Friday, 10 February 2017

Review: Victorians Undone

This will be a review of two halves.  I have very much been looking forward to reading Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes, mainly because it promised to have a chapter on Fanny Cornforth (and I get a mention, thank you muchly), but I am left feeling conflicted.  I will try and tackle this by giving you what I liked and what I didn't like.  Let's start with the positives...

This is an eminently readable book.  Hughes has a marvellous turn of phrase and tells a marvellous story.  The book is made up of five 'case studies' (some of which contain more than one personality) which cover what is often missed out of biography.  She is funny, interesting, filled with facts and obviously has read a great deal around her subjects.  In the introduction she says that the book is the result of many years in archives gathering the bits of history that people don't like to mention. Whether it is George Eliot's wondering if size matters, or the age old problem of men and their beards, there are certainly some things in this book that you will probably never have heard before...

Queen Victoria laughing
(she wouldn't laugh if she knew what we know...)
The strength of this book is that, more than any book I have read for a very long time, it has made me think until my head hurt.  Everyone I have come into contact with this week has had to put up with me getting their opinion on what exactly makes biography.  That is what this book fundamentally questions - what should a biography contain?  Having written one (with another on the way), this is a fascinating conundrum. Should biography contain all information about a person?  And what information is relevant? Do you need to know how a person spoke?  Or smelt?  It is Hughes' premises that no true biography of a person is complete without you knowing exactly what it would be like to be in the same room with them, and for some of them you best hope that room comes with a window. And air freshener.

Dickens' beard (and Charles Dickens)
There is definitely something to be said for giving a more rounded, 'unofficial' account of a person's life if it reveals things about them.  With the great and the good there is always the danger that you might only be told what is, well, great and good.  When the biographies are written by friends, by the people who know them best, then there will always be an onus to show the subject in the best light, and concentrate on why that person is worthy of biography.  You might not feel it's necessary to include stories of how, for example, Darwin couldn't stop farting. Now, is that relevant?  To his work, perhaps not, but to the man and his life?  That's a different matter.

Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron
(who had probably opened the window, or blamed it on the dog)
However, that leads me to possibly the main challenge I felt with the book.  What does it offer to us to know about Darwin's little (or big) problem?  Lytton Strachey is credited as being a proponent of this 'warts and all' style of biography with his work on Victorians, but his reason was arguably not so much to enlighten but to mock and diminish.  There is a danger of belittling, unintentionally perhaps, the subject and of undermining their achievements.  It's a difficult balance to strike and for many reasons it was easy for me as all the bad stuff was already known about Fanny (there is nothing you haven't heard already in the chapter on Fanny and Rossetti) and so I think reducing her down to 'a mouth' is really just continuing the job done by all of Rossetti's biographers who saw her as little other.

Tennyson's secret.  You don't want to know.  Or maybe you do.
In my opinion (and my issues with this book are just my opinions rather than a fault with the book) I would rather see the stuff about Fanny that is not known, so in that way I agree with Kathryn Hughes, that true biography sees a person as a rounded human being.  For Fanny (and actually for most of the subjects I am attracted to), it meant digging for the good, the clever, the things that made her memorable for the best reasons.  There had to be goodness (for want of a better word) that kept her in Rossetti's life and so the revelations in Stunner were that Fanny was clever, funny and deeply caring. I showed you the good in a person who others would dismiss as worthless (often for valid reasons).  That, I agree, is proper biography.  However, I'm not sure how I feel about it going the other way.  Take Tennyson, for example.  I now know stuff about Tennyson I wish I didn't and actually don't want to repeat.  It doesn't add anything to how I read his poetry, but it will always be in my mind when I think about the man, and it is not at all pleasant.  It's truthful and accurate, but does it add anything useful (again for want of a better word)? What I now know doesn't affect how I view him as a good man, a clever man, a man who loved and was loved, who deserves my admiration as a poet and a human being. However (I seem to use that word a lot in this review), it does add a dimension on how I view his relationship with his wife and his close friends.  But does that matter? Rats, I don't know.

Fanny's mouth.  Or not.
 I've always thought Rossetti put his lips on all his women (in all senses of the words)
See, this is my problem and possibly the genius of the book.  It makes me question what biography should be and as a biographer, this is difficult stuff.  It is absolutely the role of a biographer to tell the reader something they don't know, but how far down that road should you go?  What Kathryn Hughes reveals in her book by way of demonstration of the nooks, crannies and crevices of Victorians is not for the faint-hearted (or anyone eating), but I don't know how I feel about it.  She writes persuasive and engaging stories of smells, fears and invasive medical examinations, but I just don't know if I feel this level of biography is justified and what sure and certain conclusions can be drawn from it.  But then, that's just me, and you might not have a problem knowing about Darwin's wind (poor Darwin) and feel it adds to your understanding of the man on the £10 note.

To sum up, this is a book that has made me consider my role in biography at far too great a length. It's a well-written book, with some great illustrations, but I would love to have had a bibliography at the back.  Hughes states that everything in the book has been the result of many years in archives, so maybe she only read primary evidence, which is very noble of her...

The not so sweet case of Sweet F(anny) A(dams)...
This is definitely a book that you won't have read before because it is many biographies in one.  As you can tell by this rather rambling review, despite my reticence about the contents, the premise has kept me occupied all week.  I'll be over on my Facebook page if you want to discuss this with me and I'll be happy to talk it over with you.

Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes is available now from all good bookshops and also on Audible, although I'm not sure it's better having someone saying some of this stuff out loud...


  1. My experience of biographies is the opposite - apart from autobiographies and official approved biographies usually written while the subject is still alive, most writers tend to be looking for sensationalist titbits, something that will mean a serialisation deal with The Daily Mail or even The Sunday Times. To this end most biographers are not embellishing and "filling in" details, presenting speculation as fact. (You yourself are a wonderful exception to this, I hasten to add). Regarding your hints about Tennyson, I have to insist that you tell us what you know! You can't hint darkly like that and then just leave us wondering! He was a bit egocentric and full of himself, and a bit of nationalist but I can't imagine anything worse than that?

    1. I suppose I haven't read many modern biographies, but the ones I've read where the subject is still alive are 19th century, so I have no doubt you are right in how things are done now. There is also that interesting difference between official and unofficial biographies.

      As for poor old Tennyson, it is a matter of his teeth, his beard and his personal hygiene. Ugh....

  2. Sorry I missed out a word in my comment. I meant to say "to this end most biographers are not *above* embellishing and filling in details... Regarding Tennyson, I can't comment on his beard or teeth, but I'm pretty sure that the stuff about his personal hygiene is based entirely on the fact that he commented that JMC had dressed him up to look like a 'dirty monk'. I read somewhere (sorry I can't remember where) that Alf had a bath every day (he had the latest plumbing etc installed in his new Sussex house especially)!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx