Serpent's Egg

The Eroticism of Fat Men

Embarrassing bodies: what did the Victorians have to hide?

Why did Charles Darwin grow a beard? What was wrong with George Eliot’s hand? Kathryn Hughes examines the physical secrets kept by our 19th-century forebears

Bocca Baciata depicting Fanny Carnforth’s ‘kissed mouth’ marks a radical departure in Rossetti’s art from a decade earlier.
Bocca Baciata depicting Fanny Carnforth’s ‘kissed mouth’ marks a radical departure in Rossetti’s art from a decade earlier. Photograph: Alamy

It turns out that the story about Victorians wrapping little trousers around their indecent piano legs is apocryphal or, at the very least, a weak joke. Yet the idea endures that our great-grandparents muffled their bodies in heavy fabric and silence. It’s an idea we picked up from the early 20th century and then, because it was flattering to imagine ourselves as so different from our poor buttoned-up, self-loathing ancestors, we refused to let it go.

Yet you only have to take a quick imaginative tour of the physical conditions in which the Victorians lived to realise that a state of chilly physical self-sufficiency would have been beyond them. From the end of the 18th century, British citizens piled into the expanding cities from the countryside. Strangers who had never previously set eyes on one another found themselves in an involuntary embrace at the factory bench, the railway station, the lodging house, the park or on the top deck of an omnibus. Other people’s sneezes, bums, elbows, smells, snores, farts and breathy whistles were, quite literally, in your face. Privacy, in the form of screens, locks, water closets, first-class carriages and single beds, was available only to a privileged few. For everyone else it was a question of raising thresholds of embarrassment and shame to protect against sensory overload.

To the brute proximity of other people’s bodies you would have to add the tyranny of living in your own. In an age without antibiotics or much effective doctoring, discomforts that we moderns can magic away in less than a week – constipation, an aching tooth or swollen toe – became chronic conditions to be endured over decades. In the process a body might become permanently marked with the tokens of its earthly passage – an osteoporotic hump, a dense splatter of smallpox scars, a missing finger – that it carried with it to the grave.

So if the Victorians have a reputation for denying or concealing their bodies, it is only because they were obliged to live with them so intensely. And that reticence slipped naturally into the way that they wrote, or rather didn’t, about their physical selves. Most biographers in the 19th century behaved as if their subjects had taken leave of the body, or had never possessed such a thing in the first place. If flesh and blood registered in Victorian life-writing at all, it was in the broadest, airiest generalities – a manly stride here, the sweetest smile there. Mostly, though, there was a hole in the biographical text where arms, legs, breasts and bellies should have been.

It’s an absence that has carried over into our own modes of writing about the mid-distance past. That’s why even the most attentive reader may finish a biography of a Victorian subject feeling that they’d be hard-pressed to pick them out in an identity parade. (Biographies typically contain visual likenesses, to be sure, but those quarter page black-and-white images don’t show the body in motion, and can’t give you much idea of its habitual off-duty slouch, let alone its sound or smell.) So while a life of Charlotte Brontë might supply chapter and verse on the novelist’s rich interior life, it won’t prepare you for the fact that when she opens her mouth an Irish accent comes out (you were expecting genteel Yorkshire). Likewise, having devoured a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you may feel that you have experienced all the exhilaration of her elopement to Italy, not to mention the intricacies of the lyric form. Yet what a shock on encountering her in person to realise that she is partly African, with a dark complexion and full mouth. What you’re seeing is the physical trace of her West Indian heritage, a heritage that included a moment two generations previously when a plantation owner glanced at one of his female slaves and felt a tickle of entitlement.

The next stop is the Lake District, where you find yourself discreetly circling William Wordsworth, trying to work out why the shape of his body looks so different from the front than from the back. Is it some trick of the light? Finally, you bump into William Gladstone, the esteemed Liberal prime minister, and are taken aback to notice that his left forefinger is missing. He lost it in a shooting accident as a young man, but good manners mean his contemporaries never mentioned it, portraitists ignored it, and even the caricaturists tactfully covered it up. You, however, can’t stop staring at that flaccid black finger-stall where the missing digit used to be.

“You”, of course, means “me”. For I am the reader who feels chronically shortchanged by the lack of physical detail in biography. What, I long to know, were people in the 19th century actually “like” – a word that has a long and distinguished heritage in the English language, one that tells of deep presence and profound affinity. Tell me about these people’s books and their battles, their big love affairs and their little meannesses by all means – but how did it feel to catch sight of them across a crowded room, or to find yourself sitting next to them at dinner? Did they lean in close and whisper, or stand at a distance and shout? Did they smell (probably, most people did) – but of what exactly? Were they natty or slobbish, a lip-licker or a nose-picker?

In order to answer these questions I set out to track the bodies of a clutch of famous Victorians, in the hope that following a thickened index finger or deep baritone voice into the realms of social history, medical discourse and aesthetic practice would get me closer than before to the physical experiences of 150 years ago. Along the way I hoped to introduce a certain lumpiness to canonical life narratives that have previously been rendered as smooth, symmetrical and as strangely unconvincing as a death mask. For it is, surely, in lop-sidedness and open-endedness, in bulges, dips, hollows, oozes and itches that we come closest to a sense of what it feels like to live in the solitude of a single body, both then and now.

Charles Darwin’s beard

In April 1866 Charles Darwin, author of the epoch-making On the Origin of Species, made a rare appearance at a Royal Society soirée in Burlington House, Piccadilly. It quickly became apparent that few among the distinguished company recognised the tall, stooped man in the brushed-down evening dress. The scientific superstar was left having to sidle up to old friends and introduce himself, an ordeal for such a shy man, and a mortification for those who realised too late that they had spent the evening snubbing the most distinguished person in the room.

The last time anyone had seen Darwin in public had been four years earlier when he had been clean-shaven, give or take some gingery muttonchop whiskers. Now here he was quite transformed, sporting a forest of grey facial hair that made him appear at least a decade older than his 57 years. It also made him look like someone else entirely. “The beard alters him so,” explained his wife, Emma, writing to her aunt Fanny Allen the next day, tickled at the unintended consequences of the accidental disguise.

Natural selection … Charles Darwin’s wife, Emma, suggested he grow a beard.
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Natural selection … Charles Darwin’s wife, Emma, suggested he grow a beard. Photograph: Julia Margaret Cameron/Royal Photographic Society

It had been Emma who first suggested Charles grow a beard, as a way of dealing with his severe eczema. Since adolescence he had been subject to breakouts of a skin complaint that swelled his lips and turned his pleasantly pudgy features red, so that he periodically appeared like an angry cherub. Ceasing to shave would eliminate the irritation that came with the daily scraping of skin with steel, and allow Darwin to conceal the scaly redness that had been the source of much embarrassment since his teens. Indeed, disappearing behind a thick curtain of facial hair was a relief for a man who had long been convinced that he was, to use his own sad self-accusation, “hideous”.

Darwin was not alone in using the new fashion for facial hair to bind up private psychic wounds. For the past 15 years, men of every class had been growing out their early-Victorian mutton chops and “piccadilly weepers” into spectacularly bushy beards. Alfred Tennyson had started his poetic career as a clean-shaven young man with a jaw that could only be described as “lantern”. But by the age of 45 his facial architecture had begun to collapse, thanks to a “queer” set of false teeth. Growing an extravagant moustache and beard not only allowed the poet laureate to hide his caved-in mouth, but also enabled him to fashion himself as a timeless sage, one who channelled the wisdom of the ages.

Dickens, meanwhile, was so self-conscious about his weak chin, especially now that he was besieged by requests to sit for photographic portraits, that he grew his trademark door knocker as a kind of prosthesis (a full beard was beyond him). The American poet Longfellow wanted to disguise the terrible scars he had acquired while trying to rescue his wife from a house fire. The nonsense writer Edward Lear was, like Darwin, convinced he was ugly and simply wanted to hide, declaring: “There was an Old Man with a beard, / Who said, ‘It is just as I feared! / Two Owls and a Hen, /Four Larks and a Wren, / Have all built their nests in my beard!’ ”

Despite being surrounded by this extravagant facial topiary, Darwin knew that a man’s capacity to grow facial hair must be about more than vanity, neurosis or fashion. In his Descent of Man, he wrestles with the problem of what the beard is for. Is it there to attract a female mate, much like the peacock’s bright tail feathers or a lion’s handsome mane? Or is it something to do with male competition – the man with the hairiest jaw gets to dominate his smoother friends? But, in that case, why was it that in Tierra del Fuego, which Darwin had visited as a young naturalist aboard the Beagle, indigenous men, who might be assumed to be “closer to Nature”, had such light beard growth? And why did the Fuegians appear to regard the bristly chins of the Beagle crew with all the horror of home counties aunts? Did the answer lie in the realms of culture, biology or both?

Darwin never came to a clear conclusion, and it’s a puzzlement that modern scientists share to this day. What is apparent, though, is that Victorian women tended not to share their men’s enthusiasm for a bristly chin. Emily Tennyson longed for her “Ally” to shave off his malodorous attachment (personal hygiene was never the poet laureate’s strong point) while Mary Butler, with whom Darwin struck up a friendship, declared “I don’t like the idea of your long beard” and never wrote to him again. But the most emphatic shudder came from Lady Morley, who said of the very hairy Duke of Newcastle that she could always tell how many courses he’d had for dinner by looking at his beard. It comes as no surprise to learn that Lady Morley’s husband remained eccentrically clean-shaven.

George Eliot’s hand

One day in the 1840s a young woman in her mid-20s was talking to her neighbour in a genteel villa on the outskirts of Coventry. At some point in the conversation Mary Ann Evans stretched out her right hand “with some pride” to demonstrate how much bigger it was than her left. It was the legacy, she explained, of having spent her teenage years making butter and cheese on her family’s farm, eight miles outside the city. All that vigorous turning of the churn at 40 repetitions a minute, not to mention the squeezing of the curds to expel the watery whey, had built up the muscles in her right hand. Even now, several years on, her right hand was broader than her left, making her permanently lop-sided.

A portrait of George Eliot, after F d’A Durade, neatly avoids exposing the author’s right hand.
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A portrait of George Eliot, after F d’A Durade, neatly avoids exposing the author’s right hand. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Un/REX

The story might have slipped into obscurity, were it not for the fact that, 15 years or so after that Coventry conversation, Evans entered public consciousness with a flourish as “George Eliot”. In Adam Bede, her first full-length novel, Eliot tells the story of Hetty Sorrel, a pretty dairymaid who frets at the way that her hands have been coarsened by “butter-making, and other work that ladies never did”. Dismayed at the way that her body blabs its social origins, Hetty relishes the camouflaging tokens that she believes will erase the humiliating marks of her lowly status – fancy earrings, a pretty neckerchief. It is this desire for a different kind of body that, ironically, leads Hetty to that folkloric fate – seduction by the young squire, resulting in pregnancy. Adam Bede caused a sensation when it was published in 1859 and set Eliot on the triumphant early part of her career, producing a clutch of novels rooted closely in her experience of growing up in the rural Midlands.

When Eliot died unexpectedly in 1880 you might have expected the guardians of her posthumous reputation – widower, brother, nephew – to be delighted for the public to hear this charming story about how the great novelist’s body carried a permanent memento of her early years in rural Warwickshire. Not a bit of it. When the first, unauthorised, biography came out just 28 months after Eliot’s death, these professional men – a banker, a clergyman and a gentleman farmer – were appalled to discover the Coventry neighbour had passed on the anecdote about Mary Ann Evans’ broad right hand. Now it was out there, in print, for anyone to read.

There was nothing for it but to embark on an energetic campaign of disinformation. Over the next 50 years George Eliot’s increasingly genteel descendants periodically issued stern denials about the great novelist’s labours in the dairy. There was, they maintained, nothing remotely odd about her right hand: it had done nothing more taxing than practising the piano and taking tea. Any would-be biographer who wanted access to precious Evans family documents was required to include in their text a strongly worded rebuttal of the ridiculous story about how the great novelist George Eliot, author of the incomparable Middlemarch, had spent her youth doing sweaty, stinking, back-breaking manual labour. As for her right hand, Eliot’s heirs insisted, they happened to know for a fact that it was the very spit of her left.

Fanny Cornforth’s mouth

In the early days of 1860, Dante Gabriel Rossetti unveiled his latest painting to a select group of friends and supporters. It depicts the head and torso of a luscious young woman in a brocade costume that falls open to reveal her thick pillar of a neck and deep, creamy chest. A tumble of red-gold hair adds to the pervasive sense of undoneness. And then there is her mouth. “Mulatto mouths”, carped the critics, would become a signature of Rossetti’s work over the decades to come. This, though, is the first one that really matters: thick, quilted, and so ripe that on this occasion it is unable to hold itself decently shut. As if to underscore the point that it is the woman’s lips that are the real subject of his painting, Rossetti titled it Bocca Baciata, which translates as “The Kissed Mouth”.

Fanny Cornforth’s mouth marks a moment of radical departure in Rossetti’s art. Indeed, anyone peering over the 31-year-old’s shoulder as he put the finishing touches to Bocca Baciata in the autumn of 1859 would have found it hard to believe that the painting came from the same brush that had produced The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini! a mere decade earlier. Those juvenile works had been sharp of outline, bright of colour and pure of thought – the succinct expression, in other words, of the pre-Raphaelite manifesto that Rossetti and the rest of the Brotherhood had tacked together in 1848 with the intention of injecting English painting with the artistic and moral astringencies of the Italian quattrocento. Frequently using his mistress Lizzie Siddal and sister Christina as his models, Rossetti’s early female figures are angular and spare. Above all, they keep their thin lips firmly clamped together.

This latest painting, though, was something quite different. While its title is taken from a story by Boccaccio, Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata is strikingly devoid of narrative intent, uninterested in either illustrating a literary scene or teaching a moral lesson. If the painting can be said to have a subject at all it is pleasure – not just the pleasure of beholding Cornforth’s luscious features, but of the material quality of the paint, here laid on in loose oily swipes so different from Rossetti’s earlier dense stippling. This, critics have suggested, is the moment when British painting turned away from its obligation to represent the exterior world and became concerned with the practice of its own making. Or, to put it another way, what we are looking at is the first sighting of artistic modernism.

Cornforth was not simply Rossetti’s favourite model of the early 1860s. She was also his on-off domestic partner for a quarter of a century. Her mouth – not so much its shape but what she did with it – marks her distance and difference from the other two, far more celebrated, mistress/models in Rossetti’s life. These were Siddal (to whom Rossetti was briefly married) and Jane Morris (the wife of his friend and business partner William Morris). Like Siddal and Morris, Cornforth came from a working-class background. Unlike them, though, she never bothered to change the way she spoke in order to fit with the pre-Raphaelites’ middle class mores (the young men may have been bohemians but that didn’t stop them being snobs). So while Siddal and Morris worked hard to eradicate their original dialects (London and Oxford respectively) and struck observers as remarkably uncommunicative, garrulous Cornforth chattered 19 to the dozen in her rural mid-Sussex burr. “I know I don’t say it right,” she shrugged when Rossetti’s friends sniggered at her tendency to mangle aspirates, past participles and even plurals.

Then there was the question of food, or rather appetite. Siddal and Morris kept themselves rigorously thin, to the point where they might today be described as anorexic. Disciplining your flesh was necessary to have a hope of fitting into the “aesthetic” dress that the PRB preferred their women to wear – loose, floating gowns with minimal underpinnings that looked as though they belonged in a medieval fresco. Cornforth, by contrast, loved food, preferred the cheerful vulgarity of contemporary fashion and relied on a corset and cage crinoline to squeeze herself into the required shape. A rare photograph taken when she was not yet 30 shows her with her chest puffed out, waist bitten in, and a huge sticking-out skirt that resembles a galleon in full sail. By this time Rossetti was regularly referring to her in her hearing as “the Lumpses”. She was also his “Elephant” – a play on both her name (EleFANt) and her bulky shape.

While Rossetti’s friends registered Cornforth’s “sumptuous” beauty, that didn’t mean they were willing to acknowledge this vulgar woman with her unruly mouth as a significant part of the artist’s life. The moment he died in 1882, at the age of 53, Cornforth was cast out of what remained of the pre-Raphaelite circle and all but excised from its biographical records. She ended her days in the county asylum in her native Sussex, where the medical casebook records that, now an old lady, she is “incoherent & talks incessantly”, but also loves her food. And as for the mouth that was once described as “so awfully lovely” yet perversely indecent too, the asylum authorities say that it is now devoid of teeth apart from a few decaying stumps over which upper and lower dentures are insecurely hooked. What’s more, the authorities note in a final terse observation before rearing back in disgust, Cornforth’s tongue is furred and her breath foul. Sad perhaps, but irrelevant surely not. For it is here, in the smells, blots and gurgles of the body’s physical life that some of the most revealing biographical stories about the Victorians turn out to reside.

Victorians Undone is published by Fourth Estate (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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