I hesitate to actually categorize this post, because it really needs a category of its own. You’ll see what I mean.
Today, I received a mass email at work that there were some old books that the school was clearing out, and that if anyone wanted these books, they could be found in the staff lounge. When I went to microwave my soup for lunch, I was drawn to the side table with the books. When the school said the books were “old,” they weren’t kidding. Where I’m working at the moment is a Catholic school founded around the turn of the last century. Apparently, these books were the left overs from the founding nuns’ bookcases.
After poking through what were mostly old “grammars” and “readers” from the Twenties, I decided to take these three books. A bit moldy, the top two are hardly-used, and quite readable (I spent a delightful hour with the Milton). The third book is a completely different story: it is well-loved and nearly falling apart. As soon as I read the word on the front of the book, I had to open it and see what it was (the spine, by the way, says: The Science of Human Life and Twilight Sleep).
Yes, that big gold word is “Eugenics,” which is a word I normally associate with early-Twentieth Century policies on racial purity and breeding. Of course, I had to pick it up. Inside the first page is a color plate of an angel and two adorable children and a title page that reads:
Nature’s Secrets Revealed. Scientific Knowledge of The Laws of Sex Life and Heredity or EUGENICS. Vital Information for the Married and Marriageable of All Ages; a Word at the Right Time to the Boy, Girl, Young Man, Young Woman, Husband, Wife, Father and Mother; Also, Timely Help, Counsel and Instruction for Every Member of Every Home.
Covering all the bases, you have to admit!
It continues: Together with Important Hints on Social Purity, Heredity, Physical Manhood and Womanhood by Noted Specialists Embracing a Department of Ethics of the Unmarried by Professor T.W. Shannon, A.M.
And who is our Professor Shannon, you may ask?
International Lecturer; Editor Eugenics Department, Uplift Magazine; President Single Standard Eugenic Movement; Author of Self-Knowledge, Perfect Manhood, Perfect Womanhood, Heredity Explained, Guide to Sex Instruction, etc.
Promising, don’t you think? I mean, that’s quite a CV!
The book was published in 1915, but the first edition was published in 1904, which makes a lot of sense, given its absolutely Victorian content. Because this book is exactly what it says it is (and not really a book about Eugenics, actually): it’s a guide to sex — or, rather, not having any — in the Late Victorian period. And it’s awesome. It may be the greatest thing I’ve ever read.
Or the most terrifying. Could go either way.
The first few chapters are social guides, with long lists of do’s and don’t’s for a socially-conscious young man or woman seeking to be popular with peers. There’s quite a long section on motherhood in a general sense (a sort of paean to mothers, really), and another on “Etiquette” that isn’t nearly as much fun as one would hope. I mean, if I wanted to be told to keep my elbows off the table, I could just flashback to my childhood.
It doesn’t really pick up until it starts talking about sex and marriage.
The book is particularly obsessed with the concept of “spooning,” which I think would be most accurately described today as “making out” or “necking.” It is not encouraging on the moral turpitude which can result from too much spooning! At some point, I’ll have to transcribe the absolutely anguished “letter” written by a “college student” to Professor Shannon about the relationship between too much spooning with his girlfriend and the sexual downfall of mankind. His horrified realization that kissing his sweetheart is not, in fact, quite like kissing his sister is priceless in its hysteria.
But once we move from adolescent fumbling through corsets to actual congress, the book really outdoes itself.
Take this paragraph, in a section on the nature of the wedding night (yes, each paragraph has it’s own bolded subject sentence, I assume for easy reference, since the book is monumentally enormous in scope):
Painful to the Bride. — A husband should be aware that while, as a rule, the first conjugal approaches are painful to the new wife, and therefore that she only submits and can not enjoy them, this pain should not be excessively severe, nor should it last for any great length of time — not more than one or two weeks. Should the case be otherwise, then something is wrong; and if rest does not restore the parts, a physician should be consulted.
It’s reassuring to know that if the wedding night rape is so vigorous that one’s wife takes more than two weeks to recover, something might be wrong. The book is really very clear on this subject, as the next paragraph goes on to make certain that husbands understand the serious consequences of being a bit too eager:
A Source of Misery. — It is especially necessary that great moderation be observed at first, an admonition which we the more urgently give because we know it is needed, and because those specialists who devote their time to diseases of women are constantly meeting patients who date their months and years of misery from the night of the consummation of their marriage.
Well, that’s encouraging! Go to it, kids!
Sexual problems of all sorts are discussed with a certain refreshing candor.
It is really worth noting the second barrier to sexual fulfillment this author felt necessary to include in this list:
I’d never, honestly, considered the possibility that some poor man would get married, eagerly awaiting his wedding night, only to find that his new wife LACKED A VAGINA. I suppose it’s obvious, in retrospect.
Of course, after exhorting the readers to have sex only for procreative purposes (your wife hates sex anyway, dude, because women are completely uninterested in sex… and who wouldn’t be, given the lifetime of misery awaiting her after her wedding night?), the book tries to be evenhanded by explaining that the wife has a right to refuse to have more children after she’s popped out a few. The book isn’t really pro-birth control and labels abortion as feticide (is “feticide” a word?), so what’s a man to do if his wife refuses to live the rest of her life in misery?
It’s critical that one avoids “Satan’s Pottage” at all costs.
Especially since I don’t know what it is.
Oh dear god, according to Wikipedia it’s a “thick stew”.
Husbands, unfortunately, do not have any recourse at that point, but that’s okay, they’re prepared. This is because they’ve already read the chapter on…
And yes, ladies and gentlemen, it will absolutely make you go blind:
Is anyone else as delighted with the phrase: “venereal indulgence” as I am? I mean, seriously. What about this phrase: “vicious culinary preparations and stimulating condiments.” Goddamn you, ketchup, you evil force for venereal indulgence!
But considering that masturbation will, apparently, destroy YOUR ENTIRE BODY, including your brain, you might feel a sense of frustration at the human inability to stop playing with the meat puppet, so to speak. Don’t worry, Professor Shannon has an answer for you!
You might not want to Google-image search “infibulation.” I’m just saying.
The book proposes a motto to live by: The mind away from sexual thoughts, and the hands away from the parts.
Is there any euphemism for genitals that can compare to “the parts?”
The book has much to say on the subject of sexual chastity (it gets its own chapter) and on the various hideous venereal diseases that can result from, you know, everything. I particularly liked the story about the unfortunate young woman who made the mistake of borrowing a pencil from a strange man at a party so she could write something down. Like a fool, she put the pencil in her mouth for a moment and BAM!
I’m so glad someone warned me!
And gentlemen, you don’t even want to know what happens if you get the penile equivalent of diarrhea.
I’ll give you one guess about how one “acquires” this terrible affliction…
That’s right: too much self-pollution, buddy! Better put that thing away or it will leak uncontrollably! (Is this even a real thing? I don’t think I want to know, but I rather suspect the clue is in the words: “A Very Rare Disease”).
The anatomical drawings are… well… absolutely terrifying. What the hell is going on here?
The book finishes with nearly half its total pages devoted to incredibly detailed and frightening advice on childbirth, parenting, and various diseases (need a “cancer poultice”? I got the scoop on one, as well as a treatment for gonorrhea that involves urethral injections). The “Twilight Sleep” of the book’s spine turns out to be advocating the use of newly-discovered anesthesia to completely knock a mother out for childbirth. There are several chapters devoted to the advantages of being unconscious during labor. I’m not totally in disagreement there, Professor!
The illustrative plates are worth the price of admission alone:
I think the fact that the family dogs are viciously destroying the child’s toy is the least of his “troubles.”
Anyway, one last treat for me was the discovery a photograph inside.
Considering the book is inscribed to Howard F. Lindsay on the inside cover, perhaps this photo was of Mr. Lindsay’s spooning-partner? Or maybe not, since this book once belonged to a nun.
On the back, this is what she’s written:
It’s always good to know that your friends are “only sitting,” and not “crippled” in the photos they send you!
All in all, this book has provided me with the greatest night of entertainment I’ve had in a very long time. There’s so much in there… it’s a cornucopia of terrible, terrible advice on nearly every subject imaginable. I anticipate years of enjoyment. But not too much enjoyment, you understand! I need my eyesight.