Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The "Unmentionable" Revealed: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners

Therese Oneill made my week: I was down for the count, having lost to a marauding virus. I was not sure I could manage anything more demanding than sit-com reruns...until I decided to check out this scandalous-looking book, aptly named Unmentionable.

LOL! Yep, I was laughing out loud in spite of having a head about the size of a pumpkin and a throat redder that St. Nicholas' coat.

Women have sighed and longed for the glamour and elegance of high Victorian days, or the diaphanous, Greek inspired gowns of Austen; a time when men where men and girls were girls--- Get real, Oneill warns, and with a series of essays drawing from historical documents and 19th c books, she delineates what life was really like two centuries ago.

1841 Graham's Magazine. Those dresses were never washed.
Chapters cover every aspect of female experience, from arsenic in beauty products and crotchless pantaloons, to 'female problems' and the hysteria that results from 'female problems'. And we learn what men wanted--and didn't want-- from their women and wives. With running gags (don't chew on your umbrella handle!) readers are addressed with irreverent familiarity.

Consider some of the chapter heads:

  • Getting Dressed: How to Properly Hide Your Shame 
  • Bowels into Buckets
  • Menstruation: You're Doing it Wrong
  • Birth Control and Other Affronts to God
  • The Secret Vice: "Where Warts and Tiny Nipple Come From"

The limits imposed on ladys were strict. Without a man or an older woman companion, a woman could not be trusted to walk down the street. And once allowed out of the house, there were injunctions against window shopping, greeting friends from across the street, and carrying your own money. You never raised your skirt, even when wadding through piles of manure.
At least a gal could use her handkerchief to communicate: dropping it in front of a man invited friendship; twirling it connoted indifference; and drawing it across the check meant love. Fans, parasols, and gloves were also eloquent vehicles---for those with guidebooks for interpretation.
Great-Great-Grandmother Elizabeth Hacking Greenwood,
 looking very exhausted but elegant. She had 7 children, most of whom,
like their dad, worked in the cotton mills.
Dr. Kellogg especially gets a rightful bum rap for misunderstanding females, but he is not alone. Male doctors thought they knew everything. Consider the ideal of the uterine orgasm, when the uterus convulses to meet the male organ, or the advice for women to lay on their back with their legs stretched out flat because all 'unnatural positions' lead to serous injury!
Great-Great-Grandmother Ramer, later mother
to eight children plus raising some of
her husband's eight children from his first marriage!
At least Kellogg advised against marital rape and believed mothers prepare daughters for 'marriage and its duties'.

When you married a man you hardly knew, and failing to be a paragon of ideal womanhood, lost his interest to another woman, what could you do? A 1840  book offered the example of a good wife who outfitted the mistress's flat in a style befitting her husband's status, then arranged an annuity to the other woman when hubby gave her up!

Illustrated throughout, with nothing left to the imagination, women are reminded of how good we have it over the Crinoline Ladies of yesteryear.
What we imagine the 19th c was like...
You will be glad the information Oneill imparts is veiled in humor, for the indignities of Victorian age female life is horrifying. Women today still face inherited prejudices and attitudes.

But at least our undies have crotches.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Unmentionable
Therese Oneill
Little, Brown, and Company
Publication October 25, 2016
$25 hard cover
ISBN: 9780316357913