Many thanks to faintingviolet for passing off Unmentionable to me. It was an excellent compliment to Bound to Please, and reading the two together helped create a uniquely full picture for what life was like for the middle-class Victorian woman. It was bad. Plain and simple. While it can be argued that pestilence, disease, a lack of flush toilets, and leeches being the closest thing to an antibiotic made life tough for everyone, these books shed an undoubted truth that however difficult it was for the males in society, it was far worse for women.
Since beginning research on the 19th Century about eight years ago, I find myself blaming most of our current societal problems on the Victorians. This may be unfair, but my hatred for their society has more than solidified upon finishing these books. Did you know that prior to 1850, it was completely socially and morally acceptable to order safe and effective medicines through the mail to induce abortion because until life was felt, the fetus was considered a uterine obstruction? Because it was. Did you also know that the inventor of cornflakes suggested female mutilation as a ‘cure’ for masturbation? Because Kellog did (to be fair, Kellog suggested the same for men, but still). Neither book suggested anyone actually took this loon up on his ideas, but the fact that someone published his essay says something about their society.
While Bound to Please focuses specifically on the corset and the many ways in which it shaped (no pun intended) Victorian femininity and societal standards, Unmentionable takes a more rounded approach to the century. Oneill tackles everything from how one pooped in eight layers of clothing to what virginal, innocent girls could expect on their wedding night. I’ll break them down individually below:
Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset
Summer’s work is very academic and can be a bit difficult to get through if you’re reading cover-to-cover. As a research resource, however, this book is indispensable . She dissects the corset with several different societal lenses, looking at the corset’s class structure, views on maternity, the construction of female sexuality, women’s health, and how the corset begins its demise thanks to exercise and sports. While the language she writes in is high and academic, if you’re coming in for just a chapter or two, it’s actually pretty accessible. Summers uses great photography, copies of Victorian advertisements, and primary quotes to back up her research. There is no stone left unturned when it comes to fishing out the answer to why women tortured themselves in these garments for almost a century. And the answer is a difficult one, fraught with many layers of Victorian societal bullsh*t.
The two chapters that got my willies up the most were the chapters on maternity corsets, and women’s health. And yes, I’m coming at these things from a 21st Century perspective, but seriously, no woman should have to insert a cork contraption up there to keep her uterus in place because the underwear society insists she wears literally displaced her organs. It was so difficult to understand the Victorian mindset about maternity, and not because Summers is a bad writer, but because the Victorians themselves seemed to be confused. One one hand a woman’s whole role was to become a mother and raise a family. But on the other hand the process for her to become a mother was considered indecent and vulgar. Her bump was the very epitome of sin as it projected to the world that she was no longer the virginal angel Victorians like to think of women as. So the corset was used to hide pregnancy as long as possible.
The whole book is an interesting read, even if you only stick with it for the chapter that interests you.
Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners
As faintingviolet suggests in her review, Unmentionable is very accessible non-fiction in which Oneill takes the form of a Dr. Who time traveler and whisks us away to the actual Victorian era with all its stinking, chauvinist reality. The whole book is written as a dialog to the reader about what to expect as we masquerade as a middle-class woman of means throughout the century. While Oneill’s tone is tongue-in-cheek and cute, there’s absolutely nothing cutesy about her research. It’s incredibly thorough, and she quotes copiously from primary sources of the day to bring us exactly what women were being told by the ‘experts.’ As Oneill tells us, an ‘expert’ was often just someone with an opinion and proximity to a printing press. By reading this along with Bound to Please, the thing that really hit home to me was how confusing it was to be a Victorian woman. You’re supposed to be both virginal and a mother. You’re supposed to be modest, moral, and borderline divine, but also a sexy play-thing. You’re never supposed to wonder about your own body or pleasure, but you better make your husband happy or he’ll go find a prostitute. Your greatest life achievement was to find a good man and get married, but you weren’t allowed to let on to any man that you were interested in him because that was vile and forward. Corseting made you a lady, but it could also make you a tramp. You weren’t allowed to make decisions or own property, but it was your job to run a good household.
The thing I most liked was Oneill’s last page, in which her disclaimer suggests that not all women dealt with what she’s talking about. That some didn’t wear corsets so tight, or felt confusion over their sexuality. That some found autonomy and a way to carve out a place for themselves in this strange social world. But that the majority of women did live like this. Seriously, it was a bad time, and as much as change is still very necessary, it’s a bit comforting to know how far we’ve come.
4 stars per book.