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,…
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