Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Private Life of Victorians

by Leah Price

New York Times

December 1, 2016

Have you ever dreamed of getting hired as an extra on Downton Abbey? Did you grow up coveting the bonnets on Little House on the Prairie? Do you fantasize about the good old days when your gentleman caller would have serenaded you instead of sexting you?

Be careful what you wish for, Therese Oneill warns in Unmentionable. For starters, you might miss the crotch of your panties: Victorian women’s underwear was slit down the middle, which facilitated peeing but complicated things at that time of the month. You might miss your little pink pill, too, if the alternative was a vaginal suppository designed to kill “germs. And possibly things that rhyme with ‘germ.’ ”

Unmentionable transports us back to the world of middle-class 19th-century women, with special emphasis on the messy details that costume dramas airbrush out. Acting as tour guide to her time-traveling reader, Oneill, a humor writer, tells us what we’ll wear (a lot of layers, none very clean), how we’ll power our vibrators (galvanic batteries) and where we’ll park our excrement (under the bed). With a 4-year-old’s scatological glee, Oneill details the logistics of old-time peeing, pooping, gestating, menstruating and mating — or, as the Victorians termed the carnal act, “jiggery-pokery,” “frickle-frackle,” “rumbusticating” and the “featherbed jig.”


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