Reviewing: Unmentionable by Therese Oneill

Content warnings: Discussions of historical sexism

My rating: 5 books out of 5

Highlights: 

  • Who knew penises had so many magical, medicinal properties
  • I have never been so grateful for underwear with a crotch. 
  • I genuinely think if a man told me I was menstruating wrong I’d punch him in the throat. Or kick him in the genitals repeatedly while singing God Save the Queen. 
  • These women were heroes, honestly the amount of shit they put up with deserves a medal. 
  • Why are there so many tiny baths? 

“Remember, the center of a woman is her uterus. Her crazy, crazy uterus.”

Ever watched a period drama and thought, ‘Oh I’d love to dress/live like that’? Ever thought ‘hey I’d suit a Victorian gown way better than skinny jeans’? Ever longed for a polite and civilised dinner party, freshly cooked food steaming from silver platters, sparkling glasses of wine, women being women and men being men and everyone knowing how to waltz? 

After you read this book, you will never ever want these things ever again ever. Because it took three hours to dress, the clothes stank, you stank, there was ammonia all over your burning scalp and none of the meat in that glorious meal had ever been refrigerated. And no matter what you did, there was always an old white man on hand to tell you that you were doing it entirely wrong, you silly woman. Okay that last bit is still kind of true but you get the idea right? 

It was odd to me at first to find that this book looks into the lives primarily of American women during the Victorian period, I think because I automatically associate the word ‘Victorian’ with England, Sherlock Holmes and the Great Exhibition, but it was actually very interesting for me to see a slightly different perspective on things. I suppose that when studying Victorian England it becomes very easy to just kind of…forget the rest of the world existed? (Apart from the bits Victorian England was invading, those bits pop up quite a bit). It was quite nice to see outside the narrow scope I have otherwise encountered, even though America was in many ways very similar to England at the time (don’t quote me on that generally, I’m speaking in terms of the book’s contents, not broader issues which I’m sure we differed on quite a bit). It is always nice to me to look back across the world and find that we have similarities, often more than we do differences, at our most basic level. It also gave me a tremendous amount of love for historical women and utter admiration for the fact that they lived with all these bloody rules and managed not to commit violent acts of murder on the reg. 

Alongside the mansplaining, likelihood of a hysteria diagnosis, crotchless undergarments of the least sexy variety possible and endless opportunity for food poisoning, there were the rules about other people. Every dinner party was fraught with tension. Do you sit in the dining room, the sitting room, the parlour, the day room? Which room is which? Nobody knows but if you do eventually find the right room who sits where? It’s like the most judgemental game of musical chairs ever invented and the winner gets less social ostracisation, but probably still syphilis (not from the chair, one would hope, but rather from the other stuff in life like bleeding inappropriately or having unacceptable sex). You win some you lose some I suppose. 

I’ve seen mixed reviews about the tone of this book, generally being quite snarky, but I loved it. As a relative newcomer to nonfiction reading my brain still goes into panic mode form time to time when a piece of writing looks too much like the articles I read for my University work. History of English Literature has given me a Pavlovian fear response to citations. This is a book that presents facts, and often quite serious discussions about the rights of women throughout history, in a way that avoids being dense or daunting and instead had me laughing away on my lunch breaks. I love a bit of snark, as you can probably tell, and I think that books like this can be a great way to dip your toes into nonfiction, and even for more seasoned fact hunters it’s just good fun, and sometimes we all need that! 

This book made me very happy, and I can’t recommend it enough to those of you looking for a fun, fact filled jaunt into the world of hoop skirts, tiny bathtubs and etiquette. 

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