Monday, October 31, 2016

The Literal Best

Having very carefully thought for a full 20 seconds, I hereby declare the title of Most Fun Book I've Read This Year will have to go to Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners.  The entirely unscientific process of selecting this book as the winner is based on the sheer delight of the whole volume.

There are plenty of nonfiction "what was life like back in the old days" books.  I've got another one on my shelf right now that Li was reading for research--What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. It looks like fun, but it seems like more of a reference book--the first chapter breaks down British money (which is SO helpful. How does a pound relate to a crown, you ask?  Well, this book explained it, though I'll admit I still don't know).  So: great research, and interesting if you're immersing yourself; good, readable facts.

Oh, but Therese O'Neill's Unmentionable, this is not for researchers.  This is for people who have been mainlining Mr. Darcy all day and find themselves dying for a walk in the garden with a restrained young man.  It specifically pokes at the parts you're dreaming about, and the parts you're leaving out of that dream.

For example, more time is spent on the bathroom than in any other nonfiction I've read.  Well, not the bathroom--it's more of an outhouse, and a lot of the things you're thinking of were done in your bedroom.  There's information you didn't know about your undergarments, and how you'd go to the bathroom at a ball (the answer may shock you!). The actual smell of a London street is...easier but less pleasant to imagine after reading this.

The facts are the facts, but the fun is all in the telling.  The author is hilarious, addressing you, a time traveler into your favorite Austen book, with an intimate and frank humor, walking you through what your new life is like.  We skim the surface of a lot of subjects, and I'll admit that the social parts--strict rules of behavior and propriety--were not the most interesting, but mostly because I didn't know anything about how Victorians dealt with their periods.  Seriously, how can you not be dying to know?  It's hard enough with flush toilets!

The author's big-sisterly charm and sympathetic pats on the arm as you learn about the hard parts here just draws you through the book, and the frequent inclusion of old photographs and advertisements are hilarious.

This book made me miss The Toast.  It's not as cutting as Mallory Ortberg's work, but that's what it reminded me of--that perfect blend of hopeless love for an era and clear insight into its flaws.  I still want to wear the bonnet and walk through the garden, but I have a much deepened appreciation for modern sanitation.

I got a review copy of this book from Netgalley.

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