Jacqueline Banerjee at The Times Literary Supplement:
The more we live online in a disembodied present, the more fascinated we seem to be by the physical minutiae of the past. When not zipping through the ether, scholars are busy turning over the silt of centuries like latter-day mudlarks. Kathryn Hughes, for one, tells us in the introduction to Victorians Undone that she has been hard at work for a whole decade, if not in estuarial sediment, then, as she puts it, “in the richest parts of the archive, where material has gathered in the deepest drifts”. We can well believe it, since she has fished up a haul of extraordinarily intimate details about some of the most high profile Victorian figures.
Life-writing as a discipline owes much to family history, and Hughes’s main object is to lift our Victorian forebears off the page for us, particularly by reminding us that even the most highly placed or high-minded of them had solid presences – sometimes all too solid. Her dismissal of the prematurely aged Coleridge on her first page as a “dollop of slop” proves prophetic, not only of her sometimes startling style, but of her iconoclasm. A twenty-first- century Lytton Strachey, she ignores politically correct strictures against Lookism, and instead employs it with relish. Queen Victoria is her first target. We all know that the monarch soon lost her youthful bloom and acquired “pouchy jowls, oyster eyes, and a chin that became a neck without you quite noticing how”.