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

Delightful and Sometimes Disgusting Reality Check

Let Therese Oneill be your tour guide back to what you might once have considered to be romantic times of the Victorian age.  In this book, Oneill exposes the smoke and mirrors of beautiful women with their upswept hairdos, gliding around the room in their voluminous dresses with tiny waists, pumped up bosoms, and perfect complexions.  With a seriously funny narrative, we learn that there were probably lice lurking in women’s elegant chignons, their corsets were not the only apparatuses hiding under those stinky dresses which never got washed, and the "enameling" process which gave ladies that glowing skin was most likely eating away at their faces—the price of beauty in the 1800s.

Oneill also leads you through the “unmentionable” mystique of feminine hygiene, childbirth, dangers of self-gratification, and general etiquette offering sage advice like:

"Using the wrong fork can cause weeks of gossip. Calling a person you've known your whole life by their Christian name is coarse and improper."[i]
"Just because you had to butcher a whole hog earlier this afternoon doesn't give you an excuse to look like one, dearie."[ii] 
"As a host, offer second helpings of every course. As a guest, never, ever accept this invitation. The preparation, presentation, and consumption of this meal are as carefully timed as a space-shuttle launch; your deciding you simply must have another go at those asparagus spears can derail the whole process." [iii]
I found this book to be hugely entertaining and oh-so informative. It left indelible images in my mind that will surely resurface each time I read one of my wonderful classics. Any thoughts of inserting myself into Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, or Gone with the Wind now blow away with a nineteenth-century stench that's as bracing as smelling salts.

My husband surprised me with this book for Christmas—and he did good.  Thumbs-up for a delightful and sometimes disgusting reality check! It would make for a great book club read, promising to bring about some lively discussions.

Update: After I delighted in this book, my husband and son also dived right in with eye-opening enthusiasm and whole-hearted chuckles!   

Happy Reading,

[i] Therese Oneill, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016), 132.
[ii] Ibid., 199.
[iii] Ibid., 231.


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