My great-great aunt, Elspeth Marr, died in 1947. I was only three at the time, but still recall with terror the literary, religious and sex education she handed out to me from her hearth. The sex education was that boys came from the Bass Rock and girls from the May Isle (well known islands off the Scottish east coast, where we lived). Later I was given a more truthful version: ‘Thou camest from a stinking drop’!
So, many years later, when I came to edit Epp’s notebooks and journals, I was not surprised to discover many staggeringly frank entries on everything to avoid conception: ensure that your knicker elastic is good and strong, if the knickers come off, make sure that you have planted a stale fish beneath the floorboards on the man’s side of the bed – this will occupy his mind and take it off intercourse. If in spite of this he sows his seed in you, be up and active on your feet for an hour afterwards, and if the sea is within spitting distance, give yourself a good salt douche.
If on the other hand you are anxious to conceive, she has other remedies, even one for conceiving a girl: give your fertile crescent a good splash of vinegar. (Apparently acid is inimical to male sperms.) When you come to give birth, she has much sage advice. If it’s a boy, don’t cut the umbilical too short, as this will proportionately affect the length of the penis, and a man is best left too long than too short. A long umbilical on a girl, though, will determine the length of her tongue – so if you don’t want a long-tongued gossip in the family, cut her short.
My favourite entry is on insomnia. For this she recommends a bath, a glass of brandy, and intercourse. ‘Otherwise try onions. These are marvellous adversaries to insomnia, and onions do not get you pregnant. Do this before bed but not before sexual congress… onions and intercourse do not blend well. With such incompatible bedfellows, do without your onions, and let your man have his oats.’
All this plus hundreds of cures and recipes and remedies were penned by Epp over six decades and headed ‘Notes for a Young Lady’. Whoever that lady was, she had some start in life!
Christopher Rush is the great-great nephew of Elspeth Marr and knew her only two years before her death. He is the author of Aunt Epp’s Guide for Life: Miscellaneous Musings of a Victorian Lady and numerous critically acclaimed works of fiction, poetry and memoir, including Will, a fictional autobiography of Shakespeare. He lives in Fife, Scotland.
IMAGE: Photo of the authors Aunt, Elspeth Marr (Aunt Epp) from his own collection
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