I’ll admit that I was suckered in by the reviews of Therese Oneill’s Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. How could I resist a book about Victorian life told with non-stop snark? Reading Unmentionable is a lot like sitting down with a hilarious friend who just went on a Victoriana kick and now wants to tell you the highlights of what they found. Unfortunately, Oneill uses the second person (why am I finding so many of these lately?) throughout the book and most of what she relates is par for the course. I would only recommend this book to people who haven’t read much social history about the Victorian era and want some background on the Victorian mindset in an easy-to-read format.
I could not stop comparing Unmentionable to Ruth Goodman’s much superior book, How to Be a Victorian. While Oneill did quite a bit of research for this book, it’s primarily limited to advice books of the era. Advice books are aspirational; they tell historians what some people of the time thought people should behave. Advice books should be balanced against primary sources, artifacts, and whatever other information exists on how people actually lived during the time. After all, some of the advice (especially the medical advice) in those books is ludicrous—when it’s not outright detrimental to the health.
While most of the information in Unmentionable I already knew, I did appreciate the efforts Oneill did to dig up medical “expertise” and advice about menstruation and sex. Doctors of the Victorian era had some very strange ideas about menstruation and reproduction. I knew about hysteria, of course, but I had no idea that some doctors preached “ideal” menstruation. It’s clear these guys (and they were all guys) had never actually listened to women about their experiences. The medical literature of the time reads like a strange blend of sermonizing, half-remembered ideas from Hippocrates and the old boys of medicine, and pure guesswork. As for sex, well, there were so many social rules it’s a wonder that any of us are here at all.
Unmentionable is a breezy overview of Victoria life as seen from the advice books for the upper class. How to Be a Victorian is a better read for those who want to know what life was like for the full strata of Victorian society, with the added bonus of first hand experience as the author talks about wearing Victorian clothing and following their hygiene routines.