On “Unmentionable” by Therese Oneill

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Let’s imagine you’re one of those people who spends the weekend reading your favorite Bronte novel with a glass of wine in hand, followed by a long binge watching session of the new ITV series, Victoria. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Therese Oneill is all too keen to remind you that your weekend enjoyment is a 21st century luxury, and everything you love about the 19th century is pretty much a game of smoke and mirrors.

So I’ve been lied to all this time?!?! All those films, books, and television shows were a lie? I’m afraid so, mon amie. The 19th century was a bitch.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners serves as a time traveling machine, taking you back to the beloved years under Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Oneill is our sarcastic, all-knowing tour guide. She takes us through nearly every aspect of a Victorian woman’s life—that is, a wealthy, white Victorian woman, of course. A female from another race or class was practically living in a hell on earth.

In the book, the reader learns what a woman wore (crotchless undies, anyone??), how she spent her day, what was expected of her in the bedroom, and how her uterus is the only important thing about her, so sit down and shut up. It was such an amazing time…

Oneill, a go-to lady for lesser known historical facts, comes to us with a feigned British matron type of humor that serves its purpose fairly well. I particularly appreciated the captions she uses for the photographs and illustrations interspersed throughout the book. They’re often cutting, and witty, and vaguely meme-ish.

As someone who has the same Victorian era guilty pleasure as you good folks, I was really looking forward to sinking my teeth into this book. I hoped/expected to be equally entertained and horrified by what I read. Turns out, many of the revelations weren’t so shocking.

If you’re truly interested in the era, or even come across any Victorian texts at school, you will probably already know many of the “ghastly” things in this book. The truly interesting bits of information involving how people bathed and the “scientific” ideas behind sex at that time were sometimes buried beneath forced humor or the poor integration of humor and fact.

It’s certainly a delicate balance to strike—one that she hits more often than not—but it was difficult at times to focus on some of the passages when her tone wavered.

One of the book’s best qualities, though, is its intrinsically feminist approach to what life was like for women at the time. Women of the upper classes had it a lot better than other women, but they were still held to unfathomable expectations. If, for instance, you had a husband who wasn’t fond of abstaining from sex to prevent the conception of children, your uterus was basically a baby-making factory until you a) could no longer bear children, b) you died in childbirth, or c) you suffered from a prolapsed uterus, and doctors had to pin your organs back into place. Nice, right?

If you didn’t have the fortune of being pregnant for most of your miserable life, you probably had the joy of contracting a venereal disease from your philandering husband who has sex with prostitutes in dank alleys.

Life was rough, but Oneill’s book is not. Anyone interested in the Victorian era, women’s studies, or feminism in general will probably appreciate this book. Sometimes the jokes aren’t all that funny, and it might get a bit tiresome, but it’s worth your time if these things interest you.

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