I was a huge fan of O’Neill’s first book, Unmentionable, so when a friend sent along the link for her newest publication, I immediately ordered it from the library.
Similar to Unmentionable, O’Neill tackles the crazy of the Victorian era with wit, sarcasm, and a dose of brutal honesty that both criticizes the dark parts of Victorian parenting culture while also contextualizing it in a way that makes it understandable, if not condonable. Where Unmentionable focused on sex, love, and marriage for young women, Ungovernable tackles the next stage of Victorian female life; parenting.
From pregnancy and childbirth practices to appropriate infant foods, dress, education, and play, O’Neill covers it all. The book is set up in a Question/Answer structure where O’Neill creates a 21st Century mom character looking for “behavior modifiers left behind by time,” who is quickly disillusioned by the level of violence, brutality, and gendered social realms that Victorian children (and their parents) had to live in. As O’Neill’s fake historian informs the 21st Century mom, the 19th Century was very different than our century, and placing our judgement on their life standards is hardly fair, and certainly doesn’t allow us to understand the context of their decisions. As an example, infant and children diets were of the blandest, boring, most disgusting foods, such as gruel, oatmeal, heavily boiled root vegetables, and cooked cereal-grains. While the 21st century perspective asks “where’re the greens? Where’s the protein? Where’s the balance in a diet like that?” And may hypothesize that much baby death probably could have been avoided if they’d just been feeding the kid some kale, O’Neill reminds us that without the pesticides currently used on our mass produced fruit and veggie crops and the FDA meat standards of our slaughter houses, all manner of parasites and worms infested the nutritious, balanced foods of the Victorian table and entered the child’s body when they ate the food. Also in a time without antibiotics, doctors with actual medical degrees, or an understanding of germ theory, the only way to rid a child of the pinworms she received from eating that juicy apple or grilled steak, was to dose her with castor oil or silver nitrate and hope she didn’t die. Who knew that internal worms were the #1 childhood problem of the 19th Century?
Similarly, when unpacking the brutality of boy’s backyard play, O’Neill reminds us that (whether right or not), the Victorian world was a violent place filled with war, death, and discomfort. “There was absolutely no advantage in raising a boy to be gentle in the 19th Century. He was not born into a gentle world, no matter his wealth or standing. Even the loftiest priest or prince would be loved and respected more if he could hold his own amid violence and terror. These games reminded a boy, ever so subconsciously, that pain was inevitable, whether it came in the form of disease, [or] war….” (223)
Interspersed with primary source documentation, corresponding historical photographs, magazine sketches, and O’Neill’s witty asides, this book is an excellent primer for anyone interested in the reality of the Victorian era without getting too into the weeds. As a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, O’Neill even cautions that her book is “a handpicked history, not comprehensive,” in which her goal is to leave her reader “stupefied and shocked” but also allow the audience to decide how much deeper they want to go down the dark and dismal rabbit hole that is the reality of 19th Century childhood. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I probably will go down the rabbit hole, but as an overview, O’Neill’s witty take on some seriously dark material is an excellent balance.