What was it like to be a pretty woman with no front teeth in the 1850s? Or to be plagued by migraines in the days before effective painkillers? How did our Victorian ancestors react when a middle-aged lawyer reappeared in the office after a short holiday with the beginnings of a fashionable beard?
In all-too many cases, we’ll never know. Historical biographies have traditionally focused all their attention on their subjects’ literary gifts, their feats in battle, or their blighted love affairs. But they’ve ignored the question of how these people looked, moved, smelt or sounded. By the end of even the most detailed life story, it can be hard to know whether our hero’s (or villain’s) eyes were green or blue, or whether they mostly used their right hand or their left. Their bodies have gone missing in action.
This has always frustrated me – especially when it comes to biographies of people from the Victorian era. This is a period that – on the surface at least – is in denial about the body, burying it under layers of complicated clothing. In reality, however, the Victorians were obliged to live with their bodies far more intimately than we do today. Without medical knowledge to treat common conditions like constipation, toothache or a septic finger, our great-great-grandparents’ physical experiences shaped their daily lives on a moment-by-moment basis.
And, with cities doubling their populations in the early years of the 19th century, strangers’ bodies could no longer be kept at a safe distance. At the railway station, lodging house, factory bench and music hall, other peoples’ sharp elbows, bad breath and cheap wigs were quite literally in your face.
In short, in the 19th century – more so, perhaps, than today – bodies could have a considerable impact on people’s health, their reputations, their careers, even their states of mind. And this applies to the most celebrated of Victorians, as these four examples prove.
Charles Darwin’s wild whiskers
The naturalist grew masses of facial hair to ease his chronic eczema
In 1866, Charles Darwin, who had spent the past few years nursing his poor health in the countryside, made a rare appearance at a Royal Society soirée. Already world-famous as the author of the game-changing On the Origin of Species, Darwin was mortified to discover that no one in that distinguished gathering of scientists had a clue who he was. Indeed, he was obliged to go up to old friends and announce his name, an embarrassment for such a shy man.
No social snub was intended. It was simply that the last time anyone had seen Darwin in public he had been clean-shaven, give or take some heavy ‘mutton chop’ whiskers. Now, though, he was sporting a bushy grey beard that covered his familiar pudgy features and turned him into the stern-looking sage instantly familiar from our £10 bank note.
Darwin claimed that he had grown his beard at the prompting of his wife, Emma, who thought it might ease his chronic eczema. Other writers and intellectuals had likewise jumped on the fashion for heavy facial hair to hide features that made them cringe. The poet Tennyson, for example, was embarrassed about his false teeth while Charles Dickens was so self-conscious about his weak chin that he grew his trademark doorknocker to disguise it (a full beard was beyond him). The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wanted to hide the scars he had acquired when trying to rescue his wife from a house fire, while the nonsense-writer Edward Lear was convinced he was hideous and just wanted to disappear.
Darwin, though, knew that a man’s capacity to grow a beard must be about more than vanity, neurosis or even fashion. In his Descent of Man he ponders whether men grow beards to attract a female mate, much like the peacock’s bright tail feathers or the 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? Darwin admitted that he wasn’t sure what the beard was for, and scientists remain uncertain even today. What is clear, though, is that Victorian women often did not share their menfolks’ enthusiasm for hairy faces. Not least, they confided in diaries and in personal letters, because there was always a good chance of finding the remains of last night’s supper nestling in a loved one’s beard.
George Eliot’s over-sized right hand
The novelist’s butter-making muscles shamed her genteel relatives
One day in the 1840s a young woman was talking to her neighbour in a genteel villa on the outskirts of Coventry. At one point in the conversation the 20-something Mary Ann Evans stretched out her right hand to demonstrate how much bigger it was than her left. The reason, she explained proudly, was that she had spent her teenage years making butter and cheese on her father’s farm. All that vigorous turning of the butter churn, not to mention squeezing of the cheese curds, had built up the muscles in her right hand so that it had become permanently enlarged.
The story might have slipped into obscurity, were it not for the fact that Mary Ann Evans would go on to become one of the most famous women of the 19th century. As ‘George Eliot’, she would pen such classic novels as Silas Marner, Middlemarch and Adam Bede, the latter of which tells the story of Hetty Sorrel, a pretty dairymaid with hands coarsened by butter making, who is seduced by the young squire. It caused a sensation.
You might expect that George Eliot’s family would be delighted for the public to know her body carried a memento of her early years in rural Warwickshire. But nothing could be further from the truth. When the first biography came out in 1883, two and a half years after her death, her relatives were appalled to discover that the Coventry neighbour had passed on the anecdote about Mary Ann Evans’ broad right hand.
Over the next 25 years, the novelist’s descendants publicly issued stern denials about her unusual hand. Any biographer who wanted access to family documents was told to include a strongly worded rebuttal of the story about how the illustrious George Eliot had once spent her days doing sweaty, smelly manual labour.
William Gladstone’s missing finger
An absent digit was covered up for the sake of the nation
In an age without antibiotics and only rudimentary surgery, many Victorians lived with minor disabilities. In 1842 the politician William Gladstone shattered the forefinger of his left hand during a shooting party in north Wales. Returning home, the young man’s finger was amputated by Dr Harrison of Chester. For the rest of his long public life, which included four stints as prime minister, Gladstone was obliged to wear a black sheath or fingerstall where his missing digit used to be.
The Victorian age, though, demanded that its Great Men look like heroes. Politicians might no longer be required to lead the country’s troops into battle, but any bodily weakness suggested a worrying vulnerability, which slipped into anxiety about the health of the nation as a whole. For that reason, the leading illustrators and photographers of the day had a gentleman’s agreement that they would magic Mr Gladstone’s missing finger away.
Even the political cartoonists of the age agreed not to draw attention to Gladstone’s disability. “We never make capital out of our subjects’ deformities,” declared the caricaturist Harry Furniss in relation to the prime ministerial missing digit.
Branwell Brontë’s red locks
Did ‘gingerism’ help the feckless painter to an early grave?
While there has always been heated discussion about what the Brontë sisters looked like, everyone agrees that their brother Branwell was a flaming redhead. Contemporaries describe the diminutive young man as having a “mass of red hair”, carefully brushed upwards to make him look taller.
Branwell’s famously tragic life – he failed both as a painter and a writer and was sacked from jobs as a tutor and railway employee – was to a large degree down to his own bad behaviour. After a string of personal disappointments, including an abortive affair with his married employer, he sunk into dependence on alcohol and opiates and died at the age of just 31.
But what perhaps has never been considered is the way that gingerism – a prejudice against people with red hair – played a part both in Branwell’s and his sisters’ defensive and self-defeating dealings with the world. Although the siblings had been born in Yorkshire, their father Rev Patrick Brontë had grown up in a humble cottage in Ireland. In early Victorian Britain, Irish immigrants, who were employed to build the burgeoning railway network through Yorkshire, were believed to be lazy and dishonest, racial throwbacks to an earlier stage of human existence. Rev Patrick Brontë may have managed to graduate from Cambridge University, but there was no getting away from the fact that he belonged to one of Britain’s most despised and downtrodden colonial groups, one that was popularly believed to be recognisable by its red hair.
The Brontë siblings’ locks – Charlotte and Emily’s might best be described as ‘auburn’ – were a reminder to the world that they were only one generation away from what was routinely described as ‘the bogs of Ireland’. Even at the age of 16, Charlotte spoke with an Irish accent, something that surprised her fellow pupils at the genteel Roe Head academy.
There is no direct evidence that the Brontë siblings were the victims of anti-Irish prejudice as they sallied forth from Haworth to find work. But that, of course, is the nature of prejudice – it goes unspoken. For you can’t help noticing that Branwell, who had the reddest hair, had the hardest time keeping a job, while Emily and Charlotte both found themselves bitterly uncomfortable in their short-lived careers as governesses. Only Anne, whose hair was barely red at all, managed to sustain a long and affectionate relationship with her employers, the snobbish Robinson family.
Professor Kathryn Hughes’ books include The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton (Harper, 2006) and Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum (Fourth Estate, 2017)