Top positive review
A unique and fascinating perspective of the always interesting Victorians
Reviewed in the United States on March 29, 2018
The author maintains that biographies, particularly those dealing with Victorian subjects, have been deficient because they pay little or no attention to the physical characteristics of their subjects. This book is her effort to demonstrate how biographies ought to be written with due attention to body parts,in five modules representing life in Victorian Britain. Each module runs between 60 to 80 pages or so, and I felt some just went on too long after the author had made her point. But nonetheless it is an interesting and unique collection.
One reason the book is interesting is that the author only uses the particular body part as a starting point to expand her focus onto other aspects of Victorian life. For example, in the first chapter the body part is the enlarged stomach of one of Victoria's ladies-in-waiting. Is she or is he not "with child"? But in addition, we also learn a great deal about how Victoria gained the crown, the use of scandal as a device to perhaps drive her from the throne, and how upper class women refused to expose their "person" to anyone but their husbands. In fact, given the privacy constraints imposed upon physicians, they could not fully examine the woman in question and never did determine if she were actually pregnant while she was alive.
The same technique is used in a fascinating chapter of Darwin's famous beard which some said made him resemble a monkey. In addition to Darwin, the discussion evolves into how in the mid-1850's, upper and middle class Victorian men began to grow full beards again and what factors led to a decrease in shaving especially among authors. Similarly, in the module on George Eliot's supposed enlarged right hand, we learn about not only Elliot but also the importance of milkmaids to the Victorians. In somewhat the reverse of the O.J. case, the author tracks down a pair of Elliot's gloves and finds them to be small and not enlarged.
The fourth chapter on the lips of famous artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti's mistress (well illustrated in several of the fine color prints in the volume) is the foundation for discussing Victorian prostitution. In the final chapter, the dismemberment of a young girl introduces the reader to other aspects of the Victorian period. The latter chapter actually turns out to be a murder mystery full of police, investigations, apprehension, trial, and execution--the Brits do love their murder mysteries. So an interesting and unique perspective on the fascinating Victorians, and the author well demonstrates the accuracy of her thesis--body characteristics should matter to biographers.