There was once a time, writes the historian Therese Oneill, when “parents were not enslaved to the whims of ultra-confident toddlers.” There was no counting to three, no half-hearted threats to suspend iPad privileges. “You simply told him to act and he did, respectfully.” This golden, pre-permissive-parenting idyll, it turns out, predates not only electronic devices, but household electricity itself.
Any parent who makes regular use of the phrase Excuse me, I don’t like your tone has likely been tempted to fire up H.G. Wells’s time machine and blast back to the Victorian era, when children were meekly obedient. It was a time, notes Oneill, when “Dickens’s Tiny Tim would have wept with gratitude over your heart-smart lentil loaf, not whined and gagged throughout the meal.” Contrasted to 21st-century parents, flailing and racked with doubt, Victorian parents basked in moral certitude. We may not be ready for Dickensian day care, but is there anything we can learn from 19th-century parenting?
Not really, as it turns out. In “Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children,” Oneill delves into the era’s highly dubious child-rearing practices. Using a similar format to her previous book, “Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners,” Oneill deploys quotes from various 19th-century pundits, archival illustrations and photos, and snarky commentary that informs the reader about “discipline, morals, and the devastating repercussions of allowing a child to eat fruit.”
Using advice that is entertainingly bizarre — and frequently galling — she explores topics such as conception, pregnancy, education and recreation. Chapter titles are acidly funny: “My Child Will Eat Neither Mush, Mucilage, Porridge, Pablum, Gruel, nor Loblolly. Is Pickiness God’s Way of Culling the Herd?” From the dusty annals of family planning guidebooks, she excavates popular theories, typically mansplained by doctors with ambiguous degrees. One book posits that a woman in “a higher state of sexual vigor and excitement” at the time of conception will produce a boy. Another claims that when a pregnant woman sees a distressing image, she may directly transfer this “maternal impression” to the child’s appearance; one pregnant woman who beheld pictures of a bear gave birth to a furry baby with bearlike claws (quick, hide the spider pictures!).
In the chapter detailing health maintenance, it’s surprising the already appalling child mortality rate of the period wasn’t even higher, given the ways well-meaning parents could kill their offspring with the popular remedies of the day — a gulp of turpentine for constipation, a dose of the deadly poison strychnine for palsy, a dollop of ground tin to expel intestinal worms. How did anyone survive to adulthood?
Oneill’s general cheekiness can occasionally be her undoing. Some of the terminology she uses gets too cute (a baby is a “tiny tummy tag-along,” breasts are “milk muskets” and so on.) She often uses a Q&A format in which a “reader” asks questions, but the jokey repartee, while funny, can grow wearisome (“How’d the Penisocracy manage to hijack the most sacred tradition of womanhood?” “I think you made that word up, and I like it, though it’s rather harsh.”) It’s unnecessary, because Oneill is so adept at extracting intriguing historical tidbits: Who knew the first official maternity dress was designed in the early 1900s by Lane Bryant, namesake of the plus-size retail chain?
Oneill warns early in the book that she wrote it to entertain and inform, and would only address, but not dwell on, how miserable that era was for so many children. When she does veer from the snark, however, it’s welcome. Explaining Victorians’ avoidance of fresh fruits and vegetables and reliance on brandy for their children, she writes that “plain” food, inadvertently made safe through alcohol or rigorous boiling, were the smartest choices to feed a child.
In a chapter devoted to discipline, she recounts the story of New York City orphan Mary Ellen Connolly, who was brutally beaten and starved by her guardians. With the help of Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Connolly testified against them in court. At that time, there were no similar laws that protected children from physical abuse, and her testimony prompted a crusade to prevent it.
“Ungovernable” serves as a reminder that pseudoscience is hardly a relic of the past. And have we fully evolved? A century from now, readers will probably snicker that nearly everything early-21st-century parents fed their children came in nugget or squeeze-pouch form. In the meantime, Oneill’s irreverent guide is a reality check for those who might romanticize the era of strict self-discipline and unchallenged parental authority. “Welcome to the past,” she writes. “It’s quite awful here.”
Jancee Dunn’s latest book is “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.”
By Therese Oneill
Little, Brown. 288 pp. $25