Over the course of my short Christmas vacation from work, I have gotten thoroughly addicted to Anne with an E on Netflix. I could probably do an entire blog post detailing the vast number of reasons I have developed a strong affection for this TV show, so I won’t delve into that now. But I do want to highlight a conversation that happens between Anne and several of her female friends in Season 1 , Episode 5 of the show. Anne had just started her period the previous night, and her friends were discussing whether or not theirs had started too. “This is so inconvenient,” exclaims Anne, bemoaning her period. The other girls immediately shush her. “No one is supposed to know! It is a shameful thing,” says one girl, checking to make sure no one has heard. Anne asks in a state of confusion, “Why?” Her best friend Diana responds, “It’s unmentionable, that’s why.”
I mean, I really couldn’t ask for a better example of how prevalent this state of mind was during that period (and still is currently, to a certain degree). Although I should note that technically Anne with an E takes place during the early Edwardian period, not the Victorian period, but you get the picture.
Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners is everything that I love in a book: quirky, hilarious, informative, and meaningful. The author, Therese Oneill, takes her audience on a journey through time. As the narrator, she is both lively and bitingly sarcastic, and her sense of humor made me laugh out loud on practically every page.
The book focuses mainly on well-to-do women in the 19th century (specifically those of European descent living in America or Western Europe), whose lives are often romanticized in the period dramas of our day. The reader assumes the role of a woman from this period, and is guided through the many rules and regulations of the time. The author does make the point that the lives of these women do not exemplify the experience of all women during that time. It is more likely that one would be born either poor or as a slave, and that hard labor would most likely be one’s lot in life. The adversities experienced by these women could fill another book entirely!
Perhaps you have indulged in some daydreams of a simpler time in the past involving ornate dresses, waltzes, and passionate proclamations from a devoted lover. Therese endeavors to handily toss that all out the window and expose the times for what they really were: dirty, uncomfortable, and sexist as hell.
With chapter titles such as “Getting Dressed: How to Hide Your Shame”, “Being a Good Wife: How to Avoid His Eventual Resentment as Long as Possible”, or my personal favorite, “Birth Control and Other Affronts to God” the author covers a variety of subjects. You will learn about the many layers of clothing required by polite society (including crotchless underpants)! Toilets and bathing procedures are covered in their own chapters, and both were more complicated and demanding of time than one might realize.
Menstruation (i.e. a woman’s greatest shame), perhaps one of the ultimate unmentionable topics, incited disgust and revulsion in the male populace. Sadly, there are almost no surviving documents about periods written by women, so we are forced to turn to the grossed out men to shed light on the subject. Therese includes numerous excerpts from the contemporary writings of the time throughout the book. You will discover that men, despite not having experienced menstruation themselves, have a good deal to say about it. Prepare yourself for nonsensical, confusing, and utterly jaw-dropping presumptions that were somehow passed off as fact.
Your appearance was of the greatest importance, because how else does one snare a husband and achieve life’s greatest accomplishment of wifehood? Cosmetics were frowned upon, as was a mussed up countenance. And God forbid that you were too thin or too fat, as these were telling signals that you were of questionable character. As Therese points out, a generous dose of body shame is always a good idea in this century!
You will learn how one flirts correctly in the 19th century (Spoiler alert: you don’t. You wouldn’t want your neighbors to think you are some sort of street walker.) But don’t despair! You can do all of the handkerchief twirling and dropping that your heart desires.
Another unmentionable subject that Therese sheds light on is the all important wedding night, as well as contemporary views of sex and birth control. Let me tell you, this book gives you a very good idea of the “science” of the day, and it’s shocking, to say the least.
I won’t spoil the rest of the book for you, but Therese also covers keeping a home, public behavior, hysteria, and the soul-sucking, body withering habit that is masturbation.
This book bestows upon the reader a great deal of important information. I think that present day readers, both men and women, will greatly benefit from enlightening themselves on these topics. It is imperative that we be aware of how extremely different life was for women just a little over a century ago. They led lives that were dependent on their male relatives or husbands, and there were few chances for autonomy. Their sense of self was tainted by shame, and the natural processes of their bodies were unmentionable in society.
If anyone thinks that feminism isn’t necessary or even relevant anymore, I would urge them to educate themselves thoroughly in women’s history. Many of these archaic modes of thought still survive today. It is vital that we understand the history of misogyny so that we are able to take a firm stand against it. Put this book on your to-read list immediately, and move it right to the top!
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