Unmentionable (CBR9 #37)

Image result for unmentionable the victorian lady's guide

One of the questions I receive most often at my job as a educator at historic sites is “wouldn’t you love to live back then?” For reference, that encompasses a period of time roughly 1820-1920 and the answer is a resounding no. I am all about indoor plumbing, air conditioners, and not being considered property. This book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill lays out all the ways life was downright terrible for women life was during that same approximate period.

For most people this would not be considered a beach read. For me it absolutely is. Lumenatrix coined the style of this type of book as “accessible non-fiction”, which I completely agree with and am now stealing. I’ve always thought of it as “non-fiction with a sense of humor” like Mary Roach’s books. Therese Oneill is wonderfully sarcastic and direct in her prose, and the structure of the book is well thought out and easily followed. Oneill moves naturally from one aspect of daily life to the next laying out all the differences for life of women in the firmly upper middle class then to life today.

For me, the best part of this book is the way in which Oneill weaves in primary resources, both visual and print into her narrative. While I already knew much of what Oneill discussed, having access to her resources was a bonus to me. So much so, that I immediately passed it along to Ale since she is researching Victorian ladies and their unmentionables for an upcoming project.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 


Far From the Madding Crowd (CBR7 #87)

Following the praise of the audio version of Far From the Madding Crowd read by Nathaniel Parker by Malin and bonnie this year I decided that I would attempt my first Thomas Hardy. While I had a pretty good foundation in literature at school there are definitely some classics, or classic authors, that have escaped my purview (looking at you Charles Dickens). I don’t remember if I’d heard good things or bad, but I was definitely a little wary of this undertaking.

I should not have been worried at all.

The logline for this novel was simplistic, but the story is not. From Goodreads: “This is the story of Bathsheba Everdene, who inherits her uncle’s farm, then surprises the villagers of Weatherbury by deciding to run it herself rather than hire a manager. Three men vie for the affections of this independent young woman.” Sounds like a basic romance novel set-up, right? But it’s not. I also argue that Bathsheba, while the hub at the center of the narrative wheel, is not truly the main protagonist. Perhaps that was Hardy’s goal, but the parallel story of Gabriel Oak (the first of the aforementioned three suitors) is at least as strong, if not stronger, than Bathsheba’s.

What I found to be truly engaging about this work, some 140 years after its original publication, is that Hardy uses the characters to explore the dynamics of marriage, courtship, and selfhood. What defines each of these people? For Gabriel it’s the losses he experiences early in the book, and then the success later. For Bathsheba it’s her decisions to be independent, and then the circumstances which change that reality. For Sergeant Troy it’s the capricious nature of the decisions he makes about his life, which will eventually be its undoing. For Farmer Boldwood it’s abandoning his preconceived notions of himself as a confirmed bachelor. By giving each of these characters a linchpin hardy really digs into what long-term consequences come of both the small and large choices they, and by extension we, make.

I also loved the title of this book once I got used to it. In the pubic consciousness we don’t usually use the word madding anymore. For a very long time I thought this book’s title was Far From the Maddening Crowd and have to remind myself it’s not every time I talk about it (I’ve been singing its praises to my local peeps).Upon a little research I discovered that the phrase madding crowd is used to indicate especially the crowded world of human activity and strife. Then Weatherbury should indeed be far from the madding crowd. However, this novel is all about the basic human activity and strife we all experience, regardless of whether or not there are throngs of people near us.

Definitely a 4.5 read. Give it a chance.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.