Apparently, I get easily depressed these days. I thought Therese Oneill’s book, Unmentionable, was funny. Until it was just overwhelmingly sad and depressing. Sometimes history can be like that, though. And this book focuses on various parts of women’s lives in the Victorian era.
Oneill takes a creative approach, imagining that a woman from this century time travels back to the past. She loves to read novels based in Victorian times, and thinks maybe she’d rather live in their time. Oneill begs to differ, and talks directly to that historical fiction fan. Plus, she makes her case with many images and quotes from the past.
First comes the straight scoop on all the dirt—on clothes, hair, streets, etc. Then she moves along to how a corset really binds. (And quite a lot about other undergarments.) Other topics are more personal—menstruation, elimination, birth control (or more likely not).
Since novels about this time period often focus on romance, Oneill lays that plain as well. She describes how a woman can enhance her beauty, and of course how to catch that man. Never mind that parents usually chose a woman’s husband.
Once married, a Victorian woman’s expectations depended on her social class. But either way, she birthed children, ran the household, and generally supported that husband of hers. Who probably brought home syphilis as well as the proverbial bacon.
Now imagine she’s sick with so-called “female problems.” The male doctors of the time really didn’t understand male anatomy, much less a woman’s internal workings. They were likely to pat our girl on her head, and diagnose “hysteria,” or some other “female dysfunction.” And if the case was severe enough (or they lacked knowledge enough), they might confine her to an asylum. Which would be enough to make you crazy, even if the actual problem was physical.
Society restricted Victorian women physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally. Given the choice, I certainly prefer to live in my own century, flawed as it sometimes feels.
I wish I’d continued to laugh as the book progressed, since I initially found it snarky and funny. But after about 100 pages, I just got depressed for these women. It was especially hard to read the quotes from the male experts, since they were incredibly clueless and judgmental. They are experts only at mansplaining.
I also couldn’t help but reflect on how much hasn’t changed since the Victorians. Sure, we aren’t forced to live in a filthy house with dirt floors (although globally, plenty of women still do). But it’s still hard to get the overwhelmingly male medical establishment to take women’s health, especially women’s pain, seriously. You just need to read Abby Norman or Porochista Khakpour to know that.
The Victorian misogyny described in Unmentionable utterly overwhelmed me. I wanted to cry, even though Oneill was trying to make me laugh. Her historical accuracy seemed spot-on, and the examples illustrated her points perfectly. It just made me sad for those women. Plus, I know there are also women today whose societies still have these attitudes.
If you enjoy history, especially about women’s lives, this is densely populated with information. Its comedic attitude helps the bitter realities go down more easily.