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Before birth control pills and disposable tampons were widely available, women relied on futile contraceptive methods (like withdrawal) and clunky belted contraptions stuffed with lard-coated sheep’s wool to absorb menstrual blood. In the 19th century, it was considered improper for upper-class unmarried women to walk about in public without a male family member or a married female friend as escorts – and when one did, there was stringent decorum to follow (missteps like raising one’s petticoat to step over a puddle or retying one’s bonnet strings were seen as provocative, even scandalous gestures). In Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners, Therese Oneill delves into the social expectations and beauty standards that women of a certain milieu (white, middle to upper-class, living in American or western European cities) contended with during the Victorian era.
Oneill guides the reader through sections about fashion and beauty trends, general hygiene practices (or lack thereof), and expectations for courtship and marriage. The chapter titles underscore the narrator’s sharp wit: You’re Doing it Wrong covers menstruation; How to Properly Hide Your Shame is about getting dressed; and You’re a Little Bag of Pudding is on dieting trends. Early on, Oneill establishes what kind of narrator she will be, writing simply: “I am capricious and omnipotent.” She warns that this will not be a 19th century book brimming with “delightful and aromatic” details but rather one that gets into “the bitter dark brew underneath”.
That bitter, dark brew underneath, as it turns out, is rich with information that will amuse and sometimes horrify its readers. To ease the transmission of such knowledge, Oneill addresses the reader affectionately, calling her/him by terms of endearment like “darling”, “cherie” and “lambkin”. (Other words she uses: dear one, missy, chubby little cherub, my virgin flower, my little dumpling, you tawdry thing, dearheart, my gosling, pet, fragile flower, and my intelligent companion.) She oscillates between playing the role of the benevolent, all-knowing guide; the conspiring comrade and confidante; the whipsmart friend; and the expert Victorian slang translator. The reader, she presumes, is weary of 21st century fashions, and excited to wear elaborate dresses to ornate parties – surely a Jane Austenphile. “Dear one,” she writes, the 19th century was horrendous for women, and not for the faint of heart.
Beauty standards were the same then as they are now – narrow, damaging and highly variable by class. The specifics have changed though; for Victorian women, the idealized body was what Oneill terms “opulent but lithe”, plump without being fat, small-waisted but not too delicate, and possessing hourglass proportions. To mold their bodies into the desirable (and impossible to achieve) physiques, women wore corsets ribbed with steel and whalebones. Hoop skirts resembling cages served as the structural support and weight distributor for heavy layers of crinoline and petticoats. Underneath, crotchless pants were worn to make squatting over one’s chamber pot, or, primitive toilet seat, easier.
Through irreverent prose, readers learn that powdery white lead was used as a makeup base, until enough enamel-faced women dropped dead from lead poisoning. Also, a significant amount of women, as Oneill explains, slept with raw meat tied to their faces as a preventative treatment for wrinkles (the idea came from trying to replace fatty tissue with other fatty tissues). Even more disturbingly, women that wanted to lose weight bought tapeworm larvae, which they swallowed in pill form to let grow in their intestines. Have you read enough? Oneill will tell you, then, that Victorian couples used condoms made from thick animal-skin sheaths that were often painful for both partners.
Most of the sources Oneill cites propagate misinformation about female anatomy and sexuality; some parts are depressingly prescient, while others are amusingly archaic. When, in 2016, a presidential candidate doesn’t understand how an abortion works (“in the ninth month you can take the baby, and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother”), and a large swath of the American population believe that women shouldn’t have control over their bodies, it feels, unfortunately quite salient to look at the ways Victorian literature denigrated women’s bodies.
To inform the book, Oneill pored over scientific articles and academic books, written almost exclusively by men, the majority of whom hold deeply misogynistic beliefs. They hypothesized that female orgasms radiate from the womb, and that masturbation (what they called “self-abuse”) causes a wide range of problems: finger warts, uterine disease, cancer of the womb, sterility, small or droopy breasts and spinal abnormalities. According to more than one author, if one’s blood color during her “monthly unwellness” (otherwise known as period) is too dark or too light, too thick or too thin, it might signify tuberculosis.
Hysteria was a catchall misdiagnosis for symptoms now understood for “epilepsy, diabetic shock, neural disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, postpartum depression, and bipolar disorders”. Yes, Oneill writes, electric vibrators were used to relieve women of “hysteria symptoms”, but don’t delight too much, she warns the reader – they were often used on all areas of the body except for the patient’s clitoris.
The Comstock Law (1873) significantly hindered women’s ability to find accurate, scientifically sound information about their bodies. It banned “every obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character, and every article” related to human sexuality, broadly, and contraceptive methods, specifically. (This is the law that was used in 1914 to indict Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, for publishing an informative pamphlet about birth control.)
Unusual sepia-toned illustrations, archival photographs, and advertisements (for crocheted sanitary products and arsenic facial wafers, among other things) appear throughout the book. These visual breaks provide comic relief from the grim realities that each chapter presents anew. In a section about the proper etiquette for travel (wear plain, neutral-colored clothing, no jewelry), Oneill includes a photograph of her great-grandmother and sister. She punctuates each photo with a sly caption (for instance, under an ad for menstrual aprons, she writes: “Your late-19th century armory against the Red Baron(ess)”).
To some, the narrator’s affected tone and liberal use of personal pronouns may be overwrought, but it’s precisely that playful application of language that makes the horrendous plight of Victorian women palatable to modern audiences. Oneill succeeds in making otherwise dry information (the proper order of eating utensils, the development of modern sanitation) sparkle while introducing colloquialisms from the “historical epoch of quackery” that are sure to entertain her readers. (If Victorian slang for sex – “playing a game of nug-a-nug”, “scrumping” and “bonestorming” – doesn’t invite a cackle …)
Oneill brings the reader back into the modern era with a list of things not to be taken for granted, among them: pants, marital rights, fat-free froyo, effective ibuprofen, shampoo, high-performance synthetics, and male partners capable of cooking dinner. As she concludes, in what could be interpreted by optimistic readers as a triumphant message: “Each generation [wipes] away one more layer of patronizing grime from the minds of their descendants.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Unmentionable review – the Victorian sex manual revisited | History books