Book Review of ‘Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners’ by Therese Oneill

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There are those who yearn for the days when life was ‘simpler,’ the chance to flounce around in pretty dresses, running through fields of heather on a dusky moor to pine away for lost loves.  I’ve certainly fallen into that trap before, especially while watching (okay, re-watching) Pride and Prejudice, but all one needs to do is open a history book to realize that nostalgia is stupid.  And, if you’re going to read a history book, why not delve into one describing the almost unbelievable Victorian attitudes towards women?  Oneill’s delightful book rips the lacy veil from the Victorian era to highlight the ridiculous rules and concepts imposed on women.  For example, women were thought to be addicted to menstruating.  Seriously.  The book opens with an invitation and a warning: “I can take you there.  I can make the past so real it will bring tears to your eyes.”  Oh, she does.

There are rules that will make you laugh out loud to stories that will make you want to want to stomp your foot at the sheer stupidity of the past.  To be a woman in the nineteenth century must have been a constant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ kind of situation.  As an archaeologist, I want to know the nitty-gritty aspects of life, and Oneill does not disappoint when it comes to detail.  How on earth did women take care of business in 20 pounds of petticoats and lace?  Now I know.  And then there are all the details I did not necessarily need to know, but those facts are burned into my memory now.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this delightful romp through the past—it will make you appreciate the small things in life, like flushing toilets, pads and tampons, modern medicine, and basic human rights.

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