Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, & Manners

Read:  2017

Author:  Therese O’Neill

Published:  2016

Genre:  Nonfiction, History

Pages:  307 (hardcover)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle Tea’s Score:  Scoring Loved Book

“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.”

Border Vine 1

Elle Tea’s Review

This book is hilarious.  Let’s just get that out of the way right out of the jump: hi.lar.i.ous.

You think you know the nineteenth century well, as a place of chivalry and honor, gilded beauty and jolly servants.  You’ve been there before, many times, but only as a guest, an observer.  Dark-eyed Heathcliff has obsessed over your windblown soul in a universe where no one ever has to poop.

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.

Remember, the center of a woman is her uterus.  Her crazy, crazy uterus.

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.

You have been retaining your menstrual protein.  Probably because you’re pouting.  Stop this foolishness and let the blood come out of your vagina – or it’s going to dice up your brain and choke your lungs.  And frankly, with the attitude you’ve been sporting, no one is going to miss you.

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.

“Undue familiarity cheapens a girl even in her lover’s eyes and lays the foundation of future jealousy and possible murder.  There is plenty of time for familiarity after marriage.”  [- from a contemporary article regarding proper courtship]  Our author does not diagram the transition from flirting to homicide.  But does he really need to?  I mean, who doesn’t look at a teenager fluttering her eyelashes at some boy and think, “That’s going to end with three corpses in a filthy, blood-soaked basement?”

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.

Well, sometimes there is a general wearing down of the reproductive organs if a woman produces a dozen or more children.  Among other maladies, the prolapsed uterus was very common in this era.  The best way I can describe it to you is to have you imagine your reproductive tract as a tube sock.  Now turn it inside out, and let it dangle there.  Prolapse.

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.

“How many men and women in your practice would shirk the duties of parenthood if they knew how, and thus miss the greatest joys of life?  How many children would there be in your community if only those that are wanted would come?” – from a contemporary medical article regarding the evils of birth control.

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.

Though we may not trust Kellogg (who tells us that we should suspect any little girl “showing excessive fondness for mustard, pepper, vinegar, spices, and other stimulating condiments” and that “little girls who are very fond of cloves and desire to be always eating them are likely to be depraved in other respects”)…

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).

We have this world in part because those Victorian women began to apply pressure to the walls that trapped them.  One million women nudging at the same time over a long period can create profound movement.

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.

And so on down the line to me, and to you, each generation wiping away one more layer of patronizing grime from the minds of their descendants.  And that’s why you and I can wear pants.  And run for president.  And divorce men who hurt us.  And do whatever work we want or need to do to make our lives as we would have them.

Elle read the Little, Brown and Co. hardcover version of this selection.

Border Vine 2


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s