The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners


By Therese Oneill

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Have you ever wished you could live in an earlier, more romantic era? Ladies, welcome to the 19th century, where there’s arsenic in your face cream, a pot of cold pee sits under your bed, and all of your underwear is crotchless. (Why? Shush, dear. A lady doesn’t question.)

Unmentionable is your hilarious, illustrated, scandalously honest (yet never crass) guide to the secrets of Victorian womanhood, giving you detailed advice on: What to wear Where to relieve yourself How to conceal your loathsome addiction to menstruating What to expect on your wedding night How to be the perfect Victorian wife Why masturbating will kill you And more!

Irresistibly charming, laugh-out-loud funny, and featuring nearly 200 images from Victorian publications, Unmentionable will inspire a whole new level of respect for Elizabeth Bennett, Scarlet O’Hara, Jane Eyre, and all of our great, great grandmothers. (And it just might leave you feeling ecstatically grateful to live in an age of pants, super absorbency tampons, epidurals, anti-depressants, and not dying of the syphilis your husband brought home.)


Hello, Slattern

Thank you for coming. Please, won't you sit with me a moment, my friend?

I hope you'll forgive my familiarity, but I do insist on a certain amount of comfort and openness with my traveling companions. A journey of this sort is an intimate affair.

You've come to see me because you have heard of what I can do. Where I can take you.

You are a devoted fan of simpler times, I suspect? You can't resist any film where the heroine wears petticoats, lets her long, beautiful locks fly away from their tight bun in dramatic moments, and calls her father "Pa-PA!" when defying his choice of husband for her.

You think you know the nineteenth century well, as a place of chivalry and honor, gilded beauty and jolly servants. You've been there before, many times, but only as a guest, an observer. Dark-eyed Heathcliff has obsessed over your windblown soul in a universe where no one ever has to poop. You've been to the brightly lit ballrooms swirling with sumptuous silk dresses; you've watched clean-shaven young men contain their smoldering passions and ladies parry their advances with clever repartee.

And you have reason to believe I can draw back the veil of time even further? Well, my darling, you are right. I can take you there. I can make the past so real it will bring tears to your eyes.

But I cannot promise they'll be happy tears. A lady cries for lots of reasons. Frustration. Disappointment. The biting stench of the slaughterhouse when the wind shifts.

Most of the things you love about the nineteenth century aren't real, child. They're the curations of gracious hosts who tidy up the era whenever you visit through art, books, or film. You see only the world they want you to see.

But, if you take up your own residency, as I propose we do, the truth cannot be hidden for long.

And the truth, dear, is even better.

Come with me and we will vanquish myth. I'll be your tour guide to the real nineteenth century.

I will tell you what you must know to survive. I'll teach you about toilets, or rather the desperate lack of them, and more important what you're going to do about it. I'll show you how to bind and cloak your wobbly bits enough not to be arrested for solicitation, and how to conduct yourself in society so as not to be sent to the ice baths of an insane asylum. And I worry that the modern world has allowed you to forget how to properly interact with the opposite sex. Since relating with men is going to be about the most significant part of your life here (whether you like it or not), I'd like to give you a refresher course.

Because if you tour this world as your twenty-first-century self, you will suffer. If you dress comfortably, talk freely, and spend your accustomed five to twenty minutes on your personal appearance every day, you'll be what we in the nineteenth century call a "slattern." A lazy, boorish, miserable waste of womanhood.

And we don't want that, do we?

Oh, you could try to imitate what you remember from books and movies, taking your cues from Miss Scarlett or Miss Bennet. But they merely showed you the guest room of their world, a world where a man needed only to gaze in a woman's eyes to have his heart snared for life, and no one ever had heavy-flow days. Imitating them won't help you find where the housemaids keep the nineteenth-century version of Super Flow tampons. They won't be next to the toilet, dear, because now you dangle your bottom over an open pit, or pot, to do your business. And for that matter, pads will be tricky, too, because for some reason all your underwear is crotchless. You've watched every version of Jane Eyre ever made and there was never a single scene explaining that to you.

"What are you staring at?"

But I will.

Of course you must be amenable to some simple rules of travel.

Rule number one: I am capricious and omnipotent.

That fairly well covers it, actually.

I will be transporting you geographically, temporally, and through stages of life and levels of society without continuity or warning. That way we can absorb as many of the fun, important bits as possible.

You will arrive in the nineteenth century in the guise of a young woman of some wealth, European descent, and living in either America or Western Europe. This is not remotely reflective of the experience of most women during this period. Poverty, war, and abuse stalked the earth, and women got the worst of it. In fantasies of olden times, we all tend to picture ourselves as the heroine, conducting our drama draped in a silk shawl and hand-embroidered linen nightgown. In reality, it's much more likely you'd have been born either the slave who picked the linen's flax, the Native American displaced to plant it, or the near-blind, starving seamstress who sewed the finery by the light of a dying candle.

Although this journey will mainly stay within the boundaries of the later Victorian era, I will occasionally include information and images that come from before or after Her Majesty's reign, 1837 to 1901, the better to broaden your experience. Or just because it pleases me.

Do you want to know what is happening to your stately and spirited heroines when the curtains are drawn, when the scene fades to black? Do you want to explore the world that lies just outside the frame? You do, darling. I can tell. Most books and movies give you the foam, delightful and aromatic. I have brought you the bitter dark brew underneath. It's strong. But once you develop a taste for it, you'll never again be satisfied with just the fluff.


Getting Dressed: How to Properly Hide Your Shame

"Only to think, Julia dear, that our mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these! Ha! ha! ha! ha!"

No time to waste. Open your eyes. Awaken into your new life. You're in a sparsely decorated bedroom. The sheets are rough to the touch, the mattress hard, the air so chilly it shows your breath. And someone has left a pot of cold pee under your bed.

You've arrived, dear one. The year doesn't matter, nor the precise place; you don't have time to wonder at the details. You're expected downstairs. We must begin our lessons with haste.

So let's get you dressed, shall we? Pull off that surprisingly coarse linen nightdress and you'll be standing bare and shivering in your bedroom. Don't worry; you'll soon be wearing more layers than a five-year-old on a snow day.

Open your armoire and see if you can find some underwear. Back in the twenty-first century, you loved your underwear, didn't you? Whether you were sunk snug inside your granny panties, or rocking a sexy Saturday-night bra held together with only a scrap of red lace and pure sexual magnetism, they felt good. That which wobbled was bound comfortably and pleasantly presented; that which might leak or smudge was assured an extra layer of modesty.

I'd best break it to you early: you're going to be wearing a lot of things under your dress during your time here—but none of them will have a crotch. Your privates are going to be traveling unaccompanied today. Under miles of fabric, to be sure, but with a direct line of sight to the floor.

Ever wonder why the saucy, high-kicking can-can dance at the Moulin Rouge was so popular? It wasn't because the dancers were showing their stockings, or even their legs.

You have a bare bottom for good reasons. You will be wearing very heavy, long skirts that you'll never have cause to lift above your ankles. (Unless a good wind comes and flips your crinoline over your head. And if that happens you'll have to move to a new town and change your name.) So you risk no exposure. Why would you need a crotch? (Well, one reason periodically comes to mind, but we'll cover that in another chapter.)

"Madam, I don't mean to alarm you, but I can see your ankles."

To really understand how terrific it is to have nude nethers, we have to finish getting you dressed.

So put on your chemise. It's a lot like the nightgown you just took off, except lighter, wide-necked, and short-sleeved. It's actually quite pleasant. If you were back in the twenty-first century, you might wear it as a fun, simple sundress to a summer barbecue, or Shakespeare in the Park. However, if you do that here in the nineteenth century, you won't even have to worry about moving to a new town. You'll be safely tucked away in a sanitarium, where you will be strapped into frigid ice baths and given fantastic doses of opium until your hysteria abates. Remember, the center of a woman is her uterus. Her crazy, crazy uterus.

Now, even though we're leaving your lady parts free to sway in the breeze, we still need to cover your legs. The bottom part with stockings, of course, knitted and held up with garters. What covers the rest of your leg varies over the course of the century and could include pantaloons, bloomers, chemilets, pantalettes, leglets, or Turkish trousers. They're all basic upper-leg coverings worn under your chemise, tied at the waist. And until the end of the century, the legs don't connect to each other at the top. They're left split, with a slight overlap for modesty.

Open drawers

So, chemise, stockings, garters, and crotchless pantalettes. You are still practically naked. All your wobbly bits—there they are, just wobbling. That won't do.

Oh, how you'll miss your cherished bra collection on this journey. Work bras, sports bras, date-night bras, and the fraying, soft-cupped "I'm not leaving this couch until I've watched every single episode of Downton Abbey" bras. Brassieres won't become popular until the 1920s, and even then they'll be about as supportive as two kerchiefs tied together with wet paper. For now, dear, we're going to truss you up in your corset!

You've seen the X-rays of ribs grotesquely crushed by years of corset use, haven't you? Isn't it awful? Those horrid stays (the straight vertical strips that give the corset its power and shape) are made of unforgiving steel, or the nearly-as-unpleasant whalebone (actually whale baleen, but no matter). How are you going to breathe? How are you going to bend over? How are you going to move at all?

"I'm serious, Martha. If you don't do something to trim down that elephantine rib cage of yours, you'll never get a man."

Once you are assisted into your corset (back-laced or front-hooked, sometimes both), you'll discover something. Corsets aren't that bad. They don't have to be tightened to the point of spleen displacement. They can function as legitimate support garments, holding up your bosoms, perhaps even putting off the inevitable day when they will lie exhausted and battle-worn against your belly, flapping like tired little beaver tails with every step you take.

For women are fleshy creatures, and many of us feel more comfortable when that flesh is secure. Corsets, like the Spanx and bras of the future, provide privacy. Privacy that women are willing to sacrifice a little comfort for. In the twenty-first century, if your bust was drooping and your bottom flat and wide enough to shoot pool on, you could arrange your clothing to keep that information to yourself. But now, dear traveler, you don't have the option of flowing blouses and jeans made of fabrics that were originally developed for astronauts. You have a corset. And it works pretty well.

Corsets were available to compensate for every grotesque flaw, including pregnancy

As for breathing and bending over, there are smaller, shorter corsets that can provide a working woman some support while letting her scrub and sew her way to an early grave. (Your chemise is clean, by the way, because one of your maids spent an hour dunking it in near-boiling water and lye, until her hands cracked and burned, then wringing, hanging, ironing, and starching it. It isn't uncommon for even a small household to take two days to get the washing done.) A woman who is not of the working class doesn't have much reason to bend over in the nineteenth century. And if she does, a lady lowers herself, straight-backed, by bending her knees. She does not stick her posterior in the air like a common prairie dog.

Oh, look! Your maid has laid out your dress! This is precisely why you chose this travel destination. What a lovely frock. Such exquisite embroidery and hand-stitching. Such a voluminous skirt! No! Not yet. No touch. First, put on a loose shirt over the corset. Corset covers prevent everyone from seeing the outlines of your underpinnings.

Cage crinoline, circa 1865

Now, fetch the cage!

Cage crinoline, that is. You've happened to land midcentury (for now), during the hoop-skirt craze, where the simple flowing dresses of the Regency (think Jane Austen) have been replaced by the biggest, loudest bell-shaped silhouettes this side of Notre-Dame Cathedral. Yards upon yards of heavy wool have been used to construct your dress. To hold it up, you need to strap on your cage crinoline. It is precisely what it sounds like: a wire cage suspended from your hips or shoulders, over which your skirt will rest. These cages, which in their naked state are indistinguishable from something you trap wild dogs in, have a sensible use. Without one, you won't be able to walk.

The cage structure distributes the incredible weight of the fabric and holds the hem away from your feet so you won't trip. Well, you're probably going to trip anyway, because you're wearing forty pounds of clothing, your shoes are crazy pinchy, and there is an amazing amount of horse poop in the street. But it won't be because your dress is too close to your feet.

Now we add a petticoat or six, depending on how much ruffle you need to meet this year's fashion, and hurray! You're ready to have your maids tug your dress over your head and button you up. You look lovely, dear. Which makes me almost not want to tell you how uncomfortable and smelly your dress actually… you know what? We can just wait on that for a bit. You look lovely.

And now we return to the first question you asked yourself this morning as you looked through your undergarments: "Why don't any of the forty-seven pieces of clothing I'll be wearing have a crotch?" Well, let's do this.

Let me sneak you a pair of your old bikini cuts to wear under everything else. No one will know. In fact, wear them to the ball tonight! There you'll be, having a lovely time dancing, eating delicate bonbons, and trading even more delicate bons mots. You won't even care how thick the stench of body odor coated with heavy floral perfumes is. (Bathing, you will soon learn, is a huge pain in the butt in the nineteenth century. Thick perfume is so much easier.)

Now, run upstairs, squat over a chamber pot, pee really quick, and run back down to the party.

Yes. Hoist up that enormous poundage of wool, steel, and cotton with one arm and then pull down your underpants with the other. Go on.

The dangers of the crinoline cage

You fell over, didn't you?

Yes. And by the time you're all buttoned and laced up again, everyone will suspect you left the party for some other more embarrassing reason, like kissing the stable boy, or diarrhea.

That is why your dainty bits aren't covered. Because even though no one in Victorian society will admit to it, a lady has to pee, and "closed drawers," as they will eventually come to be known (because you "draw" them up and down!), make that practically impossible for a fully dressed lady.

Crotches will come together slowly as the century winds down. First buttons will appear, and then finally crotches will be sewn up altogether. This will most likely be due to the extreme narrowing of skirts that becomes popular by the 1880s. Crinolines will bundle themselves up into bustles, which are a lot like crinolines—just for your rump instead. A lady will not only be able to raise her skirts, but she will once again fit into her outhouse, although that may not be necessary, as most upper-class families will install indoor plumbing around the 1890s.

Speaking of which, it's time to learn how to navigate your new potty options. I believe you'll find them far more creative and numerous than you'd ever want them to be.


Bowels into Buckets: Nature Is an Obscene Caller

How much poorer history would be if there hadn't been so many artistically talented perverts in days gone by.

I want you to look at your nineteenth-century shoes. We wouldn't call them shoes today.

They're boots, made of black leather and usually ascending halfway up the calf, fitting closely, with a hard wooden sole. Once you wedge your foot into them, they are fastened by means of tightly spaced buttons, which, if you are in the unfortunate position of ever having to dress yourself, are freakishly difficult to manipulate. So difficult that a special hook has been invented to make it possible. By modern standards these shoes should be placed next to the fuzzy handcuffs in the window of the kind of store that sells edible massage oil.

Fashionable, yet uncomfortable enough to keep your gal from wandering

So why don't you see if you can find something a little less daunting to wear on your feet today? Oh, there's a darling pair! Delicate color, small and sweet. Your maid insists they are merely "house slippers," but they look like the closest thing to actual shoes available. What sort of slippers are made of kid leather and satin, anyway? They aren't even fluffy.

Now, out you go on the town, in your prim but chic little slip-on shoes!

Hello! Back so soon?

Venetian silk slipper

Oh, heavens. You descended your front steps and landed directly in a pig wallow of "mud," which you're pretty sure is 90 percent horse excrement? Oh, poor child! Deep down you know that's not just from horses. Come, now. Don't delude yourself, darling, it just makes this journey harder.

The nineteenth century is so, so dirty. Whether you're rich or poor, living on a farm or in the city, you are going to be ankle deep in filth wherever you go.

Filthiest. Century. Ever.

Some would argue that the nineteenth century was one of the filthiest times in all of Western history, particularly in any urban, developed area. Worse than when humans squatted in caves picking lice off each other. (By the way, you'll probably still have to do this on occasion. It's where the term "nit-picking" comes from. But, take heart, not in a cave, and to squat or not will be entirely at your discretion. So there's that!)

Ankle deep in filth, I said, but forgive me, I was inaccurate. You will wish the filth terminated at your ankles. Foulness is everywhere. Grime and rot cling to the very air, the buildings, the people; even the soap is made out of lard and poison.

There is no such thing as "fresh air" in the larger cities, unless the winds are blowing it in from other locations, usually at such an icy speed that the fresh air poses a greater threat than the miasma it displaced. There is no electricity and little available in the line of "clean burning" fuels (whale oil burns exceptionally well, but since you still possess a twenty-first-century conscience, you are a heartless monster if you use it). Yet every home and business needs energy, so you must burn something, like wood or coal. Burn for heat, burn for light, and burn for steam power. The result is the soot and smoke of hundreds of thousands of fires saturating the sky.

Flea Crush. Way better than playing Candy Crush.

And these fires don't produce a charming campfire smell. Though if they did, it wouldn't matter because even that wouldn't come close to masking the other smells. Remember your street, stretching before you, filled to the horizon with sewage, rotting offal, and other garbage? Life requires people to perform actions that create waste. And like the smoke that hangs above your city, the more solid pollution is there because it has nowhere else to go.

Regarding the fetid road sludge we'll have to call mud: one of the reasons it is so bad is that most of those streets weren't engineered; they simply appeared as they were needed. Many American streets started out as deer trails, and deer aren't known for ecological foresight. Such streets lack all those little whispers of design and maintenance that would send runoff to gutters and ditches to be carried away. Instead the runoff forms pools and collects in holes of stagnated, polluted "water."

In summertime the mud won't be such a problem, unless it's a wet summer, and then, well, malaria. (A French surgeon will be awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the disease is caused by mosquitoes that congregate around stagnant water—but that won't be until 1907, much too late for you. So really watch out for mosquitoes.) In summer you will have dust, endless choking dust, kicked up by every horse and carriage that passes. Bup bup bup! No. Don't bother starting in about cobblestones. Yes, they exist, and they help somewhat with dust and sludge, but I am not setting you down in any of the places that have them because most places don't and frankly you've already been cut enough breaks on this journey.

Particularly tidy Boston alley, 1890s

Now back to general filth in your new romantic life. Some things contribute more heavily to the problem. Take the issue of sewage treatment.

There is no sewage treatment.

There are sometimes conduits that sort of feel like sewers. Streets and a few municipal pipes dump all matter of soggy refuse into these tunnels, and the tunnels in turn carry the awfulness far, far away.

Well, not so far.

Actually, to the nearest large body of water. Which is usually located right in the center of town. Like the Thames, the Seine, or the Hudson. By 1860, the Thames, for instance, was visited by thousands of tons of fecal matter every day from all the pipes and runoffs that emptied into it. Imagine the smell on a hot day. Then get over it quickly because the smell is nothing.

The smell isn't the problem. The problem is that these bodies of water and their thoroughly polluted water tables are also where urban residents get their drinking water. For much of the nineteenth century, doctors didn't even know what germs were and certainly didn't think deadly invisible animals could exist to a fatal capacity in water, like so many tiny rabid unicorns.

People died because of this. By the thousands they died, from cholera, dysentery, typhoid. Diseases that occur when your body desperately tries to flush unwelcome bacteria from its digestive tract, usually killing you by dehydration in the process. Especially when your loved ones try to soothe your thirst by giving you more poisoned water.

Death patrols the Thames, which is filled with refuse.

Dirty water didn't even enter people's minds as a source of illnesses. They believed that bad air caused disease, which at least was an improvement on the previous century's obsession with removing "bad blood" from dying patients by the half-gallon. And some Victorian doctors still do that, so pick your physician wisely. Actually, don't—don't go to physicians.

You know better, dear. You know that it would be wise during your visit to stick to coffee and alcoholic beverages, because their methods of preparation kill bacteria. Now let me tell you why you know that.

There was a man, beautifully named given his influence on our world: Dr. John Snow. He treated cholera victims daily, breathed the same contaminated air, but never got sick. He was breathing their air, but he wasn't drinking their water. He drew a map of all the cholera victims in a certain neighborhood of London and noticed that all the worst outbreaks were centered on one thing: a single well pump. A dirty one, contaminated by sewage. Even stranger, there was one place in that neighborhood that suffered no cholera at all. And that was the brewery, where employees were apparently allowed to imbibe their own stock as their main beverage of the day.

"The outhouse is there, the slop water is there… just to keep things sanitary we better dig the well between them."

Dr. Snow retaught the world something it must once have known instinctually but had been forced to forget in order to survive overpopulation.

Do not poop next to where you drink.

And so midcentury, sanitation reform began in most major cities of the Western world. Better sewers, better garbage disposal. Cities began employing enormous task forces to keep their streets from being hell pits of disease and squalor. Which… ehh… helped?

But our twenty-first-century senses would still be assaulted. There were still limited disposal options for garbage, and endless smoke choking the air. Sanitation reform also couldn't change the fact that most people still needed to use outhouses, pit toilets, and latrines for their daily evacuations. Something you are going to have to get used to also.

The Lady's Toilette and Her Thunder Mug

I know you've come a long way, and no doubt one of your express intentions was to be in a place where people did not discuss their bodily functions in casual company. And now here you are again, listening to your (nineteenth-century version) mother complaining about how "her toilet" took an exceptionally long time today. You might as well have just stayed in the twenty-first century and endured the same discussions with her via cell phone.

But stout hearts, now. "Toilet" means something different here. We appropriated our word for the modern plumbing fixture from the French, who said it more like


  • "Hysterically funny and unsettlingly fascinating. This book is full of awesome."—Jenny Lawson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Let's Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy
  • "Oneill uncovers the filthy, untidy, licentious conditions of nineteenth-century women's lives that novelists of the period often glossed over...brilliantly conveyed with fascinating illustrations."—Elle
  • "Oh, did Constant Reader's heart lift after turning page the first. It's hard to imagine a woman - or a teenage girl - who won't love this book."—The Washington Post
  • "Oneill has created a book so excellently informative about the Victorian period, it should be shelved right next to Dickens for reference. Your stomach will hurt so much from laughing, you'll be thankful you're not wearing a corset."—Bustle
  • "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...With a 4-year-old's scatological glee, Oneill details the logistics of old-time peeing, pooping, gestating, menstruating and mating...For Oneill, Victorian time travel is a tour of horrors that makes us thankful to come home to tampons and toilets."—New York Times
  • "If Unmentionable does not secure the Pulitzer Prize for Most Fascinating Book Ever, the whole gig is rigged. Hilarious, horrifying, shocking and revelatory, this book is for every girl who pictured herself running through a field of wildflowers in a silk dress and Little House on the Prairie boots, only to discover she has nits in her hair, her clothes have never been washed and she sleeps with her poop under her bed in a bowl. A miracle of a book and one of my favorite reads ever, Unmentionable will be my go-to gift this year. All hail Therese Oneill for uncovering all of that dirty, dirty laundry."—Laurie Notaro, #1 New York Times bestselling author of It Looked Different on the Model and Housebroken
  • "If you've ever felt like you should have been born in another time, Unmentionable will disabuse you of that sensibility, and it will do so charmingly."—Vice/Broadly
  • "Flat-out hysterical (and occasionally alarming)...Read it and be very, very glad you're a woman of modern times."—Good Housekeeping
  • "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."

    The Millions
  • "A fascinating look into the shocking pseudoscience of the 1800s, in which Oneill sheds new light on the origins of today's misogyny, double standards, and just plain mystery surrounding women that, maddeningly enough, persist."—Booklist

On Sale
May 8, 2018
Page Count
320 pages
Back Bay Books

Therese Oneill

About the Author

Therese Oneill is the New York Times bestselling author of Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners. She can be found online at http://www.writerthereseoneill.com.

Learn more about this author