Have you ever wished you could live in an earlier, more romantic era?
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 masturbating will kill you
~ And more
Irresistibly charming, laugh-out-loud funny, and featuring nearly 200 images from Victorian publications, UNMENTIONABLE will inspire a whole new level of respect for Elizabeth Bennett, Scarlet O’Hara, Jane Eyre, and all of our great, great grandmothers.
(And it just might leave you feeling ecstatically grateful to live in an age of pants, super absorbency tampons, epidurals, anti-depressants, and not-dying-of-the-syphilis-your-husband-brought-home.)
I’ve always been a big history nerd, but there’s so much about history that I still don’t know. When it comes to my own knowledge I’d say that the 16th century, in particular, is where I’m most at home. The Victorian era, on the other hand, despite having studied it in school and having studied a lot of Victorian literature at university, isn’t an era I’d say I’m any kind of expert in.
I am fascinated by the history of women, however, so Unmentionable has been on my radar for years and I finally got around to picking it up for research purposes. Outside of blogging (and working and everything else we need to do when we become adults) I like to write fiction, and when I started writing a short story set in the 19th century I knew I needed to learn a bit more before I accidentally wrote the over-romanticised version of the 19th century we often see in period dramas.
Unmentionable is such fun, easy reading, written by a historian who’s clearly passionate about her subject, and written as though Oneill is reaching out her hand and taking her reader on a walking tour of the 19th century. We’re taken through every aspect of a wealthy 19th century woman’s life, from what she wore to how she attracted a husband to how she might be diagnosed with hysteria, with Oneill’s snarky sense of humour that I worried might become tiresome, but didn’t.
That said, I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would. I really enjoyed Oneill’s sense of humour and there were a few times she made me laugh out loud, but in some ways this book’s humour was also its downfall for me because, having finished the book around half an hour ago as of writing this review, I’m remembering it as a funny book more than I’m remembering what Oneill actually said about the era.
Also, just to be annoyingly technical, Oneill mostly talks about women in North America. Considering the United States became independent in 1776, and Victoria didn’t ascend to the British throne until 1837, I personally wouldn’t describe these women as Victorian. This is only a small niggle, she does still talk about the lives of British women, but if I see ‘Victorian Lady’ in the title of a book then I would expect it to mostly focus on British women.
Overall, though, I do think this is a great introduction to women of this era, and it’d particularly be a great introduction for anyone who feels intimidated by non-fiction! Though I wish I had gotten a little more from it, I do appreciate that Oneill never lets us forget that, while we might laugh at the Victorian era, these are things that people genuinely believed and we can’t judge 19th century people by our 21st century standards.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t criticise the people who were clearly using their power and influence to ‘keep women in their place’—believe me, she does—but by praising progress as and when it happened in the 19th century, we’re also able to appreciate the women who made it possible for us to have the freedoms we have now all the more.