We live in an age when there’s a new Brontë orJane Austen adaptation every year. To the contemporary reader, Victorian novels are full of petticoats, windswept walks through the country, and brooding gentlemen declaring their love through letters. The worst that could happen is you catch a cold after getting caught in the rain — sex is characterized more by not-having than by having. “Dark-eyed Heathcliff has obsessed over your windblown soul in a universe where no one ever has to poop,” writes the narrator of Unmentionable, Therese Oneill’s new nonfiction book on what is was really like to live in the Victorian era for a woman — poop, corsets, archaic birth control, and all.
Culling her information from hundreds of pamphlets written by so-called doctors of the 19th century, Oneill dredges up all the unsavory parts of the Victorian era from eugenics to hysteria. The Oregon humorist had been writing articles like this for Mental Floss and Jezebel for years when Little Brown approached her to write the book. Although it’s nonfiction, Oneill writes from the perspective of an all-knowing, slightly cheeky Victorian woman giving guidance to the contemporary woman. The result is a thoroughly researched but hilarious look into daily life of the Victorian woman. “It’s not an underwear history book, but it is,” Oneill joked when she spoke to The Millions recently about how she got interested in the subject, the most shocking thing she found, and how Victorian society is still relevant.
The Millions: Victorian sexuality is such a big, complicated, and often absurd branch of history. How did you first get interested in it?
Therese Oneill: In college, I got a kick out of collecting pre-sexual revolution sex and hygiene books because they were godawful and hilarious. The first two I found in an antique store in the window: “Advice for Mothers and Daughters” and “Advice for Fathers and Sons.” Some of these books were earnest. You can’t blame anybody because they have 100 years less knowledge than you do. But these men who may or may not be doctors were so certain they were correct, even with no science, tests, double-blind studies.
TM: I always assumed Victorians just didn’t discuss sex, so it’s fascinating they had these pamphlets. How did those come to be?
TO: People didn’t like to talk about sex and the body. They were prudes. They just wanted to be proper. And at the time Victorians were getting smarter; now they can read, but they still can’t find answers. So smart guys would frame information in the context of hygiene and godliness because God wants you to be clean, and it worked.
TM: So you knew these pamphlets existed, and you even found a few, but how did you research the rest?
TO: I cherry-picked from the books and pamphlets. These men are lunatics. There were doctors back then who probably were smart, but the pamphlets that were bought were pulled out of somebody’s ass. They were framed in morality, like of course if you masturbate, you’re going to die. Those are the books people bought, and those were mentalities that took hold. There were medical journals, but no one bought them.
I have two full, eight-inch shelves of pamphlets and more. And there’s this little thing called Google Books, where they’ve uploaded pamphlets. If you know the right search terms, you can be brought to most bizarre contemporary resources. I would type in words like “sin, woman, childbirth.” They thought if you did suffer during your period, you were terrible person. They thought they could figure out what your problem was as dictated by period blood. It was stuff they could not ever have known; even today I don’t know how you could possibly conduct those tests. But they were so proud they were using modern science and techniques. The problem with these guys was they never suspected for a second that they weren’t right. People in the 19th century would never admit they didn’t know something; they’d make it up.
TM: That’s a fairly alarming way to dispense medical advice. What was the most shocking thing you came across during your research?
TO: Doctor John Harvey Kellogg was so respected and had hundreds of patients. But he had an obsession with masturbation, and most of his biographers think he was celibate his whole life, even though he was married. Kelloggs cereal was invented to keep bowels and genitals clear of congestion. Whatever you’re not allowed to talk about is what you’re obsessing about, that’s all of Victorian sexuality. A mother brought in her daughter, a 10-year-old rape victim. As a result of the rape, the girl couldn’t stop touching her genitals. The modern take on this would be masturbation is self-soothing technique or she could’ve been hurt. But he recommended genital mutilation with a big smile on his face. Afterwards he didn’t even follow up on this child. I hate his guts, but I had to allude to it kind of softly in the book.
TM: What made you devote a book to this topic?
TO: I wrote a lot of articles for places online, and those articles were always a hit. Like “7 Ways to Keep Your 19th-Century Man Happy.” I would use quotes from those books, and the response would be huge. But it’s what I’m interested in. You know what I did last Saturday night? I read the bylaws of the Philadelphia tax code in 1828 — for fun. I like that stuff, and it unravels the way the world works.
TM: We often think of ourselves as rather removed from the Victorian era, even though a lot of our concepts and systems come from it, like childhood, modern zoos, etc. Would you say that the topics in this book are still relevant?
TO: Nothing is different really. Everything a woman would deal with back then had to do with hygiene and beauty: they’d wear lead on their faces and these constrictive corsets. But those are no different than heels or Botox. Vanity will never leave us, so we don’t care or don’t notice the accumulation of things that aren’t good for us. I guarantee we’re doing something now that’s equally destructive.
There will always be alternative medicine, or you believe you know this secret oil that will cure your cancer. People don’t trust big establishments; they think the medical establishment is out to get us and charge us money. But in 100 years, they’re going to look back at us like we were absolute dumb asses, like pumping poison into our body to cure cancer.
TM: One of my favorite things about this book is the voice of the narrator. How did she come to be?
TO: I am a humorist, and the funniest thing about this information was how seriously they took it. I wrote a nonfiction book, but I wrote a fictional narrator, and she believes all this stuff works. She’s a combination of brothel madam and the Dowager Countess, who knows all the grit but is going to teach you how to be a lady. She was funny, and I loved her. The voice came to me on day one, and I kind of use that character in the articles I wrote anyway. My favorite parts were when I could be funny. I get called snarky a lot online, and I don’t want to be snarky. I want to be ironic and satirical.
TM: It’s interesting to narrate the book from a woman’s perspective when it was such an oppressive time, and men were the ones writing these pamphlets. Was that ever difficult to reconcile?
TO: There are a couple places I feel I didn’t give enough credit to the difference in the era. Ladies did have to be different back then. It was a different world. They were oppressed with how they had to do things back then to run a household. Laundry took two days. I don’t want anyone to think the men were jerks back then. They were ignorant, but they were doing the best they could with a few exceptions of blowhards who I quote liberally.
TM: We’re so obsessed with Victorian literature and Jane Austen film adaptations these days. How would contemporary women fit in?
TO: We’re so far removed now from how awful it was back then. The books that were written in that time don’t mention poop. In the paintings we see, women don’t have hairy legs. It’s not our fault, but this art has led us to be inaccurate. Being back there would be a lot more complicated than you think it would be. Your modern senses would be offended. You’d be disgusted.