Those of us who read fiction set in either a historic period or a fantasy world inspired by history know that we’re getting a sanitized version of reality. For the most part, we don’t actually want to think about the reality of life before our currently level of food safety, medical science, and sanitation.
Sometimes, though, the image that’s painted is a little too rosy. We want a bit of the dirt and the grime. We want a more realistic acknowledgement of the stratification of society. And we wonder “really, how did women handle their periods in 1870?”
Enter Unmentionable by Therese Oneill.
The conceit of this book is that you, the presumed-female reader, are transported back into the life of a woman of a Victorian era. You’ve had the fortune to arrive as an upper-class lady living in the Northeastern United States (though the book touches on the South, England, and the plight of the poor). Fortunately for you, the narrator is another twenty-first century woman who has been in the past for a while, and has the knowledge to help you fit in.
You set out on a journey of discovery of what life was really like for the swooning heroines of your favorite romance or historical fiction novels.
Unmentionable touches on numerous aspects of life in the Victorian era, especially for women. Everything from the layers of your clothing to how you’d deal with the call of nature and menstruation to how to run your household and what to do if your husband cheats on you.
As you might expect from the cover and the concept, this book has a really cheeky tone. It’s a quick, entertaining read. I got through most of it on a 3 hour train ride. Honestly it’s the perfect sort of book for traveling, because you don’t have to worry about losing the thread of the plot whenever you have to watch a safety video or listen to an announcement about the next stop.
Because this book covers a lot of ground, it doesn’t get particularly deep into any one subject. Authors looking to research the Victorian era will need to look elsewhere. There is an extensive bibliography, so anyone looking to use this as a springboard for their own more thorough research will have some inspiration on where to go next.
Pros: Highly entertaining and thought-provoking, not afraid to call out some of the less-pleasant aspects of the Victorian era.
Cons: Broad and shallow, for entertainment purposes only.
Conclusion: You’ll learn a few things, you’ll laugh, you’ll wince, and you’ll be glad you live in the 21st century.
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