This book is hilarious. Let’s just get that out of the way right out of the jump: hi.lar.i.ous.
The author has taken on the mantle of a 21st-century tour guide, essentially plucking you, the reader, out from behind your computer or tablet or smart-phone and plopping you straight into a 19th-century bedroom, where you begin a standard Victorian day by crawling out from under the covers. This immersion approach combined with her modern sensibilities and down-to-earth sense of humor makes the subject matter entertaining and accessible to those of you who really want to know more about life during the Victorian and Edwardian eras but just can’t bring yourself to read historical heavyweights such as Judith Flanders’ highly informative Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London or Ruth Goodman’s practical guide How to be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life.
Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners
Author: Therese O’Neill
Genre: Nonfiction, History
Version: Little, Brown and Co. paperback
“Ladies, welcome to the 19th century, where there’s arsenic in your face cream, a pot of cold pee sits under your bed, and all of your underwear is crotchless. (Why? Shush, dear. A lady doesn’t question.)
“Unmentionable is your hilarious, illustrated, scandalously honest (yet never crass) guide to the secrets of Victorian womanhood, giving you detailed advice on: what to wear, where to relieve yourself, how to conceal your loathsome addiction to menstruating, what to expect on your wedding night, how to be the perfect Victorian wife, why masturbation will kill you, and more.”
For those of you who have already read extensively about the eras in question, there won’t be a lot of new information for you here – but the book is still well worth the read, as the author’s comedic look at most of the topics breathes new life into even the oldest information. I’ve maintained an interest in these eras for almost two decades and have read just about everything I can get my hands on about every subject from daily life to etiquette, recipes to grooming techniques, contemporary sewing and knitting patterns, etc., and I absolutely devoured this book – I couldn’t wait to get a moment to jump right back into it and giggle my way through the ignorance and ridiculousness of it all.
But as amusing as the subject can be from here, with one-to-two-hundred years between us and the unverified and untested “science” that taught that just about every female ailment from moodiness to consumption and tuberculosis could firmly be blamed on hysteria emanating from our girl-parts, the reality is that these were not kind times to the females of our species, regardless of their age, education, or upbringing. Not to say that there are a lot of periods in history in which I, as a modern woman with modern sensibilities and a treasure trove of liberties to which I have become accustomed, would truly prefer to be stuck. But the reality of the women who came before us was so much harsher and so much more illogically unfair than we could ever truly wrap our heads around.
One topic that I was a bit disappointed not to find in these pages was at least a chapter dedicated to the alarming frequency with which women were shoved into mental institutions and subjected to what would today be considered the most heinous sorts of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Husband thinks you’re disagreeable? Pack the Missus off to the funny farm. Sons need you out of the way to fully claim their inheritance and move their own families into the manor? Pack Mum off to the funny farm.
I read two very interesting books about this very topic – Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls 1840 – 1945 , a collection of first-hand accounts of women subjected to institutionalization by men they trusted, and Nellie Bly’s exposé of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, Ten Days in a Mad-House – and cannot recommend them enough as companion reads to Ms. O’Neill’s more lightly-toned overview of women’s daily lives during this period. These two selections are decidedly lacking in humor, but they give you an idea of the horrible fate that awaited many of the women who could not – or would not – simply submit to the whims of their menfolk or conform to the rigid standards of society.
Besides this small omission, Ms. O’Neill’s glimpse into the daily lives of women is a great eye-opener for those under the impression that life during these eras was just one big tea party. The romantic in you may be thinking that corsets and crinolines are a grand idea, and a life spent primarily indoors planning lavish twelve-course dinners sounds like the perfect way to escape the drudgery of the eight-to-twelve-hour workday (I’m assuming most of you daydream about being a Victorian or Edwardian lady, of course; I doubt many ever picture themselves as an overworked and underappreciated scullery maid chucking chamber pots out the window or a disease-ridden prostitute dying alone on the streets from a botched abortion or consumption), but Unmentionable will no doubt yank your head right out of those frilly, tightly-laced clouds and put it firmly back on your shoulders where it belongs.
One excellent addition made near the end of this selection that is often left out of most academic history books is O’Neill’s point that it was the women of these eras that began the first real movements towards the independence that would eventually culminate in the formations of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (UK, 1872), the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association (US, 1869), and the first clinics dedicated to women’s health that would eventually become the global organization known as Planned Parenthood (US, 1916).
With all that has happened in recent months, I don’t think it hurts to know how far we’ve come in the last hundred-plus years. So many women suffered for so long under the misconceptions and misunderstandings of allegedly learned men, acting as they were under the confines and constraints of ultra-conservative religious leaders (also mostly male), that it seems a true tragedy to simply give it all away without a fight. The right for a woman to vote was a hard-won battle that was decades in the winning. The right for a woman to actually own her own body, to have her voice heard, to be able to say “No,” to be able to work if she wanted to or her family needed her to, to be able to file for divorce, to be able to choose whether she wanted to procreate, to be able to dress and walk and talk as she pleases… These freedoms we so very much take for granted all began here, with a few thousand brave women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, who knew that, no matter what they were told, no matter how loudly the opposition insisted, they were more than just vessels for future generations.