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Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent's Guide to Raising Flawless Children

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Feminist historian Therese Oneill is back, to educate you on what to expect when you're expecting . . . a Victorian baby! In Ungovernable, Oneill conducts an unforgettable tour through the backwards, pseudoscientific, downright bizarre parenting fashions of the Victorians, advising us on:

- How to be sure you're not too ugly, sickly, or stupid to breed
- What positions and room decor will help you conceive a son
- How much beer, wine, cyanide and heroin to consume while pregnant
- How to select the best peasant teat for your child
- Which foods won't turn your children into sexual deviants
- And so much more

Endlessly surprising, wickedly funny, and filled with juicy historical tidbits and images, Ungovernable provides much-needed perspective on -- and comic relief from -- the age-old struggle to bring up baby.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published April 16, 2019

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Therese Oneill

2 books220 followers

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5 stars
206 (21%)
4 stars
340 (35%)
3 stars
308 (31%)
2 stars
87 (9%)
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23 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 172 reviews
Profile Image for Zain.
1,334 reviews128 followers
January 18, 2023
Historical Hilarity!

Take a trip into the past. A trip back to Victorian days where you are trained how to raise your children.

You may not agree with all the advice that is given, but your sides will ache from enjoyment..

This book gives you lots to think about. Highly recommended.

Five hilarious stars. 💫💫💫💫💫
Profile Image for SheAintGotNoShoes.
1,560 reviews3 followers
August 30, 2019
Yet another winner from Therese O'Neill. I read her prior book on Victorian sex and marriage and it was a wonderful mixture of true social history mixed with great snarkiness and was just so much fun while being very informative.

If I never see the words ' ass ' and ' mik ' put together again it will be too soon !!!

I did however learn how Lane Bryant came to be - it was a misspelling of Lena Bryant, who was the first seamstress to make maternity wear !!

Fun + education !
Profile Image for Alicia.
5,735 reviews108 followers
May 5, 2019

Isn't it frustrating when you're super excited about something and it doesn't meet your expectations? I'd had this on my TBR as soon as I saw that she was publishing another in her humorous exploration of Victorian times. Alas, this one didn't work out. Unmentionables-- loved and purchased for someone as a gift. This one-- grating and tiresome. Yes, I read it through (which I was going to abandon a few times), but because it provided some great primary source documentation of how "scientists", doctors, and families thought during this time, it's truly a gem. The research is immeasurable and for that I'm eternally grateful.

It was the execution of said material that drove me insane. The Q&A style was not the way to go because it made the text super choppy with the bolded questions, oft-used ellipses as answers, and short and long responses. It felt like it was jumping around using that style while attempting to deliver it straightforward. Second, the humor was a little... much. Unmentionables balanced the humor with the delivery of content. This one was all humor with the content hidden (though there) with the overuse of humor including puns, raunchy language, and harping on specific topics. For example, yes "ass milk" = donkey's milk, but to continue to refer to it as ass milk was annoying after the second time. It's like most conversations with my youngest brother. Yes, heard it. Laughed the first time, let's not go back there again.

Needless to say I was super disappointed not to love this one more on it's delivery alone. I wanted more substance and got too much stand-up instead.
Profile Image for Michelle.
164 reviews4 followers
August 9, 2019
Giving this to all baby showers to which I am invited from this point forward
Profile Image for Stephanie.
596 reviews14 followers
September 21, 2019
Ugh. I picked up this book from the Library, giggling to myself with excitement. At first I thought this book was going to be a quick read for me.

It ended up that I just couldn't stand the format of the book (the Q&A) and the sarcastic comments.

I unfortunately could not finish this book. I found myself pretending to read more than I was actually absorbing and I gave this book a considerable number of chances.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
645 reviews57 followers
June 30, 2019
Funny and irreverent, and highly informative, Therese Oneill has done it again! This fitting sequel to Unmentionable has a much different format and a slightly different tone, but I am happy to report that the snark is as strong as ever. In this unflinching look at Victorian parenting practices, told as a dialogue, many different aspects of parenting are explored. You might laugh, you might cry, but you’ll definitely learn something from this unforgettable historical sojourn. I would eagerly read another installment in this wholly unique series.
Profile Image for Janet (iamltr).
1,023 reviews29 followers
February 2, 2022
This narrator was able to portray the absolute horribleness of the victorian age very well. The secondary narrator was good.

Listening to some of this was hard. Not going to sugarcoat that. The way kids were treated was horrible.

The worst chapters were the toward the end and I wish that actual people did not live through that.

I noticed that some people were not happy that this book went the route of using humor to share this information, but I think it helped get the message across.
Profile Image for Wendy.
428 reviews6 followers
May 2, 2019
The snark was fun at first but wore thin rather quickly, and the history was sloppy.
Profile Image for Davina.
849 reviews12 followers
May 15, 2019
If Therese Oneill could lend her hilarious captions to all historical photos, I would be a very happy lady. This was a pretty funny read overall, but as many other goodreaders have pointed out, the Q&A format does not lend anything positive to this book and I think the topical approach in her last book was more effective.
Profile Image for Amber Spencer.
729 reviews1 follower
August 17, 2019
This book was introduced to me by my sister. The introduction is hilarious and had me rolling.
I laughed out loud for most of the first half of the book. There are sad parts and things hard to hear - but it’s not just supposed to be a funny book, it’s also meant to compare and contrast against real things that happened.
Overall, this book is packed with wit and sarcasm and was very enjoyable. I will definitely be looking up the author’s other book about Victorian times.
Profile Image for Dina.
666 reviews2 followers
June 12, 2019
**3.5 stars**

I was interested to see that this book was getting significantly worse reviews than the author's first book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. And I think I can see why most readers found this uncomfortable reading...The Victorian times sucked.

They were dark, filthy, disease-ridden times with backward, abusive and sexist thinking. And that makes people, who have often times idealized it (whether from TV shows or romance novels) to face the fact that this was actually a miserable time to be anyone except a white, wealthy man of influence (oh how far we all have come...).

But I think what many people who have read this book seem to struggle with, is that while it (tries) to write out history in an attempt at lightheartedness, it is still really dark and aggravating material to read about. Especially if you are looking at it through a 21st century lens (most of it is modern-day child abuse, but was the norm in the 1800's).

I enjoyed it because it was educational, witty, and upfront about a lot of the realities that made up the Victorian era. It's not as laugh out loud funny as Unmentionable, but it is still a valuable collection of handpicked historical facts there to educate and inspire you to peruse these topics deeper.

But if you are looking for a cheerful, 'aw-it-was-so-much-better-in-the-olden-days,' kind of book, look elsewhere. That kind of crap doesn't fly here.
Profile Image for Starbubbles.
1,438 reviews102 followers
July 15, 2019
This was not as enjoyable as her first book. It did contain interesting information, but it felt very constrained due to the Q&A format, and possibly, the resource materials. I understand that O'Neill opted for the more extreme advice, which can be found in any era. I was disappointed in that there was no mention of the closed circuit theory (or something to that effect), in regard to women thinking too hard (say, about math) and it diverting too much blood to the brain and away from the uterus. There was also no mention of infant mortality due to swill milk (milk available from tavern cows that were given leftover beer) or lead poisoning from lead-sweetened candies (it was a thing, I promise). I understand that there isn't space for everything, but I at least felt that the food dangers were well known enough to pop in as a concern for the modern women contemplating Victorian era lifestyle.

That being said, I always enjoy fun tidbits such as the dunce cap origin being Protestants poking fun at Catholic scholar Duns, or how to brew poppy tea. The tidbits were certainly there, I just didn't get to enjoy them as much due to the writing style of this book. I would definitely recommend her Umentionable book, and I am looking forward to her next, I just can't truly recommend this one. I would have almost preferred a drier read with more parenting facts than the attempt at humor with the Q&A to relay the facts.
Profile Image for Liz.
469 reviews2 followers
July 2, 2019
While the information was cool/horrifying it just wasn't as good as the first one the author wrote. It was written in a question answer format which is part of the reason I don't think I liked it, and seemed to have not nearly as much actual research and information as the first.
Profile Image for Therese.
Author 2 books220 followers
November 6, 2019
Seriously, tho. It's good. Got pictures. BIG bibliography. Endpages are AWESOME. I could just go on forever.
Profile Image for Maren Anderson.
Author 8 books8 followers
June 24, 2019
Ungovernable by Therese Oneill made me laugh out loud while I cringed and wondered how enough humans survived the Victorian age (or anytime previous) to populate this planet. It's a cross between Charles Dickens and Dr. Spock (not MR. Spock) but narrated by my understanding, yet wryly witty, lactation coach.

This book takes the Bobsey Twins ideal of Victorian childhood and turns it on its ear. In a funny, patient, sardonic voice that isn't above also being aghast at the way children had to be raised in the past, Oneill lists pre-germ theory beliefs of getting pregnant, having a baby, raising said baby to be tough enough to survive in a world without antibiotics.

I'll tell you a quick story. My mother was living with and old, old relative named Pat who was a pioneer as a child in the 1890s. My mother had a sinus infection and was miserable. Pat said, "Quit whining! What would have happened to you in the pioneer days?" My mother said, "I literally would have died, Pat."

That's this book, except funny.
Profile Image for Thomas.
Author 1 book27 followers
July 4, 2021
I would give this 3 ½ stars if I could.

An amusing, tongue-in-cheek rundown of some of the ideas about raising children in the hair-raising days of the 19th-century. There’s plenty of snark here and I didn’t mind. I suppose it makes it more entertaining for some people than a straight-up discussion of the facts. Whenever this subject comes up, I get a little snarky myself. They didn’t have a word for child abuse back then because they simply called it parenting.

Anyway, it was an interesting format. You had one narrator describing 19th-century child-rearing techniques and seeming to be in favor of them while you had a straight woman objecting from a 21st-century point of view. All in all, I found it enjoyable.

There will inevitably be some reviewers who will claim that the facts presented in this book are not accurate. I don’t know how anyone can say that for sure since there was no more of a consensus on the subject of raising children back then and there is now. It was a big world with a lot of ideas floating around and this book was certainly not nearly big enough to cover a fraction of them.

I found this worth my time.
Profile Image for Rachel Ryding.
8 reviews
December 27, 2020
I got three chapters into this one and just couldn’t keep going. The historical content was interesting, but the entire book was structured in question-and-answer format and the author wrote in this quippy voice that I think was supposed to be funny but for me just got really obnoxious really quickly. I could tell that the author had done a lot of research but it was presented in a kind of dumbed down and fragmented way. For what it’s worth, my friends who read this one loved it and thought it was hilarious; I just could not get into it.
Profile Image for Toni.
413 reviews3 followers
August 20, 2019
4.5 stars

This book was packed with so much sarcasm that I could barely stand it! This book walks you through what times were like during the Victorian times as a woman and a mother. I loved the perspective from the “modern American woman” who was appalled about half of what the narrator enlightens us about. Times have certainly changed. If you’re looking for a comedy (and some knowledge about Victorian era pregnancies and child raising tips,) this is SUCH a good book!
Profile Image for Camilla.
1,360 reviews7 followers
August 10, 2020
Even covering some topics that were pretty devastating (infant mortality, child abuse, starvation, etc.) this book managed to keep the humor alive through many aspects of child-rearing in Victorian times. I particularly enjoyed the Queen Victoria quotes about her son Leopold. Man, that lady could be so mean!
Profile Image for Erin.
335 reviews10 followers
March 1, 2020
Interesting bits about Victorian attitudes about pregnancy, birth, and child rearing. Not a deep historical dive by any means. Some other reviewers absolutely hated the Q&A format, but it was incredibly conversational in tone, so it flowed well and didn't bother me.
Profile Image for Catherine Stein.
Author 26 books156 followers
June 1, 2019
Like Unmentionable, this book was a brilliant blend of history and humor. The images and quotes from primary sources give a great insight into 19th century life, delivered with sarcastic wit. Lots of resources if you want to dig for further information.
Profile Image for Rachel Leff.
20 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2019
Thank you to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book. Because of the repetitive nature of the book it took me a very long time to get through. This book is one joke-haha victorian era was crazy!-stretched out over 265 pages. The question and answer format should have been quenched in the early stages of editing. The book could also be cut down about 100 pages to make it more tenable.
Profile Image for tracy lou.
106 reviews6 followers
June 8, 2019
While some might find the Q&A between a modern-day mom and a Victorian historian format of this book funny, I found it kind of boxy and pedantic. I also already knew a lot of this stuff from my life studying children’s literature. It was cool to think about how moms throughout time and space are held to impossible standards, though.
Profile Image for Rachel.
766 reviews
May 2, 2021
This book. This book is amazingly hilarious. I ended up sending pictures and snippets to friends because it was so funny but I told them it was a tongue and cheek book on raising children in the Victorian time period. IT goes through getting married to raising the children. It's a quick read and has a lot of good facts presented in a way that is horrifying but really funny. It's hard to explain everything in this book but I can definitely recommend. Really funny.

“The nineteenth century was, for many children, the most horrible time in history to be alive. Cities formed quick and dirty, and they were lawless, full of uncontrolled disease, crowding, exploitation, and abuse. People suffered tremendously as they tried to find their footing in a brutal new world. Children suffered worst of all”(p. ix).

“It is my dearest hope that the historically accurate pieces of child-rearing advice, history, and anecdotes I relate here will leave you stupefied and shocked. I hope the style I have set it in will be a thrill of an introduction and will allow you to pursue the topics deeper (and darker) if you desire”(p. x).

“Did Beth March simper and flounce when she was unable to attend the ball her older sisters were taken to? No! She died with quiet dignity!”(p. 7).

“Q: And how will I know if I am fit for reproduction?
A: Science will tell you! Victorian science, which is a little different from what you’re used to, since it’s not big on evidence or whatever. It was a system based more on…intuition! OF men! Who may or may not be scientists but who do love to write books with big, big words! So, listen…As Sperry tells us, dumb people are always the last to know of their condition”(p. 16).

“Napheys recognized that a woman under twenty is rarely physically or mentally prepared for the demands of motherhood. Plus, she’s probably going to die: ‘It is very common for those who marry young to die young. From statistics which have been carefully compiled [he doesn’t have those statistics on him at this exact moment, but trust him, they were wayyyy carefully compiled], it is proven that the first labors of very young mothers are much more painful, tedious, and dangerous to life, than others.’ If young mothers don’t die right away, Napheys warns, they will certainly suffer barren wombs. Or, unpredictable little tarts that they are, go completely the other way and live a long time and have way too many children. Seriously, anything could happen! Almost to the point that it seems totally random and not worth medical notation”(p. 16-17).

“Industrious Women-It was a conundrum, as Americans settled the West in the mid-1800s, how such fierce pioneer women-women who survived wars, disease, and privations-could in turn birth a generation of girls who lounged on fainting couches sipping cordials to treat their migraines”(p. 19).

“The answer, fierce yet foolish woman, is that there was only so much vitality to go around during your pregnancy, and you hogged it all. You decided it was more important to build cabins and dig wells than to sit quietly, calmly incubating your young charge. Your blind greed for water and shelter sapped the fortitude of your fetus. Says Dr. West, ‘The poor old woman…robbed them [her children] of their inheritance by using all her vitality in her daily avocations, and they must suffer for her wrong-doing’”(p. 19).

“Many of us suffer lack of motivation to improve ourselves without being forced to. Kids are that force. Those little weeds may be the best thing that ever happens to you”(p. 38).

“It’s a funny thing. Victorian society is thrilled you’re pregnant, truly. But they don’t want to have to look at it. If women were able, they often went into ‘confinement’ toward the end of their terms, not just for health reasons, but for the sake of appearance. Yes, you’re glowing and all that but you’re also a grotesquely swollen reminder of the animalistic rutting nature that humans just can’t seem to get away from. Loot at you, waddling down the street, a veritable billboard for sexual incontinence. Just, ew. No. Go Home”(p. 60-61).

“Under special circumstances a woman of means who for whatever reason could not stay in confinement might commission fancy maternity wear that strove to hide the embarrassing details of her pregnant shape through extensive draping, turning her into a silky, waddling land barge”(p. 61).

“But it turns out good tasting food is for sinners. So what are you going to do? Give the child all the nuts and pickles he wants and then spend the rest of your life scheduling activities around his parole hearings?”(p. 118).

“The question was how best to mold her fragile mind.
Q: The same way a boy’s mind was molded?
A: I don’t know what about this book has led you to believe that I’m going to answer that in the affirmative. In fact, we both know I’m probably going to say something wildly sexist. For instance, it’s impolitic to notice, but…how can one avoid seeing the connection between the breakneck decline of our society and women going to college?
Q: That’s actually even more sexist than I expected. Congratulations.
A: The female mind, it’s a tender thing. Your daughter has got enough to worry about as a developing young woman as it is”(p. 164).

“Even if Victorians could accept that young women’s brains were as capable of learning as men’s, only a madman would fail to consider, the part menstruation plays in a woman’s ability to read books and do math…Girls aren’t dumb, but their periods turn them into manic-depressive idiots.
And for their own sake, they need to get out of the classroom. ‘Since my attention was specially called to the subject some years ago,’ Thorburn wrote, ‘I have come across a very large number of cases where the growing school girl had been temporarily or permanently injured by scholastic work performed during the menstrual period”(p. 176-177).

“The science showed…some women have bad periods and some women don’t, and most ladies, save those who suffer violently, just plug along despite their discomfort.
Shrug”(p. 180).

“One day, she’s the best in the class…but next week? You’ll find her sprawled over her desk sobbing about a dead pigeon she saw on the way to school, silently embarrassing the whole room because they know the only explanation is that she’s currently, at the moment, sloughing her womb lining onto a roughly pinned flannel towel. And once you’ve got that picture in your head, how can you be expected to look that girl in the eye again?
Q: Wow. Do you think I can use that excuse the next time I want a shift off work? ‘Sorry I’m using all my mind powers to slough my womb lining. It’s trickier than you’d think. Can’t come in today.’
A: Sadly, no. Not anymore. That gentle and sensible world has fallen from us, and women’s special needs are often overlooked”(p. 182).

“All in all, children don’t need a lot of parental guidance when they play. They grow by finding obstacles to what they want, and overcoming them. IF we soften the edges too much, we get a kid who can’t take a bruise. If we make playtime crazy fun exciting with store-bought toys and constant parental attention, we get a kid who expects like to be nonstop thrills. And if we let them read completely sanitized children’s stories, we get a kid who can’t handle the injustices and unhappy endings real life dispenses. The Victorians knew that. We’d do well to apply that knowledge to our twenty-first-century broods”(p. 243-244).
Profile Image for Robin.
810 reviews21 followers
July 3, 2019
Victorian life was tough, back before child labor laws and science-based medicine. Kids were subject to beatings per the Bible, and given alcoholic and opiated medicines. Boys and girls were raised differently, with brutal competitive games for the boys and charm schooling for the girls. Odd beliefs about how to tell if one is pregnant abounded, since missing a period could be due to malnutrition, physical stress, or patent medicines. Superstitions about pregnancy (and it was quite unacceptable to use the word pregnancy) included sheltering a woman from seeing any sort of deformity, wild animals, or large fires, as these could cause undesirable attributes or appearance in the child.

Yet with such fascinating odd beliefs of the era, the author failed to write an interesting book. Instead of sticking to the facts and embellishing them with wit, she pokes fun at the reader through an obnoxious Q & A format. The “reader” poses a few relevant questions to the author, but most questions aren’t questions at all. They sound like the reader is a brainless, reactive mess. The whole point of reading the book is to see how different things were in Victorian times, so why would the reader be overreacting to Victorian facts of life?

Ungovernable does contain some enlightening facts, but the reader will have to search through the snarky fluff for them. This tends to devalue the content. But in fact, it would be a too-short book without the overdramatic schtick. Fans of the Victorian era who are good at skimming for content might get something out of this book, as I did.
Profile Image for Alanna Maddox.
73 reviews
December 15, 2022
Oh my, this was hilarious!!! Told in the perspective of a self-help, child-rearing book, it actually made me lol which is no easy feat. The author's tone is dry and witty, reminiscent of David Sedaris and Mary Roach. The pictures are a nice touch and the writing style is hysterical. I read many passages out loud to my wife who is not a reader but certainly appreciated this book.
Profile Image for Jeimy.
4,458 reviews33 followers
May 29, 2019
Hilarious back and forth between a contemporary woman and an expert of Victorian childrearing.
Profile Image for Amy.
921 reviews45 followers
November 26, 2019
What I have to tell you isn't nice, but it's the truth and people who want to understand their world don't ignore truth. - Therese Oneill, Ungovernable

I read and liked Unmentionable (the author's previous book about sex and sexuality in the Victorian era) a while ago, so I when I saw Ungovernable in the 2019 Black Friday sale I scooped it up right away and spent yesterday afternoon listening!

Ungovernable is a nonfiction book about Victorian era pregnancy and parenting aimed at a casual reader who's probably only vaguely interested in history, and because of that the book is formatted oddly. Whereas most nonfiction books try to maintain at least a semiprofessional tone and distance, Ungovernable does not even try that approach, likely because it's probably going to put the intended audience to sleep. Ungovernable is written as a conversation between the author and 'someone' who's clearly intended to be an audience surrogate. The audience surrogate in Ungovernable's 'conversation' is, specifically, a reader who's sick of complicated, confusing, and conflicting twenty-first century pregnancy/parenting advice and would just to like to know what timeless gems worked in the wonderful world that was the Victorian era (why did we ever leave it behind, again?) so they can try those instead of these exhausting, supposedly better, twenty-first century methods that will inevitably be highlighted in headlines as wrong. This will not be a format that everyone likes (and, personally, I think it's a format better suited to audio than silent reading) but it is a format that's much more casual and more likely to keep the attention of the book's intended audience. Also, this book is chock full of sarcasm, snark, and sass (like, every single sentence is weighted down with at least one of the aforementioned) which I liked, but again will not be a style that's popular with everyone. (I also think it's a style better suited to audio than silent reading because the narrator is great and really nailed the lines.)

Just like Unmentionable, Ungovernable is not meant to be a reference book. It's meant for a casual reader, probably a woman in her thirty-somethings, who is familiar only with the ultra-idealized and sanitized version of the Victorian era as presented in popular culture (books, movies, tv shows, the entire Victorian romance genre, the entire steampunk genre, etc), thinks the Victorian era was the golden age of the world, and can't figure out why people ever left it behind. To that end, I think Ungovernable does a great job of presenting educational material in a format that will be interesting to the intended audience and, hopefully, that the intended audience will learn something from. Over and over and over again the reader, through the audience surrogate, learns that the rose colored blinders with which most people view the Victorian era hide some pretty awful truths. The reader learns that most of those awful truths weren't because the Victorians were deliberately malicious people, but because they were doing the best they could by the standards of a time defined by poor medical care, insanely high infant mortality, a fixation on religiosity, and prevalence of armed conflict, among other things. Oneill does a good job of balancing the reality of the customs and culture with the understanding that the practices detailed were practical for the time and place in which they were practiced. She also specifies that, just because some things were useful at this point in time doesn't mean that they will be good (or practical or ethical or even legal) to do so now.

Overall, I very much liked Ungovernable and it is a book that I would recommend.
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