Hughes, Kathryn 1959–
Hughes, Kathryn 1959–
PERSONAL: Born 1959. Education: Oxford University, England, Ph.D.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer and educator. Prospect Publishing, London, England, contributing editor; University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, teacher of biographical studies. Writer and presenter of arts documentaries for BBC Radio 3 and 4; visiting professor for Kingston University; has lectured at several British universities.
MEMBER: Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
AWARDS, HONORS: James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography, for George Eliot: The Last Victorian.
The Victorian Governess, Hambledon Press (Rio Grande, OH), 1993.
(Editor and author of introduction) George Eliot: Family History, Routledge/Thoemmes (London, England), 2000.
The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor of book reviews to the Guardian; contributor to periodicals, including the Times Literary Supplement and the Economist.
SIDELIGHTS: London-based author and scholar Kathryn Hughes has published critically praised works that discuss women during the Victorian era in England. First, in 1993, Hughes wrote The Victorian Governess, a book that not only examines the role of governesses during the era, but also the social environment in which they operated. In 1999, Hughes published George Eliot: The Last Victorian, a biography about one of England's most famous female authors. In 2006, Hughes published another biography of a female author from Victorian times, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton.
The Victorian Governess is a thorough look at the lives of Victorian governesses: their upbringing and training, their working conditions, their routines, and the disciplinary problems and social limitations they had to face. Hughes culled her information from numerous sources, including primary documents like census reports and those issued by the Governesses' Benevolent Institution. Fortunately, she was also able to obtain many letters and diaries from various families throughout England. Not only does Hughes look at the governesses themselves, she also tries to paint a picture of the families who employed them. She primarily uses the census reports to ascertain these details. The author concludes that most governesses, about two thirds of them, were under the age of thirty, and that their position in life was not a desirable one. They were not paid very well and, despite their importance in raising children, they were often ignored by society, largely because the mothers of the children they were teaching and raising felt their own roles were threatened by the existence of a governess.
Several critics lauded the effort. Sally Mitchell of Victorian Studies called the book "a readable, intelligent, well-researched study." Mitchell also noted that the work was "admirably clear about the economic and practical aspects of many issues usually cast in ideological terms, and it belongs on reading lists in both literature and history." Feeling Hughes had pieced "together a compelling picture," Jessica Saraga of the Times Educational Supplement claimed Hughes "is at her best showing governesses' agonizingly ambiguous identity."
In George Eliot: The Last Victorian, Hughes recounts the life of Mary Ann Evans, who published a series of novels under the pseudonym George Eliot. Some of her more famous works include Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Middlemarch. As in her first effort, Hughes discusses the social and cultural constraints that women faced during Victorian times, which was the impetus for Evans to take on the pseudonym. "Eliot's novels show people how they can deal with the pain of being a Victorian by remaining one," Hughes writes in the book. Hughes examines Eliot's personal life, especially the relationship she had with her family, which was ultimately painfully dissolved as a result of some of her social activities. Hughes believes that one of the driving influences behind Eliot's literature was the upbringing she received from a cold and bitter mother. Hughes also recounts Eliot's propensity to have multiple affairs with older, often married men, such as George Henry Lewis, who the author refers to as "one of the few people in London who was demonstrably plainer than herself." However, the main point that Hughes makes is that Eliot was an important author, and that she clearly understood the social and political environment in which she lived.
Critics were equally impressed with this effort by Hughes. This "vigorous and readable account breaks little new ground, but it is winningly unsympathetic and psychologically shrewd," wrote Dinah Birch of the London Review of Books. A reviewer for Entertainment Weekly called the work "intimate" and "vibrantly incisive." Hughes's writing style was also lauded by Diane G. Premo, who wrote in Library Journal that Hughes has "impressive storytelling ability," and that the work is a "masterly biography."
In The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, Hughes presents the biography of another Victorian woman—Isabella Beeton, author of the 1861 title, Book of Household Management. Although the book made Beeton a celebrated authority on the proper running of the Victorian household, Hughes delves into Beeton's tragic life. Her trials included a battle with syphilis, which she probably got from her husband, and an early death at age twenty-eight during childbirth. Writing in Booklist, Mark Knoblauch noted that this "remarkable biography delves into the colorfully idiosyncratic families of Isabella and her publisher husband." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the biography "thoroughly researched, sympathetic and highly readable." In a review for the New Statesman, Bee Wilson wrote: "It is a testament to Hughes's wry intelligence that she can make Mrs Beeton's sad and sometimes grotesque story so enjoyable to read."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Hughes, Kathryn, George Eliot: The Last Victorian, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
Booklist, April 15, 2006, Mark Knoblauch, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 16.
Economist, November 5, 2005, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 93.
English Historical Review, February, 1996, Anne Digby, review of The Victorian Governess, p. 223.
Entertainment Weekly, August 20, 1999, review of George Eliot: The Last Victorian, p. 120; May 12, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 87.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), February 25, 2006, Gina Mallet, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. D13.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2006, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 275.
Library Journal, June 15, 1999, Diane G. Premo, review of George Eliot: The Last Victorian, p. 79; April 15, 2006, Margaret Heilbrun, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 85.
London Review of Books, May 13, 1999, Dinah Birch, review of George Elliot, pp. 22-23.
New Statesman, October 17, 2005, Bee Wilson, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, March 13, 2006, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 54.
Spectator, October 8, 2005, Philip Hensher, review of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, p. 42.
Times Educational Supplement, March 12, 1993, Jessica Saraga, review of The Victorian Governmess, p. 10.
Victorian Studies, winter, 1994, Sally Mitchell, review of The Victorian Governess, pp. 354-356.
Comment Is Free, http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/ (August 25, 2006), brief profile of author.
New Writing Partnership Web site, http://www.newwritingpartnership.org.uk/ (August 25, 2006), brief profile of author.