Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Lady Lilith, 1867

Virginia Woolf liked to celebrate modern biographers’ break with Victorian precedent by implying that the books themselves had gone on a diet. “In the first twenty years of the new century,” she wrote in 1927, “biographies must have lost half their weight.” Rather than bulk up their volumes with “countless documents,” she suggested, recent biographers had figured out how to capture a person’s essence in a telling detail: “The tone of a voice, the turn of a head, some little phrase or anecdote picked up in passing.”1 But even Woolf didn’t imagine that someone might attempt to make that voice or head not just a brief synecdoche for character but the focus of biography itself. This is the project of Kathryn Hughes’s Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, a collective biography of five more or less eminent Victorians that tells their stories by zeroing in on bits and pieces of them. Only in the last of Hughes’s case studies is one of her subjects literally dismembered, but fragments of the others—a belly, a beard, a hand, a mouth—dominate the book.

Hughes defends her approach by calling body parts “biography’s precision tool,” but the claim is misleading, especially if one thinks of biography as engaged with the idiosyncrasies of individuals. With the possible exception of the chapter on Fanny Cornforth’s mouth, which brings Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model and mistress to life by focusing on her voluble talk, her eager appetite, and her apparent capacity for oral sex, the body parts in these Tales of the Flesh have comparatively little to tell us about the distinctiveness of the persons to whom they belonged. Nor do they primarily testify to the erotic life of the Victorians, despite the come-on of Hughes’s title. What they do illuminate—sometimes quite brilliantly—is the wider cultural world in which their owners participated. For all their physical specificity, they are parts of the social body as much, or more, than pieces of individuals.

Take, for example, Charles Darwin’s beard. As preserved for posterity by the camera of Woolf’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868, it’s a bushy mass of white hair that reaches well down his chest and gives him the look of an Old Testament prophet. Known as a “natural” beard, to distinguish it from the trimmed variety, this particular version of nature was nonetheless very much in fashion at midcentury, and the reclusive Darwin was actually rather belated in adopting it. Though he’d grown and shaved off more than one set of whiskers during his youthful voyage on the HMS Beagle in the 1830s, he had been born into a world in which civilized men identified themselves as such by removing their facial hair, a practice in which he had persisted ever since returning to England in 1836. Indeed, so familiar was the clean-shaven Darwin that when the bearded one showed up at a meeting of the Royal Society three decades later a number of his fellow luminaries failed to recognize him. The man who did so much to persuade his contemporaries of their kinship to animals was ironically slow to abandon a ritual that helped mark their difference.

Once he did so, however, the cartoonists had a field day, especially since Cameron’s famous photograph had the inadvertent effect of making the hairy Darwin look distinctly simian. Images of his large domed head atop a monkey’s body proliferated both in Britain and abroad. But while such jokes may have registered the uneasiness of Darwin’s contemporaries about the function of nature in his theory of evolution, his own decision to look a bit more like a beast was itself a product of culture.

As Hughes makes clear, the fashion for the natural look had multiple causes, from the growing conservatism of Victorian Britain, which helped to deprive the beard of the radical associations it had carried in Darwin’s youth, when it was identified with Chartists, Frenchmen, and other threatening types, to the return of Crimean War heroes still sporting the facial hair they had grown in their freezing tents. Then there was the anxiety aroused in middle-class men by their increasing domestication under capitalism—an anxiety that had special pertinence for potentially feminized men of letters like Thomas Carlyle or Alfred Tennyson. “What better way of reminding the world that beneath this mild exterior beat the heart of a warrior than by growing a beard?” Hughes writes. The immediate trigger in Darwin’s case may have been a recent outbreak of the severe eczema from which he had long suffered, but it was changing fashion that facilitated the cover-up; and he was far from the only mid-Victorian who took advantage of the new style to conceal features with which he was unhappy. (Charles Dickens’s weak chin also took cover under a beard, as did Tennyson’s poor teeth.)


Fans of beard-growing devoted considerable ingenuity to rationalizing the habit: arguing, for instance, that facial hair was nature’s way of shading the face in warm weather and providing a scarf for the cold, or touting the beard’s supposed merits as a filter for pollution. (Just why nature hadn’t been equally solicitous of women and children required some particularly strenuous theorizing.) When fashion began to shift again in later decades, the medical theories followed suit: rather than provide “immunity from toothache” or protection from the mumps, beards were now discovered to harbor all kinds of distressing bacteria.

In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin had speculated briefly that “our male ape-like progenitors acquired their beards as an ornament to charm or excite the opposite sex,” but his book notoriously ends by waffling about the power of female choice among humans—according to Victorian convention, after all, men did the choosing—and when it came to beards, at least, the evidence suggests that he was right to hesitate. Though he claimed to have grown his own at the urging of his wife, Emma, most of the women whose voices Hughes has gathered seem to have found their men’s hairy appendages distinctly unappealing. In 1854 a group of young New Zealand women sent a poem to the local newspaper that began, “Take, oh! take those lips away,/Rough with hair all fringed with grease”; and continued by exhorting its addressee: “Shave then, shave that nasty beard.” Emily Tennyson, whose poet-husband apparently made little effort to keep the grease out of his, more than once expressed the wish that it would disappear, while a fellow diner of the opposite sex judged Anthony Trollope’s facial hair “disgusting.”

Julia Margaret Cameron remains alone among Hughes’s women in her “pogonophilia,” but she wasn’t living with her bearded subjects, only turning Darwin, Carlyle, Longfellow, and the rest into typical images of masculine greatness. Patriarchal beards, however, seem to have had no female equivalents in Cameron’s visual lexicon. “Women between the ages of eighteen and seventy should never be photographed,” she announced in declining Darwin’s request that she take a picture of the sixty-year-old Emma.

The body parts in Hughes’s account don’t always belong to the persons to whom they meant most. It was Rossetti rather than Fanny Cornforth who dwelled on her ripe lips, immortalizing them in a painting of 1859 he titled Bocca Baciata—“the kissed mouth”—from a line in The Decameron. The belly in Hughes’s first chapter was attached to a lady named Flora Hastings, but Hughes tells its story primarily to shed light on the politics, both sexual and otherwise, of Queen Victoria’s household. Appointed as a lady of the bedchamber to Victoria’s mother, the widowed Duchess of Kent, when the princess was some years short of ascending the throne, Lady Flora found herself caught up in a fierce power struggle between mother and daughter over the direction of the future monarchy. The origin of the conflict lay in the so-called Kensington System by which the duchess and her comptroller, Sir John Conroy, sought to isolate and control the young Victoria in the hope of establishing the duchess as regent and using that position to replenish the Kent coffers.

Victoria, who strenuously resisted these maneuvers, had long found an ally in her beloved German governess Louise Lehzen, and when the duchess tried to introduce Lady Flora as a potential replacement for Lehzen, Victoria understandably regarded the intrusive newcomer as a “spie.” Even after Victoria’s eighteenth birthday and the death of her uncle William IV had combined to render the regency question moot, the hostilities between mother and daughter continued, and so, too, did Victoria’s distrust of Lady Flora. When the abdomen of that unmarried and hitherto slender lady began to swell unmistakably, Victoria leapt to the conclusion that her mother’s favorite was “with child!!a scandal that promised to be all the more satisfying since circumstantial evidence pointed to Conroy as the father.

That evidence was misleading. Lady Flora did have an unfortunate habit of spending time alone with Conroy, who happened to be a friend of her family, but the calendar for the supposed pregnancy only made sense because Victoria had confused the dates of a trip in which the purported lovers traveled together with a later one on which Flora went unaccompanied. The swollen belly was real enough, but it proved to be a sign of the liver disease (probably cancer) that would soon dispatch its virginal owner. Though Flora finally submitted to a very public and humiliating medical exam to attest to her innocence, rumors of scandal persisted even after her death, caused in part by an ongoing pamphlet war between her outraged family and the other principals, including the royals’ hopelessly incompetent doctor Sir James Clark.


Wilson Centre for Photography

Alfred Tennyson, circa 1863; photograph by Oscar Rejlander from Phillip Prodger’s Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, the catalog of a recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It is published by the museum.

But Hughes is less interested in vindicating one woman’s honor than in speculating on the psychology of the other’s scandalmongering. As she likes to remind us, the lived experience of historical persons rarely corresponds to neat period distinctions, and there was nothing particularly “Victorian” about the young queen’s consciousness of sexuality. Edward VII, hardly lacking in that regard, would later destroy his mother’s letters about the affair because of the “precocious knowledge” they revealed, but Victoria remained a child of the Regency, despite her mother’s attempts to shield her. The fact that rumor had previously linked the mother herself in an affair with Conroy only heightened the daughter’s interest in the changing shape of Lady Flora.

Hughes makes much of Victoria’s own shifting body shape as well, which tended to balloon awkwardly whenever she was unhappy—the implication being that the unaccustomed swelling of the “tall, slender” Flora afforded an obvious target for the projection of feelings the young queen would otherwise struggle to contain in herself. Though she wouldn’t marry Albert until the year after Flora’s death, Victoria’s journals were already testifying to a dread of childbearing that she would never shake and that surely intensified the eagerness with which she lashed out at the imagined pregnancy of another.

Lady Flora’s reputation, at least in the narrow sexual sense, has generally been vindicated by posterity. Not so Fanny Cornforth’s: a fact that Hughes is inclined to blame as much on pre-Raphaelite mythmaking as on the social and economic circumstances that the daughter of a skilled laborer and his illiterate wife was forced to navigate. Driven to fend for herself at an early age, Fanny, née Sarah Cox, understandably seems to have preferred the attractions of London and life as a model and mistress to working as a maid in a Brighton lodging house (her first job) or settling down in her native village with a man like her father.

Hughes doesn’t question that Fanny’s career entailed trading sexual favors for financial support or that she often seems to have hedged her bets by giving herself to more than one man at a time: we are encouraged to read the title of Bocca Baciata, for example, as a shared joke between Rossetti and his patron George Boyce, who both were apparently sleeping with its model when the picture was painted. (The relevant lines from The Decameron, inscribed on the back of the canvas, refer to a sultan’s daughter who sleeps with eight men on “thousands of different occasions” before making a supposedly virginal marriage.) That Fanny first entered Rossetti’s studio by posing as a streetwalker for his unfinished painting Found (1854) didn’t help her reputation, nor did the legend, which she disputed, that they originally encountered each other when she solicited him in Surrey Gardens. (In Fanny’s version, Rossetti accosted her by loosening her hair, a gesture Hughes likens to a man today sticking his hand down a stranger’s blouse.)

“The reason that so many mid-Victorians…seem to be obsessed with the subject of women selling sex,” Hughes observes, “is precisely because it was so hard to catch anyone actually doing it.” It’s even harder, of course, more than a century after the fact. Rather than class Fanny as a prostitute, Hughes speaks of “women who paddled in the shallow end of commercial sex,” though whether this is much of an upgrade is not immediately obvious.

Her real targets, in any case, are Rossetti’s biographers, whom she accuses of writing Fanny out of the record because she failed to conform to the romantic narratives they were constructing. All three of the artist’s principal lovers had working-class origins, but unlike Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris, who remained silent and elegantly slim, if not anorexic, the appetitive Fanny “gushed like a geyser”: as unembarrassed about the words that came out of her mouth as about the food and drink that went into it.

Despite her eye for the main chance where other men were concerned, she also proved strikingly loyal to Rossetti, and he, in his way, to her; but her continued presence in his life didn’t fit the tragic story of youthful love that the artist’s first champions fashioned around Lizzie Siddal or that a subsequent generation saw in his adulterous yearning for the wife of his fellow artist and business partner, William Morris. Indeed, Rossetti himself apparently came to regard his bulky mistress as something of a comic figure: he took to punning on her name by calling her his “Elephant” (EleFANt) and elaborated on the joke in a series of epistolary cartoons that showed the elephant stuffing all sorts of potentially valuable items from his studio into her “hole.” Most women would probably have taken offense at being addressed as a pachyderm, but the elephant letters went into the hole with the rest of Fanny’s loot.

It took an American interloper named Samuel Bancroft Jr.—a self-made businessman with a passion for pre-Raphaelite art—to track down both the letters and their owner in the 1890s. Bancroft eventually lost her again, but in 2015 some digitized records of “Lunacy” turned up on, and there, under her former married name, was Rossetti’s Fanny: still “talk[ing] incessantly” and loving her food, though now living out her days as the demented inhabitant of a workhouse, the once luscious mouth having given way to shaky dentures, a furred tongue, and foul breath.

Hughes enjoys the surprise of such discoveries, and she springs another in her chapter on George Eliot, which also closes with evidence that only came to light in 2015. Somewhat in the spirit of Richard Ellmann’s Golden Codgers (1973), Hughes approaches the novelist meta-biographically; but while Ellmann teased his readers with the quest for the original of Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch,2 she traces the history of a report about the novelist’s body—specifically, about her right hand, which according to almost every biographer since 1883 had grown larger than her left from working as a girl in her father’s dairy.

The report apparently originated with the novelist herself and was passed on by a friend to her first biographer, Mathilde Blind. Though Hughes devotes some amused attention to the routine way in which subsequent biographies echoed the story—among which she might have mentioned her own passing use of it in George Eliot: The Last Victorian
3—she reserves most of her irony for those bent on portraying a more genteel George Eliot than this erstwhile dairymaid (born Mary Anne Evans) with the work-coarsened hand. Her principal targets are the novelist’s upwardly mobile brother Isaac and his descendants—one of whom stoutly insisted that “she never touched a cheese, and never made a pound of butter in her life”—as well as Eliot’s widower, John Cross, whose account of his late wife seemed to go out of its way to remark on her “finely-formed, thin, transparent hands.”

The contemporary association of dairying with sexual license may have helped to encourage such denials, especially for Isaac, who had cut off all relations with his sister during the years she lived out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes. To think that the author of Adam Bede (1859) had anything in common with its fallen dairymaid, Hetty Sorrel, was apparently too much for these determined protectors of the novelist’s image. There are good grounds for believing, however, that the detailed knowledge of dairying in this and other early fictions derives from firsthand experience. As Hughes shrewdly observes, Eliot’s notebook for the novel testifies to research on matters ranging from the behavior of animals before a storm to the dates of the corn harvest, but it has no entries for cheese- and butter-making.

Hughes also devotes some time to the novelist’s notorious homeliness and the painful self-consciousness it induced—a subtheme whose purpose only becomes clear when the chapter concludes by pulling its evidentiary rabbit out of the hat: the recent discovery of a right-hand glove belonging to the novelist whose small size and excellent provenance cast significant doubt on the claim that the member it covered was in any way enlarged by manual labor. George Eliot may still have worked in the dairy—indeed, she probably did—but the body part that supposedly testified to the experience more nearly resembles a phantom limb.

There’s nothing imaginary about the body parts in Hughes’s final chapter, which prove all too obdurately material. The butchered remains of a bricklayer’s daughter named Fanny Adams, they only entered history because of the trial and execution of her murderer and probable rapist, a diminutive law clerk named Frederick Baker. (Baker was never charged with rape, but the fact that the eight-year-old Fanny’s vagina and breastbone couldn’t be found among the brutally scattered bits and pieces supports Hughes’s conviction that this was a crime of sexual violence.) Though Baker maintained his innocence throughout the trial, the circumstantial evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. A laconic entry in his journal—the year was 1867—read in full: “August 24th. Killed a girl. It was fine and hot.”

Unlike the other narratives in Victorians Undone, the story of this murder doesn’t really open out onto the larger culture, though Hughes does her best to register the class difference between victim and killer—the top-hatted clerk appears as “the young gentleman” in witnesses’ testimony—and to speculate on what might have happened had Fanny survived her rape, in which case, Hughes bitterly reflects, the girl’s “polluted body” would have remained forever under suspicion. She also tries to connect Baker to other Victorians obsessed with young girls, even as she argues, somewhat unconvincingly, that “paedophilia did not exist in 1867.” The location of the murder in what had once been Jane Austen territory—Alton, where Fanny was killed, is just two miles from Chawton—adds a historical frisson, especially since the presiding magistrate at Baker’s arraignment was the novelist’s nephew, Edward Knight.

But the real point of Fanny Adams’s story is its pointlessness. Two years after the murder, the British navy added tinned mutton to its rations, but because of improper canning the meat often spoiled. Alton is not far from Portsmouth, and sailors who recalled the local crime took to joking that the repellent contents were the chopped-up remains of the victim. “So ‘Fanny Adams’ became navy slang for disgusting mutton or stew, and then, by extension, for anything worthless.” To this day, Hughes reports, “‘Sweet FA’ means ‘nothing at all’—or, if you are in a particularly bad mood, ‘Fuck All.’” Some bodies, in other words, signify nothing.