A friend gave me Aunt Epp’s Guide for Life, extracts from the commonplace book of one very unconventional Victorian/Edwardian lady. Elspeth Marr (1871-1947) was a gloriously opinionated free spirit. Every girl should have an aunt like her.
The book (edited by Epp’s great nephew Christopher Rush) kept me mesmerized during a three-hour plane ride. So modern is Aunt Epp’s voice that I wondered whether Rush might have dreamed her up, but if so, he has nevertheless created an indelible, sharply-drawn character. I prefer to think that he did indeed find her never-published writings inside an old brown suitcase, many years after her death. I will let Epp speak for herself by sharing a few nuggets of wisdom about men and sex that stand out among the herbal remedies (A Very Laxative Jam), household hints (To Brighten Decanters) and recipes (Cowslip Wine):
Abstinence: The greatest sybarite and the jolliest bon viveur will know the virtue of abstinence in adding to the renewed pleasure of what he has denied himself… the true virtue is not abstinence but temperance; whereas constant self-denial, especially of matter, and of fleshly pleasures, is unhealthy, inhibits experience and is a crime against life. [As soon as I hit this passage, I realized that Aunt Epp was a disciple of Blake.]
Adultery: There is nothing wrong with adultery, if marriage is a torture chamber or a desert. All commandments were made to be broken. Is adultery a sin? No. The Seventh Commandment forbids what is simply the physical expression of a perfectly natural desire, inhibited by society, and by the church, which is society’s screw to keep you in your place, especially if you are a woman… [This makes one wonder about Epp’s own marriage, but is in any case little short of stunning for a woman of her era, living in a small town in Scotland. It’s not as though she was a London Bohemian. Though she did spend some time in Paris…]
Alexander [smyrnium olusatrum or horse parsley]: As they say, if the red flag is late in flying, Alexander will run it up the pole for you in no time, and is worth the salute for peace of mind. You worry that you may be with child, and anxiety makes you late, and later still; but a little of this herb in your salads and you will not be mooning about your monthlies any more. [I found this a particularly pleasing morsel of prose.]
Aphrodisiacs: [she recommends the use of urine]: You will use only a very small amount, so small as not to affect the taste [of his food] but to attract unconsciously by scent. This should be added superficially, sparingly, and last. You may also dab a handkerchief appropriately and equally delicately and keep it about you. Males are aware of this but not aware, and have been known to go mad with longing. Never tell this secret, however, as the knowledge itself empowers you and imparts a natural authority which a man cannot resist. [Epp appears to have indulged in a little witchcraft now and then. She might have done better to use pumpkin pie and lavender, but if this worked, the reason is no doubt to be found in her final sentence.]
The Body: If your body be a temple, as the Bible says, then be sure to admit only those who will worship there, and especially those who first remove their shoes, as even the infidels have the grace to do. [Epp refers again later in the book to the erotic benefits of bare feet]: Feet, being sacred, should be kept not only clean but also elegant, for if you have a true lover he will worship you by first kissing your naked feet.
Breasts: The power of breasts lies in men’s fascination and even reverence… This is a mystery he can only wonder at, and it is in this elevated state of excitement that he wishes to be suckled. Allow him this liberty, for you are indeed Liberty breaking the barricades, and some men will confess to an experience in milking you far greater and more pleasurable even than the delights of intercourse itself. [Epp the Earth Goddess!]
Conception, To Avoid: If a man is like the tomcat or the bull, you should keep a stale fish beneath the bed on his side. Put it where he cannot discover it. For example, loosen a floorboard and plant the fish underneath. The bad smell will occupy him and will take his mind off intercourse more effectively than leaving off the washing of your private parts, which besides being unhygienic and liable to start up an infection, can in some men work the other way. [In the days before birth control, drastic measures were called for. Later on, she recommends chewing fresh garlic before bed.]
Dress: Do not cut yourself in two like a wasp and not like a woman, but display your womanliness so that your shape accords as closely as possible with what lies beneath; the clothed woman corresponding to the naked woman as near as decency allows. [Epp, you temptress you!]
Emancipation of Women: Although this has come far indeed, it is an absurd irony of existence that while you may help to choose the Prime Minister, you cannot choose your own husband but must wait for him to choose you… the next step in feminine liberation ought to be the right, not the privilege, to choose the man with whom you will be spending the next thirty or forty years, till death do you part, or until the one kills the other. [It was not until 1928 that all women in the UK gained the right to vote.]
Genitals: Shame has no place here. Male and female created he them and enjoined them to be fruitful and multiply. Mr. and Mrs. Blake read Milton naked together and John Donne commands his mistress to show herself to him as liberally as to a midwife. [Blake! I knew it! I also love the juxtaposition of Genesis and Donne’s poetry to his mistress.]
Golfers: Never marry one. The golfer is extinct from his waist downwards and from his neck upwards…
Greensick girls: When Hirapigsa and nettle broths have failed, a greensick girl should be given a lusty young man. If he should chance to impregnate her, a mother must weigh the affair in the scales of morality: a deflowered daughter, or a dead virgin to lay beneath the sod. [Hippocrates identified this ailment as a “disease of virgins” characterized by paleness, shortness of breath, headaches and amenorrhea. It is actually a form of anemia. I find no reference to “hirapigsa” on the internet and I suspect this is a misreading of Epp’s handwriting, or perhaps a local name for an herb.]
Heroes: They do not make good husbands, but they do make excellent verses, so never marry a man with heroic aspirations. It is better to read about him afterwards, when he is famous, calm, and dead.
Impotence: Obtain from the farmer the bull’s pizzle, root and bulbs, when the bull is over with it. Use only this to make stock, and for each year of the bull’s life, boil it down for an hour. You will need a good size pot… After a week of this broth, the enfeebled man will spring up and take the field with honor. [Maybe this is explains why New York foodies have such an abiding interest in the consumption of penises and testicles.]
Infidelity: It is the distinguishing characteristic of the male sex. Expect inconstancy–and either you will not be disappointed or you will be agreeably surprised.
Intercourse, Overture to: For many men this consists merely in taking their trousers down. But a good opera should start with a great overture. And remember that you are not an instrument, but a player too. Play together, and keep time, that is the important thing.
Intercourse During Menstruation: There is nothing impure about menstrual blood. [She goes on to recommend a thick towel over the sheets which is washed afterwards and kept only for this purpose.] If neither wishes intercourse but one or both of you should require release, be guided by your inclinations and do whatever nature prompts you to do… A wife can never be a whore with her husband, except in play, and sometimes it is good to play the whore.
Marriage: Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has few pleasures. If you wish to reduce the pains, the golden rules are: never marry a teetotaler, or a man who does not smoke. And never marry an artist, for he will let you starve, your children go barefoot, and even his mother break her back for him at seventy years old, sooner than work at anything but his art…
Men: Primitive beings in whose sexual organs sperm is forever building up, leaving them with a persistent need for intercourse; that is to say not intercourse with a particular woman, but intercourse per se, often leading to affairs and follies… men endure pain less well than women and are in constant need of mothering. [She does allow that men make better painters and musicians, but not writers!]
Nipples: [sore nipples should be painted with eggnog, but wash it off before feeding the baby]: If the baby be a boy, he will soon enough gain a taste for nipples in brandy without encouragement in infancy.
Potatoes: Most men would give their soul for a potato, properly cooked. To ensnare a man’s soul, get him boiling with his jacket on, and as soon as the jacket starts to come off, extract every drop of moisture… [I was a bit in doubt as to whether she refers to the potato or the man.]
Post Coitum Omne Animal Triste Est: If you do not feel infinite fulfillment rather than sadness after coition, then change the coitioner!
Slimming: [After giving advice on how to reduce one’s weight, she adds the following warning]: A man does not dance round a maypole, nor does he wish to take a lamppost to bed.
Softening of the Member: You need have no fears that his body has grown weary of yours, most men being desirous of intercourse at almost any time. It is not the desire but the performance which may be lacking, and if you have deep need in you, or wish to put him at ease, do as nature tells you, and you will find the way to make him capable of you. [For elucidation of this unusually coy advice, see the next entry.]
Sperm: Nowhere in the Bible forbids the consumption of sperm… as for taking a man’s member into your mouth, this may sometimes prove a necessary step if he falters, so that the seed may eventually be sown in the appointed place. If pleasure is essential to erection, then this is not ungodly. However, the constant swallowing or spillage of sperm, though not wicked, is surely a sterile and stubborn pursuit.
Venereal Diseases: [After noting that total abstinence is against nature, she advises avoidance of sailors and warns that “the marriage bond is no preventer of the pox.”] Never embark on relations with any man unless and until you have first examined him privately; and by this token you must insist on light in the first instance, after which, if you are satisfied all is in order, you may proceed without it.
Wedding Night: If you are wise you will not have allowed him to see you naked before now, no matter what intimacies you may have known together.
Other indispensable Eppisms:
- Always have lemons in the house.
- The best cure for melancholy is a little wine and much reading.
- Trust no man who is not truly moved by music.
- A life without poetry is like Omar without wine.
- Toads are the living jewels of your garden.
Whilst devouring this book with the greatest pleasure, I also found plenty to disagree with. Epp is a strong partisan for the Brontës over Jane Austen, though she allows that Austen has a good prose style. She deplores too much sleep, considering it a waste of time, and advocates smoking as a healthful activity. To Epp, the atheist is as big a fool as the evangelist. She is an admirer of Mr. Darwin, yet stubbornly clings to what we might call “intelligent design.” And she hates tea, advising that one drink it only in small quantities, if ever. All of which is to say that she was a singularly well-read, highly opinionated, glorious and fallible oracle of a woman. Her book has earned a permanent spot on my shelf of favorites.