Review: Unmentionable

Unmentionable, Therese OneillIf you’ve always thought that a clean, simple frock is better than low-rise jeans, that you would enjoy living in the time of Charlotte Bronte, or that the centuries before ours were simpler and better…this book is not for you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners will disabuse you of the laughable notion that the 19th century would be a fun place to spend any time.

Not only is there arsenic in pretty much anything you put on your face, there’s also no refrigeration, no talking to a man who’s not your husband or father, and definitely no talking about s-e-x. There’s also an astonishing array of crotchless clothing, and fat-shaming is totally a thing.

Therese Oneill’s book is an awesome examination of the horror show that was the 19th century. Let’s check out the revolting details, shall we?

Hello, slattern

I figured any book that starts with these words is probably going to be amazing. And I was right! Unmentionable is a sassy, snarky look at an era many people tend to romanticize.

Oneill starts you off with getting dressed (hide those ankles, ladies), and shares makeup tips (you know what’ll take care of those freckles? Acid!). Then it’s on to discussing periods (no matter how you manage them, it’s not the right way) and how to land a husband (by never speaking to him, apparently).

Next up we’ve got the typical “Your womb is a wandering monstrosity that makes you crazy” garbage, followed by quotes from old white dudes who thought birth control, masturbation, and visiting museums was going to lead to humanity’s downfall.

And it’s all written in the best tone ever. For example, in a section called, “Give Him NOTHING”:

You are a prize to be won. He must work to capture your affections and approval. Only the stupid and slutty trout leap out of the water to gain the fisherman’s attention. The virtuous trout simply allows the sun to gleam briefly on her shining scales and then dives back to the shadowy depths. Only a skilled man with the finest of fake bugs can ream a metal hook through her mouth. You are that trout, and the metal hook you are about to be impaled on is holy matrimony.

Unmentionable had me chortling and reading sections aloud to my husband. He didn’t think it was as funny. Maybe I let a bum fisherman catch me? Oh well. I shall comfort myself by reading this book again and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Victorian era!

Review: The Scarlet Sisters

The Scarlet Sisters, Myra MacPhersonVictoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claftin were two of the children of a backwater snake oil salesman. The sisters spent their childhoods telling fortunes and handing out quack cures. They were not destined for great things.

But the Gilded Age had a habit of propelling the least likely people to unimaginable heights. In a time when women were still considered property, Victoria and Tennessee did the unthinkable: they fought for women’s fiscal, political, and sexual independence.

Ahead of their time

These ladies were badasses.

They were friends with Cornelius Vanderbilt, Susan B. Anthony, and Karl Marx; they went toe-to-toe with Anthony Comstock, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

They were the first women to open a brokerage firm (the second woman-owned firm opened almost 100 years later), as well as the first female publishers of a radical weekly newspaper. In 1870, 50 years before women could vote, Victoria Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States; a year later, Tennessee ran for Congress.

I’ve read so much about American history and all of these people; how the hell have I not heard of Victoria and Tennessee?

Fact vs. fiction

According to author Myra MacPherson, historians and biographers sometimes take the saying, “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good feature story” a little too seriously.

But it’s not all their fault. The sisters — perhaps embarrassed by their upbringing and interested in being fascinating figures — changed and embellished and ignored aspects of their lives when it suited. Newspapers were interested in sales, not facts, and sensationalized everything the sisters did.

The Scarlet Sisters is the result of MacPherson’s deep research into Victoria and Tennessee’s lives, including thousands of pages of books, letters, newspaper articles, and court records. It chronicles their sudden rise to fame, their involvement with the suffrage movement, and the scandal that eventually, if temporarily, ruined them.

In like lions, out like lambs

Victoria and Tennessee were popular, but they were also vilified. Rumors and scandal followed them wherever they went, and their radical views (particularly around “free love”) made them pariahs to the same movements they were trying to help.

I think at the end of the day, they were just tired. Tired of hiding and reinventing their histories, of being sued and jailed, of being eviscerated in the papers, of constantly having to defend their legitimacy as human beings.

Like many famous people of the Gilded Age, the sisters faded into obscurity in their later years. They moderated their radical beliefs, and in many ways became like the women they once seemed to pity and despise.

Did they truly believe all the things they said in speeches, their newspaper, and in court? Or was it merely another attempt to reinvent themselves, to escape from a dismal childhood and become fabulously wealthy and famous in the process?

We’ll probably never know the whole truth. But that doesn’t make Victoria and Tennessee any less worthy of mention in the history books. They were intelligent, courageous women far ahead of their time, and I think everyone should know more about them.

Review: Lincoln’s Battle with God

Lincoln's Battle with God, Stephen MansfieldThe debate over whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a “real” Christian began before he was elected to political office, and continues over 150 years after his assassination. He was an avowed atheist in his youth; yet Mary Lincoln said that her husband’s last words were a whispered longing to travel to Jerusalem and walk in Christ’s steps.

Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America is author Stephen Mansfield’s attempt to trace the development of Lincoln’s faith throughout his lifetime. What caused him to distance himself from religion as a young adult, what brought him back to a belief in God, and what could that journey mean for us?

A new angle

Lincoln is one of my heroes, and I’m always excited to read anything I can about him. But I was surprised to see Lincoln’s Battle with God on the shelf at the library. Most of the Lincoln books I’ve read don’t focus on this aspect of his life, and it never really mattered to me whether or not Lincoln was religious.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that Lincoln wrestled with religion. His mother’s death when he was still a child left him at the mercy of a dictatorial Calvinist/Baptist father, and he lost two young children to horrible illnesses. He was elected to lead a country that was coming apart at the seams, and presided over the deadliest years in American history.

The early years

Lincoln was raised in a faith that decreed everything pre-ordained. God was distant and detached, allowing bad things to happen simply because they were “supposed to.” Lincoln believed from a young age that he was both gifted and cursed — that he had been granted knowledge and ambition so that he would be forced to experience humiliation and degradation.

Lincoln spent his young adulthood in New Salem, Illinois, where he gained a reputation as an “infidel.” The poetry of Robert Burns and the writings of Thomas Paine reinforced Lincoln’s opinion of Christians as arrogant and hypocritical, and pushed him further away from religion; friends heard him call Jesus “a bastard,” and he called the Bible a book of contradictions.

A fascinating journey

How did Lincoln go from “infidel” to expressing a desire to visit Jerusalem? Mansfield believes it was a gradual process, informed by Lincoln’s reading, thinking, and life experiences. Lincoln came to believe himself to be God’s instrument, placed on earth to fulfill God’s purposes rather than man’s.

I’m not sure Lincoln ever became a Christian — but his faith is something I would love to emulate.

(I read this book as part of Non-fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

Review: The Wicked Boy

The Wicked Boy, Kate SummerscaleIt’s July 1895, and brothers Robert and Nattie Coombes are having the perfect summer. With their father away earning a paycheck and their mother visiting relatives in Liverpool, the boys take all their meals at coffee houses, visit the seaside and theatre, and attend local day-long cricket matches.

When their aunt — suspicious that the boys’ mother hasn’t written or returned — forces her way into the home, she discovers something horrifying: the decomposing body of Emily Coombes.

13 year-old Robert confesses to stabbing his mother, and expresses no remorse. The court hears testimony about his debilitating headaches and mood swings, as well as his obsession with “penny dreadfuls” and their glorified violence.

This testimony, plus the lack of any known motive, leads the jury to declare Robert Coombes insane. He becomes one of the youngest ever inmates of Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in history.

The Victorian era was the epicenter of titanic shifts in the way society thought about criminality and criminals, education, and the effects of pulp fiction on the human brain. The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer focuses on these shifts — as well as the astonishing life of Robert Coombes.

“The Plaistow Horror”

I am obsessed with this book. I finished it weeks ago, but have been avoiding writing a review because I can’t figure out where to start.

The first few chapters were unsettling. The boys seem like callous freaks. Who murders their mother and then spends a week going out on the town while her body decomposes in an upstairs bedroom?

No one really knew what to believe. Both the defense and the prosecution informed the jury that Robert’s headaches, behavior problems, and collection of gory literature were the result of a twisted brain. His defense team believed he was insane; the prosecution believed he was a monster.

In the end, not even the hanging-happy English society was comfortable with sentencing a 13 year-old to death. Robert was declared insane, a danger to those around him, and sent to Broadmoor.

At Broadmoor and beyond

Fortunately for Robert, Broadmoor was a different kind of asylum. There were no straitjackets, no horrifying “therapies.” Just routine, a quiet country setting, and capable staff.

Robert went on to become a champion chess player, worked in the onsite tailor’s shop, and was a member of Broadmoor’s brass band.

17 years after he was committed, Robert was discharged. He traveled to Australia, joined the military at the beginning of World War I, and became a fucking war hero.

In 1930, Robert took saved his neighbor’s son Harry from an abusive stepfather, and essentially raised him as his own. He died in 1949, and is buried in Australia.

Mind. Blown.

So what happened? How did a 13 year-old who stabbed and bludgeoned his mother to death go on to live a normal — even heroic — life?

Author Kate Summerscale believes that Robert suffered a psychotic break brought on by his mother’s abuse. Emily Coombes frequently threatened both boys, and beat Nattie early on the day of her murder.

Robert’s headaches and mood swings were, Summerscale believes, the symptoms of living in the shadow of abuse. At some point Robert came to believe that the only way he could protect himself and his brother was to escape their mother. When running away didn’t work, his anxious mind supplied an alternative. Only when Emily Coombes was gone did Robert believe he would be safe.

I can’t imagine what this would do to a kid. Becoming fully aware that you had killed your mother, that you were likely going to spend the rest of your life in an asylum.

Is that what made Robert so anxious to join the military, to be a stretcher-bearer responsible for saving lives on the battlefield? Is that what made him take responsibility for a kid he barely knew, but who he could see was being abused by his parent?

We know so little about Robert’s thoughts in his lifetime. If he kept a diary, it’s long gone. We can only look at his actions. The press considered him a monster — no matter how abusive Emily had been, she didn’t deserve to be murdered — but in the end Robert’s actions throughout his life proved his rationality, kindness, and bravery.

Read this right now

Get a copy of Summerscale’s book right now. The Wicked Boy is well-researched, fascinating, and will absolutely suck you in.

I’ve read it twice now, but will definitely be picking it up again very soon. One of my favorite reads of 2016.

Review: Dear Abigail

Dear Abigail, Diane JacobsJohn and Abigail’s letters to each other are famous; less known are the letters between Abigail and her sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. They were separated by geography, family life, and in some cases ideology, but throughout their lifetimes relied on each other for knowledge, comfort, and humor.

In Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and her Two Remarkable Sisters, author Diane Jacobs presents these letters as well as the Revolutionary times in which they were written.

The Smith sisters’ letters are remarkable not only because they give us a peek into America’s very beginnings as a nation, but also because they introduce us to three women who were themselves revolutionaries.

Oh so very good

I read and enjoyed The Letters of John and Abigail Adams in 2011, but it never occurred to me that of course Abigail wrote letters to other people. Reading Dear Abigail has been one of the most enjoyable and interesting experiences of my summer.

Most of the books written about the American Revolution focus on the lives of the men who led it, and who struggled to keep the newly-fledged nation alive. It’s interesting to read a book featuring women who were just as smart and opinionated as men, and were incredibly frustrated by the limitations of being merely females.

Abigail is the most famous (as is her exhortation to John to “remember the ladies”), but her sisters were just as determined to make their own marks on the world. Oldest sister Mary became a well-respected, if unofficial, town leader; youngest sister Elizabeth founded the second co-educational school in the country. This on top of dealing with sick or abusive spouses, raising children, and keeping their own farms productive.

I loved reading about how these women viewed the war, politics and politicians, and were excited and worried for their new country’s future. Abigail in particular was always at her husband’s shoulder, advocating for the rights that would give future female generations the ability to participate in politics on (kinda sorta) the same footing as men. The sisters believed women deserved the same educational opportunities as men, and deserved the same right to decide the future of their country. They didn’t want the women of the future to have to rely so entirely on their fathers and husbands in order to survive and thrive.

While this book looks at the lives of all three sisters, it is Abigail on whom Jacobs’ writings focus most. As a Puritan wife, she believed that she must be subservient to her husband. But as a political force of her own (and eventual First Lady), she wanted to express her own beliefs about equality. Her personal and political beliefs around what being a good woman and a good wife meant changed throughout her life — her letters reflect these changes.

It was comforting to see that even as dedicated an American as Abigail Adams could at times doubt her leaders, her country, and even herself.

All three women were admirable, capable, strong human beings. They deserve acknowledgement for the way they captured history in their letters to each other, and for setting the stage for future generations of women to succeed on their own merits.

I recommend Dear Abigail to anyone — particularly women and girls — who wants to learn more about how women helped shape the United States from the very beginning.