Image: Johns Hopkins University Press

There’s still a lingering perception that Victorians were stuffy to the point of being wholly out of touch with their own bodies—as though they were like porcelain dolls from the era, just cloth stuffed with horsehair south of the neck. The recently released history book Victorians Undone makes a fascinating corrective.

Author Kathryn Hughes has written in depth about 19th century Britain, writing about governesses and George Eliot and—a personal favorite—the birth of the women’s magazine and the life of Isabella Beeton, who’d become one of the most influential cookbook writers of all time, despite the fact she really didn’t have much experience cooking. Victorians Undone is really a series of essays, picking specific bits of a specific person and then broadening out to tell a story about the broader culture in which they existed. She delves into young Queen Victoria and her involvement with the scandal around the alleged pregnancy of one of her ladies-in-waiting; the highly eroticized mouth of Pre-Raphaelite muse Fanny Cornforth; the hands of George Eliot, one of which was supposedly—and controversially, as far as her descendants were concerned!—larger than the other, thanks to her years milking cows as a young woman.

The book is a lovely and fascinating chance to crowd the personal space of people who’ve been dead more than a century. It reads almost like a page-turner—I probably tore through it in less than a week. I interviewed Hughes; we talked extensively about Eliot and dairy maids and the letters of Victorians, which are apparently quite detailed about bodily functions—because you just never knew where that slight cough was going to lead. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


JEZEBEL: Why Victorians’ bodies? Why focus in on that specific topic for the book?

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Kathryn Hughes: Well, I am a historian who studies the 19th century, so that’s my beat. That’s my specialism. But I guess what I’ve always found really, really interesting about the Victorians is that they are far enough away from us to be really, really strange, but near enough to be recognizably quite similar. They look like us, they may have been a couple of inches shorter but their heads, their legs, their livers are all arranged in exactly the same way. Evolution hasn’t moved on that quickly. And yet, the kind of social rules around how you carry yourself—what you do with those legs and heads and mouths—has changed quite radically. So, what always really interests me about the 19th century—it’s the sameness and difference.

And also, in this country, and I suspect elsewhere, we do have this slightly ludicrous idea, we all learn in school the idea that the Victorians were completely ashamed of their bodies. That they really didn’t exist between their chin and their toes. Nothing was happening. It was a lovely mystery. There was just a lot of very complicated clothing and not much else. And yet, if you think about it for one minute, it can’t have been like that. They had to do the same things with their bodies that we do. And, actually, they had to do them in slightly more difficult circumstances, without running water and without antibiotics and without all sorts of deodorizing agents.

I guess what I’m always interested in is a kind of time travel, really. I want to know what it would be like if I went back two hundred years and found myself on a Victorian street. What would people look like? What would they smell like? How close could I stand to someone? Are there different rules about whether I can go up and talk to a man or not?

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I think that’s what’s so interesting about reading social histories—there’s so much that’s embedded in the way we move through the world that I don’t even know how you would reconstruct it, because we don’t think to write it down, because we don’t think about it. Right?

That’s the big, big problem with this book—that stuff, that information just isn’t really available. People don’t write down how they move through the world physically. They really only write it down when something goes wrong. I think that’s really the point. I had to hone in very closely on five Victorians and five places where something happened. Something went wrong with the body. I don’t mean illness—I wasn’t really interested in talking about illness—but five occasions in which something happened that made them and everybody around them start thinking about their bodies in a slightly different way and writing about it and talking about it and gossiping about it. That’s really the point in choosing five people and honing in on a body part. It’s not that there’s anything particularly weird about those body parts. It’s a way of getting information that you just can’t get. It’s just not there to be got in any other way.

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There’s this popular image of the Victorians still, about them being really stuffy-looking statues in a park somewhere. But I love when people draw on letters, because they’re just as gossipy and in everybody’s business as anybody else.

The thing you pick up from reading ordinary Victorians’ letters is, interestingly, how, in one way their bodies are in their letters much more than ours. Because they are dealing with constant colds, toothaches, sore thumbs—things that we would think are so minor that if we were writing an email, we just wouldn’t bother because we know it will be better by tomorrow, or if it doesn’t get better, we’ll go to the doctor and get some antibiotics and it will be better in two days’ time. The Victorians don’t know that. Something like just having a sore throat is really quite worrying, because for all you know, it’s the beginning of the end of your life! Each time you get a sore throat, you really don’t know how it’s going to end.

No letter starts without giving a quick rundown of the state of everyone’s bodies in the family. And there’s no embarrassment about talking about bowels, digestion, all the things that we might think the Victorians never talk about. I mean, they love going into great descriptions about diarrhea and constipation. Two second cousins will be giving a report and you’ll just think, how peculiar. Then you realize, well, no, actually these symptoms could be the beginning of the end! You really don’t know. You’re living on a knife edge, really, with your body.

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That image of the bloodless, disembodied, nothing-between-the-head-and-the-feet Victorian—where does that come from? It comes from the 1920s, right?

It’s two things, really. Certainly in the [U.K.] and I think in America as well, by the time you get to the 1920s, young people are just embarked on a huge rejection of anything Victorian, anything that reminds them of their parents or their grandparents. It’s a world that they might just remember as children that seems stuffy and dull and ridiculous. And we had a big war from 1914 to ’18, where suddenly we should have marked the beginning of a new century, a new world, and all those ridiculous taboos seem more than just silly—they actually seem like the sort of philosophical nonsense that led to people leading very, very unhappy lives, at the point where we even have a world war.

I think the other reason is that what historians tended to do in the past was read all the advice books, the printed manuals about how to shake hands or how to comb your hair or how to conduct your body through the world. What people missed was, really, that those books are not actually a description of what people actually did. They’re a description of people’s anxieties about the fact that they’re not doing it right. You see what I mean? So you have a manual about how often you should wash your hair or shake hands or whether you should get up when a lady comes into the room. That doesn’t mean that’s actually what people were doing. It just means that’s what people were really, really anxious about—so anxious that they would go out and buy a book to tell them how to do it. I think in the past, historians have been a bit tone deaf to that. It would be a bit like reading very glossy cookery books now and assuming that everybody actually ate like that every night in the 21st century. We know that we buy cookery books, we read them, and then we go out and just get something from the corner store.

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Yeah, I was going to say, it’s like if you only read Goop, you’d have a very different idea of 21st century America!

Exactly that! If a historian in 300 years reads Goop and they solemnly write down that this is how 40-year-old women in the 21st century lived their lives, it would just be laughable! But I think that’s what happened.

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You set out to put bodies back into history. Where do you go to look for that knowledge? Obviously, you rely a lot on letters.

It’s really difficult. I have to say. It’s really, really difficult. It’s why the book took me so long.

What I had to do—there’s two ways to do it. I could have written a history of the body in the 19th century. And that would have meant scouring so many letters, so many sources, and then writing down every time you came across something. I actually wanted to tell a more consistent and coherent story about what a body to meant to one particular person. I wanted to follow that journey on through one person. As opposed to just doing everybody’s hands, I wanted to do George Eliot’s hands, for instance. And the nice thing about if you pick well-known people is there’s far more source material that’s been left. All the George Eliot material is in Beineke, in Yale, some in Britain. Everything’s there. And so you can sit down, and you know that you can go through it. You can follow through the stories. So in the case of Eliot’s right hand, I could follow through what people had said about the hand, I could collate what family members and descendants had said about it.

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It was a way of doing something a bit more coherent, because otherwise you’re just left with, “This is what three Victorians said about their hands,” and it’s very difficult to get an overall story going. Our bodies are so important to our sense of who we are and ourselves, and I wanted to see whether I could find a way of telling that story for five Victorians, if you see what i mean. That absolute sense of what it means when you look down at your right hand and decide that it’s a little bit bigger than your left. Something that’s so small and unimportant, really, and yet kicks off this huge drama of social class amongst George Eliot’s descendants who couldn’t bear people knowing that her right hand was bigger than her left.

That was the essay that maybe surprised me the most—I remember looking through the table of contents and being like, what’s she going to say? What’s the thing that George Eliot’s hand unlocks? I had no idea that dairies were considered to be a hotbed of vice!

Not until I really, really, really followed her hand, as it were, through the dairy, then did I turn up all this material about the dairy being this highly erotic place that’s where all sorts of bodily fluids are mixing. That’s really what butter and cheese is—you’re processing animal bodies, in that case. It’s the same kind of thing. And that dairy maids tend to work reasonably autonomously, so they’re not under the watchful eye, necessarily, of their mistress, and therefore all kinds of sexual, erotic goings-on can happen. I just found that very, very interesting. I’m not sure I would have come upon that if I hadn’t really honed in on George Eliot’s hand and then found a way through the story, as it were.

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I think that’s one of the things that fascinates me the most to thing about people in previous eras. It sounds prurient to say it, but it’s interesting to me in the way that intimacy is interesting. It’s so hard to imagine what somebody in the 19th century or the 18th century or the 17th century would have found erotic because their whole context is so different. And to take it seriously—everyone jokes about, oh, uh oh, what if we see somebody’s ankles. But it really is interesting to me—what’s the world around you that a woman’s ankles are really compelling to you?

Yes. That’s such a good point. Of course, in the mid-20th century it was the subject of tittering. Britons are always told that Americans on the East Coast covered up their piano legs with frills, because piano legs were supposed to be so rude and suggestive. And nobody really knows if that’s true or not. But it’s such a great story that it stuck. And what you really want to know is: even if that didn’t actually happen, the fact that that story could carry on and keep on being passed around tells us so much about what we like to think about the erotic imagination of previous generations. Because we always tend to assume that we’re living in a freer and easier age. So, I found that very, very interesting. I think it’s so hard to capture these very fleeting experiences from previous centuries, and the big danger is to think that the Victorians were really sort of like us, but they were just living under a stricter set of rules. And therefore they would have loved to be more free but actually they couldn’t be, because they were living in—it’s just a completely different way of experiencing the body, so that suddenly an ankle does become absolutely extraordinary!

It’s so hard for us to recapture that, but it’s really, really important to keep on trying.

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I also had this epiphany when I had a child—I was at the Met or something and I was seeing all these pictures of women with bare breasts and I was like, well obviously that would have been less interesting to them because breastfeeding was so common.

Yes. I mean, I think that’s really interesting. And again, to go back to the dairy thing, with George Eliot, I was very interested, because when I started also investigating working-class women—Eliot lived in a sort of rural working class community although her father, they were middle class farmers. But she would have seen local women breastfeeding their babies because it’s cheap, it’s nutritious. Obviously working-class women carry on feeding for as long as they possibly can, you know, because of course, why wouldn’t you? It’s the cheapest and most convenient thing. Then you have to start thinking, okay, so actually, Victorian people—middle-class children—would have seen breastfeeding everywhere, all the time. And that’s not something we tend to think about. And for dairy maids, they must have made that connection between—oh, this is what happens in the dairy. They are capable of making all sorts of quite sophisticated connections that possibly a young child now wouldn’t have access to.

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There’s still a huge fuss in this country about women breastfeeding, you know—you can be asked to leave a restaurant. You can be described as sort of outraging public decency by feeding your own baby in a coffee bar. That just wouldn’t have happened then. That’s an example of where, actually, there would have been a lot more visual information available to people than we perhaps realize. In other words, they may be stuffy in some ways, but in other ways, knowledge about bodies just would have been really really acute and lived every day.

I guess that also explains why her descendants were so bent out of shape about it—it’s all there for people to put the pieces together.

I think that’s right. Obviously, by the time we’re getting into the 1890s and into the 20th century—and actually, the descendants’ squeamishness goes right through into the 1940s. I don’t know if I put that into the book, but even into the 1940s, Eliot’s descendants, these are the great great nieces and nephews, are still trying to suppress the information about the hand. Nobody else cares! But they are completely obsessed with it, realizing in the past that, yes, people can read between the lines and people can see what’s going on. It’s unfortunate that she’s written this book Adam Bede, which involves a dairy maid who gets pregnant. They’re very aware of the tang of immorality that’s lingering around this right hand, that it seems like nothing very important or interesting but, actually, it tells you a lot about Eliot’s class, the fact that she was actually born on a working farm. She’s not securely middle class until much, much later on.

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It’s not a very nice thing for a girl to be working in a dairy, worrying about milk cycles and the cows getting pregnant. It’s this very, very specific biological information that, by the 1890s and 1900s, her descendants just don’t feel they want to see themselves as part of. They don’t want to see themselves as part of that kind of heritage. They are all clergy and very upper-middle class professional, respectable people.

Maybe the thing I found most interesting was the stuff about Queen Victoria, because the most popular image of her is as this rotund old woman who wears a lot of fussy black clothing and doesn’t let anybody in England have sex or wear colors because her husband died. That’s obviously a very simplified stereotype, but I think it’s one that still has a certain amount of currency. So it was really interesting to see her as this very young woman who’s very preoccupied about bodies—her own, other people’s—and people are preoccupied with her body, too. It was interesting to see monarchy as being this very embodied practice, you know what I mean?

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I’m so glad you said that because that is completely what I was trying to do. The fact that Victoria comes to the throne is entirely due to the failure of other women’s reproductive capacities. Her aunt Adelaide, for instance. If her aunt Adelaide had had a baby, then Victoria would never have come to the throne. All this pomp and circumstance is predicated on women’s reproductive cycles, really. So I wanted to try and imagine what it was like to be young, she’s now monarch, she’s queen, she’s not yet married. I’m so glad that came across, that sense of being absolutely preoccupied—everybody’s looking at her body, she’s looking at everybody else’s body, especially women’s bodies in particular, to read the political climate. A woman’s body is very political in that sense. A pregnancy in the right place can change the course of history; a pregnancy in the wrong place causes—as it does in this—an absolute constitutional crisis. I just wanted to get that sense of women’s bodies being at the center of this apparently very disembodied ceremonial practice in monarchy.

There’s that dynamic where we flatter ourselves—that we know more than people in the past did. We talk about Will and Kate and their babies in a particular way. But everybody has always talked about the monarchy in this way—except it was more life or death in Victoria’s era and previously to that.

Well, in our newspapers today, in our mid-market newspapers, you’ve got lots and lots of features on whether Kate should have been looking quite so smart so quickly after having the baby, because all sorts of other celebrity mums are saying it’s unfair pressure on women. And then there’s another piece today which says, might they have four children? And then in the Guardian, which is the paper that I write for, which used to be called a broadsheet, liberal, they’re writing columns on Kate and Will are unusual because they can afford to have three children, the point being that no middle class family now in Britain or certainly in the southeast could afford—having three children now is a kind of status symbol of being extremely wealthy.

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And all that’s within 48 hours! It’s almost like we were virtually there in the delivery room, watching while the poor woman gave birth. And now we’re picking over her body, we know everything about her body, we’re speculating about how many more babies there might be—I mean it’s extraordinary! And we’re really no different from Victoria. I just wanted to get that sense of continuity, that sense of women’s bodies being so central to monarchy, which is obviously all about inheritance.

How or what’s actually going on with people’s bodies and speculating on them is so important in that era, and it’s interesting to think we aren’t necessarily any different—it’s just that we go to somebody’s Instagram and we scroll through and we wonder, is that true or is it not true?

We tend to have that sense of—oh, if we had photographic documents, or if we actually have objects, that will somehow give us the final answer. And of course it never does. So you are absolutely right—with Instagram, it’s a question of, did they pose it? What filter did they use? In writing the book, I came across George Eliot’s glove at the end of the chapter. I find a glove of hers. And the fantasy is of course that that glove will solve the mystery of how big her hand is. And of course it doesn’t! Because, actually, material things can simply start a whole load of more questions about well, if this is the right glove, where’s the left glove? People have suggested to me, perhaps she threw away that glove because it was actually too small for her. The idea that if you have the object, you will solve the mystery, the secrets will all be laid bare—it’s just not true. There’s always new secrets and new stories.

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