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Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum

3.61  ·  Rating details ·  687 ratings  ·  109 reviews
‘A work of formidable scholarship that propels the reader from idea to idea. Reading it is like unravelling the bandages on a mummy to find the face of the past staring back in all its terrible and poignant humanity’ Financial Times

A groundbreaking account of what it was like to live in a Victorian body from one of our best historians.

Why did the great philosophical noveli
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published January 26th 2017 by Fourth Estate
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Edith Just through the first chapter. Stylistically awful, but she did research the bejeepers out of the thing. Very snide, and, agreed, overwritten.…moreJust through the first chapter. Stylistically awful, but she did research the bejeepers out of the thing. Very snide, and, agreed, overwritten. However, the answer to the "sharp Oedipal elbows" is delivered almost immediately after the quote. Carlyle did not care to be compared with the man to whom he appeared to be the literary successor (or son), so he fought back against this paternal figure. It could have been written much more clearly were not the author obsessed with her literary style.

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3.61  · 
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 ·  687 ratings  ·  109 reviews

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Kathryn Hughes' Victorians Undone is a lively and engaging set of five essays, I ought to hesitate before describing her attitude as tongue in cheek given that she says of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Bocca Baciata and his sexual preferences that "To approach the topic of fellatio head-on would have been out of the question" (p.249). More polite and suitable for the breakfast table to suggest maybe that Hughes does not handle the Victorians with the decorum and moral rectitude that they sought so ha ...more
Isa Lavinia
I started this book with enthusiasm, thinking I'd get what was promised in its introduction: an account of the body in the Victorian era.

What I got was just the rehashing of biographical facts that anyone even passingly familiar with the the people discussed would already know. In fact, most of it is freely available on wikipedia.

Hughes just recounts the biography of her subjects and drags each one down with information that is just a repetition of what others have already written about them.

по-перше, британія хіх століття – це таке велике село, де всі з усіма пов'язані. наприклад, іконічну світлину дарвіна зробила джулія маргарет камерон, яка перефотографувала половину видатних вікторіанців, зокрема теннісона, однак так і не змогла переконати до позування данте габріеля росетті, племінника вільяма полідорі (він, щоправда, не знав свого дядька, бо народився вже після його смерті). або візьмімо джеймса кларка, одного з улюблених медиків джордж еліот: він примудрився залікувати до сме ...more
Dec 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: victorians
5 stars - truly excellent. Witty and thoroughly entertaining.
I was really excited about reading this and made sure I was first in the queue to order it in from our local Library. Victorians, social history, the human body - perfect subject matter for me.
Hughes very cleverly looks at all the above from 5 different aspects - the scandalous 'pregnancy' of one of Queen Victoria's ladies in waiting, the relative size of George Eliot's hands, Charles Darwin and his beard, Fanny Cornforth's mouth and t
Feb 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a marvellously entertaining journey through a collection of human bodies in the Victorian age in which the body was concealed and ignored as much as possible. The author has delved into letters and archives to produce this exploration of a neglected aspect of social history. Through five well known and not so well known people who played a part in Victorian public life the author explores the human body and Victorian attitudes to it.

Lady Flora Hastings - one of Queen Victoria's ladies in
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
One can approach history from many directions. Recently, micro-history has taken a prominent place in scholarship. I’m not sure what to call Kathryn Hughes’s Victorians Undone so let’s just call it a very interesting and unique view of five Victorians. And what a range it is. From the horrid murder of Fanny Adams in a country field to the regal residences of Queen Victoria, we read of Darwin’s beard, George Eliot’s right hand and Fanny Cornforth’s mouth.

The range of body parts that are exposed a
Fascinating! Absolutely fascinating! This book is written beautifully, in a highly intelligent and humorous tone, by a woman who has clearly done thorough research on the subject. Case studies are presented (such as darwin's beard or George Eliot's hands), in order to highlight Victorian opinions and beliefs about the human body. The insight you get as reader into the perceptions of Victorians with regards to their own bodies is astounding. I'd love to find more books that deal with the same sub ...more
While I don't quite get the vitriol this book has been met with here on Good Reads, there's no denying this is fairly mediocre and doesn't offer much new to anyone who's kept up with developments in the writing of history, particularly Victorian history, over the past few decades. Hughes' focus is scattershot and her emphasis on body parts seems more a gimmick than genuine inspiration.

Not worth getting upset over but not especially worth reading either.
Helen Murray
Ah, I really wanted this to be a five star read! It's the kind of engaging combination of textual sleuthing and narrative flair which provides snappy answer to a question I am often asked: 'you study the Victorians? Why would you DO that to yourself?'

Fast-paced, engaging and sometimes (theatrical gasp) funny, there is nothing boring about this book. It makes scholarly rigour what it should be: fascinating. Furthermore, Victorians Undone is concerned with a subject which deeply interests me: the
Mike S
Aug 22, 2017 rated it did not like it
This is appalling bad: recycled tidbits from well-known episodes of 19th century history, dressed up into a "new approach" to biography. The Introduction sets the portentous tone, unscholarly tone. Carlyle's attack on Coleridge's physique can partly be explained, according to Hughes, by "sharp Oedipal elbows" (what on earth has Oedipus to do with it?). Next we are told that people were thrown by the industrial revolution into an "intimate embrace" at the railways station and factory bench (an "i ...more
Jul 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Wonderful read and a terrific way of taking a look at Victorian society and at the possibilities and impossibilities of historiography and biography. Sometimes she lets her predilection for turning a phrase run away with her (nowhere more so than in the introduction, e.g: ‘His eyes were light and burning, his nose and mouth as decided as granite, and he had doubtless fizzed up North London’s steep incline in double-quick time, only to find this dollop of slop waiting for him at the top.’). But o ...more
Matthew Dorkings
Feb 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2018
I had hoped it would be a study of how the Victorians thought about the human body in an age of alleged prudishness. Instead it is a random, unconnected series of five (sort of) biographies of famous Victorians with the occasional reference to a bodily feature. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of Victorian history will find little new here. There are insightful parts - such as attitudes towards male facial hair in the chapter on Darwin (somewhat crow-barred in to changing attitudes towards evo ...more
Oct 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I think this book is at least as concerned with biographical and cultural details as bodies per se. That being said, I actually liked the way the subject of the body was contextualised by broader historical facts, because in this way it felt like I was reading a book about certain aspects of the Victorian era with a focus on the body, rather than about the more rigidly-defined category of "the Victorian body".
Definitely broadened my knowledge of many things Victorian.
Jul 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is something else.
The brilliance of each segment consists in the way the author astutely connects a small detail with the larger societal panorama. You go into each chapter wondering what is worth saying about something so trivial as a beard and you come out with a sociological study worthy of at least its own separate volume. But the book never becomes stuffy or overly-academic. Quite the contrary, it is breathlessly paced and wildly entertaining.
May 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Well researched with funny and direct writing. Each chapter ostensibly hinges on very specific body parts of famous Victorians, but expands out, giving a good deal of information about what life in the era was like.
Very fun to read.

Warning: last chapter is about the murder and dismemberment of a child, so maybe skip if bothered by that.
Wendy Armstrong
Mar 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very readable social history that's as compelling as a good novel. I loved the chapter on Fanny Adams: sad to think that a poor little dismembered eight-year-old went down in history as "Sweet F*ck All". Hughes is as far from a dull and dry historical biographer as it's possible to be. I want more chapters! Bravura.
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Pealkiri ja sissejuhatus on küll ambitsioonikad, kuid tegelikult on pr kirjandusteadlasele aastate jooksul kogunenud palju teisejärgulist materjali, mida on kahju lasta raisku minna. Sestap on K Hughes vormistanud selle viieks anekdoodiks, millest igaüks keskendub ühele inimkeha osale ja ütleme kohe, mingit teemakohast üldistust siit oodata pole.

Esimene lugu räägib kuninganna Victoria õuedaamist, kelle kõht läks punni ja hakati seetõttu kahtlustama, et ta on rase. Hea õukonnadraama.

Järgmine on C
Angie Boyter
Dec 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: vine
When someone mentions the Victorian era, probably one of the most frequent terms that comes to mind is “straitlaced”, but in Victorians Undone historian and biographical studies professor Kathryn Hughes loosens the stays and gives readers fascinating views of Victorian society…through their body parts.
Victorians Undone consist of five studies centering on a particular body part of one person from that era, such as lady-in-waiting Flora Hastings’ belly or Charles Darwin’s beard. These body parts
Mike O'Brien
Feb 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thought that this was a great read. Much better than I am used to expecting from a volume of Victorian history. For me it deftly navigated (split infinitive!) a path between being too dry and too jokey. There is lots of humour in it, but also lots of insight into life in Victorian times.

It concentrates on the physical characteristics of five Victorian people. Lady Flora Hastings, whose cancer swollen belly caused a scandal in the court of the young queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, whose beard
Stephen Goldenberg
Apr 06, 2018 rated it liked it
I would file this under ‘popular ‘ history, a category some critics use to demean books they find not sufficiently scholarly, but a genre which I usually like and approve of. And, certainly, most of this book is an entertaining read. My problem with it is that I don’t get the premise. There have been a number of very good books recently that have set out to debunk or demythologise the Victorians and Katheryn Hughes seems to be trying to do something similar: exploring the commonly held notion of ...more
Mar 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Really interesting: there is a tendency when looking at paintings or reading character descriptions in 19thC novels to overlook the significance of bodily features or to think they were just like us only in different costumes. Here we encouraged to look and think again about the cultural significance of growing a beard (and imagine its smell), social anxiety about the effect of physical work on the size of a hand, among other examples.
Susan Liston
This is one of those books where the interest factor depends entirely on ones own personal quirks of interest, so one moment, dullsville, the next, fascinating. The writing style tries a bit too hard sometimes to be groovy and cool, or something, but I guess it beats dry and dusty. My favorite section was about Fanny Cornforth, Dante Rossetti's mistress/model, who, I agree, does get short shrift in most accounts of the Pre-Raphaelite stuff that I've read, anyway. (small caveat- perhaps not the b ...more
Sep 21, 2018 rated it did not like it
I did not finish this book, in all fairness. Do yourself a favor and read Matthew Sweet's "Inventing the Victorians" or Deborah Lutz's "Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels" if you have an interest in the corporeal Victorians. I read the introduction, the Fanny Adams chapter, and most of the Fanny Cornforth chapter. It's best to read an entire book before leaving a review but I am judgy so here goes.

The premise of this book, as described in the intro, is that Victorian writing, as well as later
DNF. Victorians Undone is trying so hard to be chatty and commercial (even adopting a snarky, 'amusing' tone when recounting one woman's lifetime of miscarriages -- zing!). But, the trouble is, it suffers exactly the same deadening levels of historical minutiae as non-mainstream history books. The result: chatty, but still so boring.
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was ok
Basically an academic book. The introduction is ponderous. The Queen Victoria chapter is interesting. The Darwin's beard chapter is 50 pages too long. The other two are fairly interesting. Not exactly a compelling read however.
DNF - I persevered with this audio book until the 60% mark. I was disappointed to find the tales were long winded biographies of well known Victorians. Sadly not my cup of tea☕.
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
i wanted to read SCANDAL, not a full in depth analysis about charles darwin's beard!!
Sarah England
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is very interesting, and engagingly written. Indeed, anything endorsed by Lucy Worsley would get a thumbs up from me (!). My only niggle is that the section on George Eliot's hand "goes on a bit". Particularly as the last couple of paragraphs completely undermine much of the to-ing and fro-ing speculation of the previous pages. That pretty much solves it, why go through all that tedious rigmarole?!
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Thank you Goodreads for sending me this book. A great book, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. It is a book you can dip in and out of, if you so wish. There are several chapters on different historical figures, such as Charles Darwin and George Eliot. The book reveals a snapshot of each historical person and the facts we find out are not the usual ones. Facts are revealed, such as why Darwin grew his huge beard, was he in competition with his nephew and was it to cover his eczema? Why was Queen Vict ...more
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Kathryn Hughes is a British journalist and biographer. She holds a PhD in Victorian History. She is a contributing editor to Prospect magazine as well as a book reviewer and commentator for the Guardian and BBC Radio. Hughes also teaches biographical studies at University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K.

Librarian’s note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.