The Victorian Parent's Guide to Raising Flawless Children


By Therese Oneill

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From the author of the “hysterically funny and unsettlingly fascinating” New York Times bestseller Unmentionable, a hilarious illustrated guide to the secrets of Victorian child-rearing (Jenny Lawson).

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.


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Author’s Note

The Stuff of Nightmares

This book is full of true information about child-rearing in the nineteenth century. I describe real attitudes, real practices, real children. I have culled from that era what is strange, incredible, and darkly funny, particularly as it related to the upper class of both America and Britain.

This is handpicked history, not comprehensive.

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.

There are many books that can educate you about that suffering. This isn’t one of them.

I will address but not dwell on the misery of this era: the fact that during some periods of the nineteenth century the child mortality rate was at 50 percent, or that child labor laws didn't exist, or that there was no such thing as “child abuse” until late in the century, when the ASPCA decided to incorporate children into their protection along with dogs and horses. I wrote Ungovernable to entertain and inform; I didn’t write it to slug you in the stomach.

It is my dearest hope that the historically accurate pieces of child-rearing advice, lore, 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. Thank you.

—Therese Oneill

“We need to talk.”

Welcome, Unfit Mother

So. Here is where your life choices have deposited you. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Your bloodshot eyes and slouchy slept-in clothing. Your once-taut belly lapping over the yoga pants that will never come any closer to a yoga studio than the 7-Eleven it shares a parking lot with.

But here’s some good news! You’ve finally found a way to make the baby sleep: you just have to keep one hand on her tummy while using your other hand to keep the wind-up baby swing swaying at precisely three-fourths time, and run the vacuum and dishwasher simultaneously, while making sure the spit-up-encrusted blanket she won’t let you wash is tucked snugly around her left shoulder but never touching the right.

Now you are enjoying the first stillness of your day. You’ve made a little nest out of the least offensive dirty laundry that was clean yesterday before your older child overturned the basket from the sofa and used it to cage your middle child, who, defying six months of potty training, chose tactical targeted urination as an effective defense.

You went to rewash the towels but then both boys started throwing up, so the laundry that was merely peed upon had to take a back seat to that which had been puked on. The layer of plastic toys (the cheap, mass-produced cartoon abominations you swore you’d never buy) jab you through your makeshift bed, but the blessed side of total exhaustion is that you hardly feel them. Plus, ever since the last baby compensated for her slippery-quick birth by doing unspeakable things to your pelvic floor with her exit, you’ve accepted that pain is just part of life now. Let’s lie back onto the intricately finger-painted yogurt stains that cover your couch, and reflect.

You wanted a baby. You wanted to love another human and shape them into a gift to give the world. Now, in your darkest hours, you fantasize about yourself before children, smugly popping each blue birth control pill out of its foil into your toilet. Had you access to a time machine, you believe you’d use it to push into that bathroom, rip the towel rack off the wall, and knock your idiot self into the tub. Then you’d fish every last pill out of the bowl. It doesn’t matter if they’ve dissolved… back then you kept the toilet clean! The powder will dry and you can mix it with the expensive yogurt you used to buy, in the Before Time.

And here you are. Huddled in garbage, chained like a low-rent Princess Leia to a pumpkin-sized Jabba the Hut, fantasizing about time machines and toilet pills. Aw, honey. It’s okay. This is a confusing time in your life.

You’re a twenty-first-century parent living in a world where the rules of proper parenting change by the hour. And you’re starting to think… they’re stupid rules. Stupid and useless, and they’ve crushed your faith in any writer with letters after her name. Still, you’re desperate. You keep hoping to grab ahold of a book with the right set of rules.

Judging by the way your chipped manicure scrabbled over the spines in the childcare section of the bookstore before settling on this peculiar book, you’ve still not found the magic words that will transform your sloppy, non-subservient progeny into something you can show off in public. In fact, you’re beginning to despair that you ever will. That you have done, and are continuing to do, everything wrong.

“This Is What I Call a Monster!” by E. A. Oneill, age ten, 2017.

Oh, you poor woman. Pause. Breathe. And accept the truth.

You are doing everything wrong. You’re a mess and your parenting is woefully lacking in nearly every regard.

I’m not telling you this to be harsh. Truly, I’m here to help, but we can’t begin the healing process until you face the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. The proof is all around you. And not just in the abhorrent behavior of your children.

Look at what a fibber you’ve become! You know “screen time” is bad… so you find yourself saying ridiculous things like, “My children watch two hours a week and they only like 1970s-era Dr. Who episodes that we get on VHS from the library! Or for a special treat they can watch YouTube videos of DR Ramasjang. It’s Danish children’s programming notable for its open acceptance of cross-dressing puppets.” But that’s not counting the days when you’re tired, busy, or out of wine. Which is every day now. Then you strap them down in front of whatever screen in the house blinks brightest and loudest.

Or the lengths you’ve gone to conceal that your child only eats four foods. And they’re all brown, except for that purple cereal you buy direct from Amazon so no one will see your shame. And you never thought to feel bad about the half swat on the rear you gave your son when you found him atop the family Pekingese, squeezing the contents of an entire honey bear over her $120-per-groomer-visit coat, but now you press your hands to your guilty brow, wondering if you’re a child-beater. (You’re not, by the way. However, butt-swatting is an ineffective punishment. Unless you’re using properly aged and cured hickory switches.)

Then you compound your misery by seeking the most modern, educated advice you can find. Modernity has nothing to do with children, Mater. Children are ancient and unchanged in their pure form. You won’t be helped by books that detail the importance of neutral color tones and non-judgmental chair design in your child’s time-out space, or books that tell you never to call your daughter pretty but to encourage her when she elbows the old lady blocking her access to the frozen vegan pizzas at the grocery store, because she is showing leadership skills.

And where is the book that can explain how you’re supposed to feel about the selection of satin demi-cup padded training bras next to the Dora the Explorer underpants? That feeling of disgust quickly shoved down by shame was so confusing, wasn’t it? After all, you’re supposed to… encourage a young woman’s body acceptance and allow her to feel comfortable in her budding sexuality… right? But does that mean your eleven-year-old gets fancier bras than you? Does that seem fair to you?

Has it ever, in history, been so acceptable for a parent to be whipped by her child, instead of the other way around? Are you really surprised these methods aren’t working?

Allow me to reframe.

Once upon a time, parents were not enslaved to the whims of ultraconfident toddlers. Once upon a time, you told a child to pick up his plate after he’d eaten everything you’d placed on it, and to put it in the sink. You told him one time. One. You did not count to three. You did not lob half-hearted threats regarding loss of iPad privileges. You simply told him to act and he did, respectfully. Dickens’s Tiny Tim would have wept with gratitude over your heart-smart lentil loaf, not whined and gagged throughout the meal.

Once upon a time, if your daughter was taking too long gazing at her reflection in the mirror, you’d ask her to quote three verses from the Bible on vanity. And she would, from memory, effortlessly but with proper humility, and then quietly set aside her hairbrush and ribbons, ready to do whatever task you’d prepared her for. 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!

Once upon a time your fourteen-year-old son would hold a broken vase in front of you and look truly shamefaced. And when you said, “Clean this up, and we’ll talk about this when Father gets home. Now go help the men in the barn,” he would exit the room in stricken silence. Would the boy smartly suggest a better place for you to keep your vase so as to avoid poor fellows accidentally bumping into it? Would he scream that you don’t understand him and never take his side? Would he say, “You’re a total WAD, Mother!” and slam the door on his way out to the bicycle you bought for him to pedal himself to the arms of some purple-lipstick-wearing eighth-grade harlot? No. Even Huckleberry Finn, with all his adolescent mischief, took his drunken father’s constant beatings in easy stride. Young boys had resilience back then. Set them atop a raft made of garbage and send them down the Mississippi River—yes, they might encounter some floating corpses and a handful of attempts on their lives, but they didn’t fuss about it. They were too busy building character.

“The happy mother. Not you.”

There was once a time when parents were gods, and children their humbled flagellants! Good times! And, my friend, we can bring those days back.

Imagine that you had the chance to consult with the sage experts whose advice (probably) shaped the maternal minds that produced Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, and Lord Baden-Powell. (He founded Scouting for children. Without him there would be no Eagle Scouts. Eleven of the twelve men to walk on the moon were Eagle Scouts. Thus, without Lord Baden-Powell, America would not own the moon. No, we do. Law of Finders, Keepers.)

Would you do it? Or would you stick to more modern childcare books, with their unrealistically upbeat insistence that a child is a person, one deserving respect and consideration? Or, worse, the books written that helped create your insufferable generation? (Perhaps you should ask your husb—excuse me, co-parent partner to set down the game controller he’s currently using to massacre aliens while arguing via headset with a twelve-year-old in New Zealand about who “boinked” whose mom first to weigh in on the matter?)

A child is like a large insentient rock. Just a large, heavy burden with no obvious use. A parent is a stonemason. This child could be so hauled, smashed, and chipped away at that he is fit to form the supports of Halls of Governments, Grand Cathedrals, or An Especially Nice Applebee’s in the Good Part of Town. Or, if you continue on your course of twenty-first-century child-rearing, he could become that misshapen boulder that hangs over the railway bridge on River Road, the one where all the seniors at the high school paint penises in their class colors.

In this book I have anticipated your questions and compiled all the very best parenting advice from nineteenth-century experts. Here you will learn about discipline, morals, and the devastating repercussions of allowing a child to eat fruit. Set yourself free from the agonizing politics and pressures of twenty-first-century parenting. They aren’t working anyway. It’s time to take children back to the old school.


How Do I Prepare My Sacred Vestibule to Best Receive My Husband’s Life-Germ?

The Ins and Outs of Fruitful Conception

Try to assume as close to a left-bend forty-five-degree angle as possible to shorten the male-gender ovum’s journey through the fallopian tubes.


Q: Do you have any advice if I’m still on the fence about having children?

A: Yes. Every moment you remain childless is another beat of your heart echoing down a meaningless eternity. Your time on earth will have been a blip, a glitch, and no trace of you will escape the blankness of death, and when you are gone only the poor estate agent who has to try to rid your home of your stench will mourn your passing.

Q: Oh. Well. That’s a pretty tight argument. Except I have child-free friends who are doing just fine.

A: Child-less is the proper Victorian term. Actually, “barren” is more accurate. “The Lord hath turned His mercy against you” is also appropriate. Your childless friends seem happy, with their disposable income and spare time. But how they weep at night. Weep in their clean houses after eating expensive adult food and wine and watching rated-R movies on the big screen in the living room. Bitterly weep.

But this is moot! You already know, in your heart, that children are your highest purpose as a woman! Otherwise you’d never have picked up this book. Let’s get started! Your work as a good mother begins long before the birth of your precious children. It begins even before conception! Preparation for motherhood as the Victorians did begins the moment you awkwardly allow your new husband to bunch your thirteen pounds of nightdress around your waist and accidentally elbow you in the chin while blindly but earnestly trying to navigate the cartography of your lady parts. If things get weird, just remember, you’re doing this for the baby!

Q: Wait—do I have to wear the nightdress? Weird how? What sorts of things am I supposed to do to prepare?

A: Slow down there, feisty filly. I don’t mean to mislead you. While it is the highest and most noble desire to start a family, it’s not a privilege to be allotted to all women. First, you must ask yourself, “Is it a good idea to put more of me in the world? Would my offspring bring good to society, or would I just be mushing up all my own deficiencies, from my foul temper to my freckles, into a squalling eight-pound plague to unleash on civilization?” Now is not a time to mince words, so I must say with great solemnity: We don’t more need more stupid and ugly in this world. If inferior goods are all that’s on offer up your baby aisle, best to just convert it into a dry goods department.

Dr. L. C. Winsor wrote an editorial in an 1887 edition of the Obstetric Gazette called “Should Conception Be Controlled?” about stupid people making new stupid people. Lack of sense and restraint was, in the doctor’s opinion, killing America.

It cannot be disputed that the majority of our race are conceived utterly regardless of the conditions, time, or of the fitness of the parents to procreate. Such being the case, is it strange that we hear now and then rumors that the American race is becoming weak? That hollow chested, round-shouldered, debilitated fathers, and worn, dyspeptic mothers, complain that the children are sick so much that they are turning home into a hospital?

And what is to blame for this degradation of the American breed? Says Winsor, “Men and women are too prone to marry on simply the one quality—that of love.”

There it is. Mushy, squishy, imprudent “love.” Ruining humanity by not factoring sensible breeding into the equation. Winsor continues:

Often the fitness as regards health, temperament and inclination are totally disregarded. Few men are as strong as their ancestors were. They are not of the rugged puritan type, nor is the tendency in America to strength, but rather to weakness, and under these circumstances, with no especial preparation, conception takes place.

Q: Wait—“rugged puritan type”? Didn’t half the Mayflower Puritans die, precisely because they were too weak to survive freezing, sickness, and starvation, all within months of landing in America?

A: Ha! No! That’s just… I mean… like barely half! There were 102 Mayflower passengers and only 45 or so died by the first winter. Besides, the good doctor obviously isn’t referring to the ol’ “Oh, poor me, I can’t survive an unusually harsh New England winter in a badly built shelter with hardly any food and now I’m going to die because I haven’t the fortitude to walk off a little bit of scurvy” Puritans. He’s talking about the hardy survivors that built America! And look: An Object Lesson. Bring weak humans into the world, force the Lord to cull them out.

How cruel of you.

This is why you must be sure you’re worthy of procreation. Do not be one of the “thousands of careless, selfish and vicious couples” identified by Lyman Beecher Sperry in 1900’s Husband and Wife who are unfit to marry but do it anyway. You must self-govern. Because modern minds apparently consider it a “gross violation of human rights” to implement Sperry’s suggested solution: “Of course, it would be great gain if all those who ought not to reproduce their kind could be prevented from marrying; but at the present stage of human development such a method of preventing the multiplication of defectives is too radical to secure favorable consideration.”

“No, I’m really happy to be in the New World. It’s just I only brought this one cape and I don’t know how to make houses happen.”

Q: “Preventing the multiplication of defectives”… wasn’t that one of Hitler’s programs?

A: I’m very eager to answer all your questions, but we’d move faster if they weren’t all directed at poking holes in my historical narrative. Furthermore, if you attach Hitler’s name to anything it’s going to sound over the top. Granted, forced sterilization is already… rather fringe. And, yes, the Nazi Party enacted many laws to prevent the birth of “unsound progeny” by sterilizing people who were judged by an investigating panel as unfit… but… the Victorian eugenicists didn’t mean to be evil. Victorians lived in a largely speculative world, full of ideas on how to improve their changing civilization. They weren’t great at factoring in the wild variable that is human behavior. Since they intended good, they wouldn’t easily conceptualize just how awful such a method would be when put into action. It doesn’t change the fact that you yourself have a moral duty to find out if you’re fit for reproduction.

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.

Obviously you should not reproduce if you are cursed with any sort of illness that might be passed on to your offspring or impair your ability to care for them. Neither should you reproduce if your IQ is below average, but that’s rather moot. As Sperry tells us, dumb people are always the last to know of their condition. Nonetheless, let’s look at some of the ladies who are fouling the gene pool and need to be banned from the “recreation” center.

Girls Under Twenty Years of AgeThe Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother by George Henry Napheys was reprinted decades past its original 1869 publication, so popular was his advice regarding the weaker sex. Even though early marriage was far more acceptable in the past than today, 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. Although you can be sure the children of a young mother are predestined to be societal burdens.

Tight-lacing the corset of a twelve-year-old gives the appearance of fuller hips and breasts, but that is usually only an illusion brought on by organ displacement.

Death deals a mercy blow to an industrious wife before her feverish work ethic can weaken the human gene pool.

The children of [young] marriages are rarely healthy. They are feeble, sickly, undersized, often with some fault of mind or body, which is a cross to them and their parents all their lives. They inherit more readily the defects of their ancestors, and, as a rule, die at earlier years than the progeny of better-timed unions.

But don’t wait too long, either.

Elderly Women Over Thirty Years of Age—If you have been regularly shucking out fine little corn nubbins throughout your twenties and into your later years, never fear: Napheys approves of your output. But if you are one of those unfortunate spinsters planning to conceive for the first time past your sell-by date, beware. Of course, the decision is up to you, but keep in mind that you’re probably going to die. Says Napheys: “The first labors of wives over thirty are nearly twice as fatal as those between twenty and twenty-five.”

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. Dr. John D. West related the lamentation of one such strong woman in the 1886 edition of Maidenhood and Motherhood, or Ten Phases of a Woman’s Life: “Why is it that my daughters have no powers of endurance? Why, the three girls together cannot do the work I could when I was their age. Why, what would have become of us if I had been lying around in silk wrappers and satin slippers, dosing with drugs, as my girls do?”

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.”

Belgians and Other Poor People—According to Dr. West the Belgian people are an excellent example of the scientific fact that “the number of children born is in inverse proportion to the amount of food in a country and in a season. In Belgium the higher the price of bread, the greater the number of children, and the greater the number of infant deaths.”

Well, Belgium? Have anything to say for yourself?

Belgians. The Silent Scourge.

Q: So… when is my body most fertile?

A: You know how you’re always supposed to handle a gun as if it’s loaded, even if you’re certain it isn’t? Same goes for your husband’s penis.

So even though Dr. Napheys advises couples who wish to postpone parenthood to marry on a day halfway through the bride’s menstrual cycle, since this time is her “season of sterility,” it’s best to assume that gun is still loaded.


  • "An entertaining look at Victorian-era parenting advice...Oneill's irreverent guide is a reality check for those who might romanticize the era of strict self-discipline and unchallenged parental authority."—The Washington Post
  • "While acknowledging the grim conditions of Victorian youth, Oneill offers a lighthearted romp through the more absurd side of the parenting books and trending childhood advice literature of the time. Ungovernable would make a good gift for a mom with a sense of humor."—Bust
  • "This wild ride through 19th-century child-rearing is an exploration of anal worms, strange tinctures, inappropriate education, child labor, and questionable food stuffs. Readers will learn the altogether shocking practices of Victorian parenthood-and be reminded that people did live to tell the tale...The author's breezy style strikes an amusing and marked contrast with the subject matter, which hopefully keeps readers focused on their successes as modern, enlightened parents-which the Victorians also considered themselves, a fact that is slyly related in delicious irony. While Oneill will likely not supplant Spock and Brazelton, she may well set parents at ease in her own hilarious way."—Booklist
  • "One part sauciness, one part frankness, and one part sweet relief that readers live in the present, Oneill's book provides readers with a liberal dose of medical and women's history that's well worth taking."—Publishers Weekly

"This book is full of awesome."—Jenny Lawson, #1 New YorkTimes bestselling author of FuriouslyHappy
  • "It's hard to imagine a woman - or a teenage girl - who won't love this book."—Washington Post
  • "Unmentionable transports us back to the world of middle-class 19th-century women, with special emphasis on the messy details that costume dramas airbrush out. . . . With a 4-year-old's scatological glee, Oneill details the logistics of old-time peeing, pooping, gestating, menstruating and mating . . . Oneill has dug up some lovely tidbits from the dustbin of history."—New York Times
  • "Flat-out hysterical (and occasionally alarming)...Read it and be very, very glad you're a woman of modern times."—Good Housekeeping
  • "This book will banish your silly romantic notions of life in the nineteenth century and make you laugh out loud while doing it."—BookRiot
  • "Both fascinating and hilarious, Oneill has created a book so excellently informative about the Victorian period, it should be shelved right next to Dickens for reference. Your stomach will hurt so much from laughing, you'll be thankful you're not wearing a corset."—Bustle
  • "If Unmentionable does not secure the Pulitzer Prize for Most Fascinating Book Ever, the whole gig is rigged. Hilarious, horrifying, shocking and revelatory."—Laurie Notaro,#1 New York Times bestselling authorof It Looked Different on the Model
  • "If you've ever felt like you should have been born in another time, Unmentionable will disabuse you of that sensibility, and it will do so charmingly."—Vice/Broadly
  • On Sale
    Apr 16, 2019
    Page Count
    288 pages

    Therese Oneill

    About the Author

    Therese Oneill is the New York Times bestselling author of Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners. She can be found online at http://www.writerthereseoneill.com.

    Learn more about this author