Kathryn Hughes is Professor Emerita of Life Writing at the University of East Anglia. An historian by training, since leaving Oxford she has written five books on Victorian England. These include The Victorian Governess, biographies of George Eliot and Mrs Beeton and a study of the relationship between biography and body parts, Victorians Undone. Her studies of Eliot and Beeton were both made into films by the BBC. In tandem with her academic teaching career, Kathryn Hughes has been employed for the last twenty years by the Guardian newspaper to produce fortnightly book reviews. She also writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. Her new book, to be published in April 2024 by Johns Hopkins University Press, is called Catland. It explores the way that late Victorians and Edwardians on both sides of the Atlantic fell hopelessly in love with the cat, an animal that had previously been regarded as little better than a household servant or even a pest.
Which nineteenth-century theorist, philosopher, or critic do you find most fascinating, and why?
It would have to be George Eliot, whose biography I wrote in 1999 (George Eliot: the Last Victorian, FSG). I went into that project knowing only about her fiction, which of course I believed was written just for me. I grew up imagining myself as a cross between Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke. I thought it was extraordinary that this author who was born Mary Anne Evans 150 years before me was able to describe exactly what it felt like to be a clever, rebellious, pious girl who dreamt of doing Great Things and was always getting knocked back by people who told her to know her place.
But once I started my proper grown-up research on Eliot I discovered that she was so much more (as if writing transformative novels wasn’t enough). Her early literary journalism in the Westminster Review (where she worked as Assistant Editor) has an extraordinary critical range and depth – she is able to dissect, critique and illuminate a vast range of subjects from why Frenchwomen find it natural to become public intellectuals to what is so off-putting about John Cumming, the evangelical preacher who, having deciphered the Bible, confidently declared that Judgement Day would occur some time between 1848 and 1867. I aspire to write as thoughtfully as Eliot did about other peoples’ work in my own literary journalism.
What nineteenth-century play, opera, symphony, or theater performance would you want to see, and why?
I would like to have attended the opening night of Iolanthe in 1882. It was the first of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas to debut at the Savoy which, in turn, was the first theatre in the world to be fully lit by electricity. This allowed all sorts of special effects which must have been magical to behold, such as sparkling wands for the chorus of female fairies. During the first run of Iolanthe the lyricist W S Gilbert had a private telephone rigged up between the theatre and his home so that he could critique performances without needing to travel to the Strand. We think today of Gibert & Sullivan as being comfortingly nostalgic, but it would be more accurate to image their opening nights as something thrilling, akin to a new Apple product launch. And the subjects they tackle are always startlingly relevant. Iolanthe asks questions about the usefulness and legitimacy of the House of Lords, a constitutional question that still consumes Britons from all sides of the political spectrum today.
If you could go on a weeklong road trip with anyone from the nineteenth century, who would it be? Where would you go? And what would you do along the way?
My road trip would be with the 11th Duke of Bedford (1858-1940). In fact, ‘road trip’ is slightly stretching it because what I would really like to do is spend the week with His Grace going around his vast 3,000 acre estate at Woburn Abbey. Herbrand Russell, to give him his personal name, was a passionate animal conservationist, and was responsible for saving the Pere David’s deer which was virtually extinct in its native China. One of the richest men in the world, Russell bought up the remaining deer from European zoos and transferred them to the dank English countryside where he nurtured a new herd. He also introduced bison, lions, tigers and zebras to our green and pleasant land. While today we would not approve his methods, there can be no doubting his good intentions. He wanted to create his own Noah’s Ark from which he hoped to save the world. I don’t know how easy a week in his company would be. Years later, his grandson, the 13th Duke, explained that ‘he had very little time for human beings and rarely spoke’.
If you could own a business in the nineteenth century, what would it be, and why?
If I was allowed to – and, as a woman, I wouldn’t have been – I would have liked to own a fabric wholesalers, probably in the streets around St Paul’s Cathedral. In the days before department stores, this was where customers came to get their fabrics – anything from the brown silk patterned with oak leaves in gold thread that Jane Austen acquired in 1813 for her smart new pelisse to the pale muslins in spring-like colours which middle class women favoured to make their day gowns. The silk would probably have come from Macclesfield and the muslin could have come all the way from India (St Paul’s isn’t too far from the port of London). I’d stock ribbons too, which would have been manufactured in Coventry in the Midlands and lace which arrived from nearby Nottingham. I’d have loved talking colour, stretch and sheen with my customers and I would have discoursed endlessly on the shape of sleeves in the season ahead.
What is your favorite nineteenth-century material object that you own?
This one is easy. In 2006 I published a biography of Isabella Beeton, Britain’s great cookery writer, (The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, Knopf). At the time I started my research all her papers – mostly love letters to her husband and publisher, Samuel – were still scattered and in private hands. The only way I could get to see these was if I found a way to buy them. I re-mortgaged my flat to raise the money and was able not only to own her letters, but to bring together documents which had lain scattered for over half a century. I still have them, although they’re kept in the bank for safety. Still, I have visiting rights, so I get them out a couple of times a year to savour. Although I love them very dearly, I hope the time will soon come when they can be deposited in a public institution so that everyone can enjoy them.