Kathryn Hughes specialises in oblique avenues of approach to Victorian England. In Victorians Undone she sets out to anatomise it – to know it, as her title bluntly proclaims, in the flesh, examining its body parts, organs and (pardon the word) holes. As Hughes ‘undoes’ it, Victoria’s kingdom is a place of ‘sneezes, bums, elbows, smells, snores, farts and breathy whistles’. Such is the slangy tone of the book, which finishes with the rousing phrase ‘Fuck all’.
Hughes’s first section (of five), ‘Lady Flora’s Belly’, chronicles the sad case of Lady Flora Hastings, a victim crushed in the power struggle between the newly enthroned queen and her ‘guardians’, Sir John Conroy and ‘Mama’, the Duchess of Kent (menopausal, Hughes reminds us). Forget ITV’s Victoria (no farts and wheezes in that glossy sweetmeat): Hughes’s queen has a boiled-egg face, oyster eyes and pouchy jowls. Her eating disorders led her to have alternatively a twenty-two-inch waist or the girth of Bessie Bunter. She passed her menarche at the age of twelve and a half and suffered terribly (as did the court around her) from her menses.