Sometimes history offers a marker of how far we’ve come. Sometimes, there’s He-Man.
Among the Victorian excerpts in Therese Oneill’s Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children is some 1838 advice to mothers, warning them that “by the innate consciousness of being born to bear rule, [boys] will sooner revolt from the authority of woman.” In 2017, the series Toys That Made Us did an episode on He-Man, where marketer Mark Ellis explained the biggest conclusion from an early focus group: “When we got a bunch of 5-year-olds and watched them play, it was clear that little boys are tired of their moms … telling them what to do all the time.”
It’s not at all surprising that we’re still knee-deep in Victorian mores. That doesn’t make it any less uncanny — or occasionally dispiriting — to think about.
When Oneill’s Unmentionable came out two years ago, snarking on expectations of Victorian womanhood, it joined the growing corner of pop culture that approached the past as a cabinet of morbid curiosities ready for unpacking. Ungovernable is something of a tougher order. The 19th-century was a grim one for child rearing, even among the well-to-do, for whom most of this contemporary advice was pitched. And it doesn’t help that we’re living in a moment where “positively Victorian” is less an offhand description of an antiquated outlook and more a summary of active legislative and cultural debates. A book revisiting 19th century advice about dangerous medical hooey, women as dedicated vessels for childbearing, and the enduring convenience of Boys Will (or Must) Be Boys has its work cut out for it in wringing out the laughs.
Ungovernable tries its hardest, with mixed results. Oneill brings back the Socratic dialogue with a naive modern reader for lengthy bits about Instagram-ready parenting, ass’s milk as baby formula, child abuse, and the dangers of pickles on the childish constitution. As before, there are some amazing finds amid the research. (In 1854, John Epps explained that pregnant women’s unbounded sexual desire made them constipated — in a book he dedicated to his wife.) And there’s certainly no lack of morbid curiosities, from “magnetized wombs” to intestinal worms, though the proposed solutions are often more frightening than the problems.
But by attempting to cover a bit of everything, the overall effect is somewhat disjointed, and more than once, Oneill drags the Socratic reader into some rather forced ignorance that strains the premise at the edges. (The shock at unsanitary hospital conditions seems par for the course; being existentially horrified at the concept of milking donkeys seems a bit much.) And it’s hard to shake the sense that these asides come at the expense of topics that would seem obvious when drawing parallels or demarcations between then and now; though Ungovernable regularly reminds the reader of “an infant mortality rate too depressing to mention” and mentions diseases like cholera and measles, her aghast modern questioner never asks about, say, the development of antibiotics or vaccines.
It all makes for some odd reading. Ungovernable presents plenty of suitably eyebrow-raising excerpts, but amid the snark at parenthood past and present, there are some unavoidable issues. Readers were up for a little gallows humor about gender roles old and new in Unmentionable. Ungovernable is a more difficult topic to broach, coming in at a fraught time. As Oneill acknowledges more than once, a lot of the norms of Victorian child raising are just too dire for much comedy. In its best moments, the book connects past to present; in others, there’s just not much to laugh about. The wretched details are as relevant as ever, but diving through Ungovernable may require a strong stomach.
Genevieve Valentine’s latest novel is Icon.