cultural power and class, race and gender arrangements. They are also a path to racy storytelling - Victorians Undone is history so alive you can smell its reek.
Hughes begins her foray into Victorian "parts and holes" with the distended belly of 33-year-old Lady Flora Hastings, lady in waiting to young Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent. Before Victoria ascended to the throne, Hastings was intended as a companion to the princess, one who would oust Victoria's own favourite, the loyal Louise Lehzen. It was hoped that Hastings would oversee Victoria's daily - and far too independent - thoughts and woo her in the right direction, one that would ensure the standing of Sir John Conroy, the Duchess of Kent's comptroller.
The young princess resisted and disliked this prim spy. But a year after Victoria's coronation, the graceful Hastings began to sprout a marked protuberance in her belly. Victoria may have been virginal, but she was no innocent. Rumour soon began to circulate, probably at her instigation, that the unmarried Hastings was "enceinte". Had she been helped into that condition by Conroy himself?
The court physician, Sir James Clark, a former ship's surgeon and hardly an expert in anything except the security of his own position, carried out an examination that was merely an attempt to bully an admission of guilt out of Hastings. She refused to admit to any impropriety.
Then Sir Charles Clarke was called in, a kind and considerate man and a specialist in female matters. When Hastings, wanting to be exonerated, chose an internal examination, the shame was almost as great as if a pregnancy had been found.
"Internal examinations, whether made with fingers or a speculum," Hughes writes, "were strongly associated with the detection of venereal disease among prostitutes".
Moreover, Clarke could easily have ruptured "the very maidenhead on which he had been called to adjudicate". Six months later, Hastings died. The post-mortem found "bands of stringy adhesions" in her diseased intestine; her uterus and "other appendages", it was noted, were in "a healthy virgin state".
Hughes exposes the gorier side of her Victorians with glee. She has a particular fondness for innards, for "kinked and puckered guts" or the "continuous reflux of acidic bile", "quivering, burping, swaddled, babyish vulnerability" - this to do with Charles Darwin, "a martyr to wind" - and writes about them with frank brio.
Darwin is led into this book not by his guts but his beard, that great white outcrop which turned him from a clean shaven midlife gentleman of scientific persuasion into an ageless, somewhat simian, sage -a procedure abetted by Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs and his own notoriety as the man who had put the ape into man's origins.
If his first beard accompanied his voyage on the Beagle, transforming him from a "mild, shy, bashful" young emissary of British civilisation into a "dirty, beastly and resolutely male" classless, savage, it also, according to Hughes, led him to consider whether hairiness was further evidence that "man was simply an animal that had found a way of walking on its hind legs".
In this, my favourite of Hughes's excursions, she has a great deal of fun describing the hairy protuberances of Victorian males - from Dickens to Carlyle to Ruskin, Trollope and Tennyson. There is a splendid aside on barbers - Darwin certainly learnt something about inbreeding and cross-breeding from his, William Willis, who bred dogs as a sideline.
Hughes also provides tantalising information from patchy records revealing how Victorian women loathed this smelly, scratchy, facial fashion. Lady Morley, for instance, was heard to say that she could tell from the Duke of Newcastle's beard exactly how many courses he had eaten.
We don't know what George Eliot thought of the "spectacularly hirsute" George Henry Lewes's facial hair, but she did choose to live with him despite the condemnation of family and polite society. Hughes's focus is instead on Eliot's right hand. According to some sources, it was larger than her left, though her family always disputed the fact. The interest in her allegedly enlarged hand is that it links her with the familial dairy - part of the household domain overseen, often profitably, by women. But the dairy was also erotically charged with the aura of those loose milkmaids, always tugging at udders, and a little too close to the heat of reproductive life for respectable Victorians. In denying her enlarged hand, Eliot's family were upholding rectitude, even though the dairy is an aspect of rural life described graphically in her early fiction, which drips with "genuine cream" from the "udders of the large sleek beasts" who "stood lowing a patient entreaty under the milking shed".
The fate of Fanny Cornforth, model and more to the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is a further example of this silencing in the name of reputation. This time, Hughes's point of entry into the Pre-Raphaelite clan, its sexual sharings and painterly adventures, is Fanny's mouth.
It's a lush, pouting, slightly open and fully ripe mouth. Rossetti first painted it in Bocca Baciata ("The Kissed Mouth") - his take on a tale about a much-bedded Sultan's daughter in Boccaccio's Decameron. The painting, and perhaps Fanny herself, marked a turn from the moral seriousness of the early Brotherhood to what Rossetti designated the more "Venetian aspect" that his work was taking. "More stunning than can be decently expressed," the poet Algernon Swinburne opined when he saw the picture, though the critic John Ruskin, Rossetti's patron, was appalled at the smut.
Tracing Fanny's unfair relegation in biographies of Rossetti to the rank of prostitute, and her overlooked links to him in the last 22 years of his life, Hughes leads us on a bumpy ride through the seamier side of Victorian history. England here brings to mind Second Empire France; the power of Fanny's mouth seems to slip down Rossetti's anatomy to sexual parts his other inamoratas never dared to reach - or so Hughes suggests.
Hughes's last excursion into biographical history ventures into the criminal courts in 1867 and the terrible case of Sweet Fanny Adams, a girl of eight murdered in Alton, a small Hampshire town - and through its chief magistrate at the trial, Edward Knight, back tangentially to Jane Austen. It's a sad, grim story. The murderer in question is a diminutive young clerk, Frederick Baker, whether mad or simply bad is unclear. What isn't unclear is the horror perpetrated on the child and the fact that among the scattered body parts, it is her vagina that is missing.
Perhaps Hughes includes this narrative because it pinpoints the fact that for all their moral rectitude, the Victorians did not consider paedophilia an identity to be persecuted, as our own times do. Older men's love of little girls might have been thought tasteless, but hardly unusual. Whether this tells us more about the status of women than about the cultural forces that shape perversion isn't probed here.
Victorians Undone is an enthusiastic romp through a historical period that Hughes knows thoroughly. With its integrated pictures and colour plates, which include an image of a clipping of Darwin's beard, Victorians Undone offers a jaunty counterweight to more sober volumes. With her love of bodily detail, Hughes does indeed put the carnal back into biography. If by focusing on it so graphically, the rest of the human picture sometimes grows a little fuzzy, her zest more than makes up for the rest.