Book Reviews · Non-fiction

Unmentionable and Ungovernable

There’s something special about non-fiction, especially when it is written in a way that really engages the reader. As many of you already know, I really enjoy non-fiction, particularly books relating to history and anthropology. I am fascinated by the past, and love reading about how people lived a long time ago.

I recently came across two very engaging non-fiction books by author Therese Oneill, which focus on the Victorian Era.

The first of these titles, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners, is a fascinating book that opens the reader’s eyes to the realities of the Victorian Era.

“Most of the things you love about the nineteenth century aren’t real, child. They’re the curations of gracious hosts who tidy up the era whenever you visit through art, books, or film. You see only the world they want you to see.”

Unmentionable, by Therese Oneill (page 4)

In the book, Oneill gives readers the chance to see beyond the veil of civility and excellent manners that we’re used to seeing in classic novels from the 1800s, and talks very frankly about the issues Victorian women had to deal with on a daily basis. Some of the topics open for discussion include, but are not limited to: Victorian Era fashion, hygiene, dieting, beauty products, courtship, marriage, the running of the household, and how to behave in public.

In addition to frank discussions of the topics presented, which are interesting enough on their own, Oneill also includes a variety of artifacts for the reader to examine, including advertisements, illustrations, and photographs from the Victorian Era.

I learned a tremendous amount while reading Unmentionable. There were several times when I found myself laughing out loud as I read, but also an equal number of times when I wanted to travel back in time and smack some much-needed sense into people. While the book is written in an engaging (and occasionally humorous) way, it is important to remember that (at its core) it is a book about history. And as such, it discusses historical facts that the reader might find absurd, as well as issues that are extremely serious.

Because Unmentionable covers such a wide range of topics, I think it’s important to mention that some of the chapters do address issues that readers might find uncomfortable, or which might cause emotional distress, including: spousal abuse, extremely questionable medical diagnosis and practices, and sexual slavery.

One of the things that I really liked about this book is the way in which Oneill addresses the reader, who is assumed to be female. Unlike many non-fiction authors, she speaks directly to the reader, encouraging us to put ourselves in the place of a Victorian lady to better imagine what our lives would be like. While the book was definitely written with a female audience in mind, I think any adult with an interest in history would find Unmentionable worthwhile, regardless of gender.

Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children is somewhat different from Unmentionable in terms of its style. While the book does still address the reader directly, the reader is assumed to be a woman who either already has, or intends to have, a child. It is written as a series of questions and answers, which makes the overall style feel more like a conversation or interview than the previous book.

The book begins by focusing on topics such as conception, tips for how to ensure a healthy pregnancy, and the dangers of childbirth, before moving on to issues that may arise after the birth of a baby (such as feeding, discipline, education, recreation, and health care).

It is important to note that all of the recommendations shared in this book are the product of Victorian Era thinking, all of which are completely outdated in the modern age, and many of which are actually extremely dangerous and should not be replicated.

This is, in many ways, a more difficult book to read than Unmentionable, because the ways in which children were treated and valued in the Victorian Era were vastly different than how we treat our kids today. In many cases, Victorian children were not treated as human beings, but as the property of their parents. They had no agency, and next to no recourse if they were being abused. The types of punishments employed by both parents and teachers during this time were nothing short of abusive, and would be cause for Child Protective Services (CPS) to be called in if they were used today. Of course, CPS didn’t exist back then.

Ungovernable also includes a variety of artifacts similar to the ones seen in Unmentionable, including advertisements, photographs, and illustrations. If you are particularly squeamish when it comes to medical matters, you may find some of the images (particularly those depicting childbirth) uncomfortable.

While this book is fascinating from a historical perspective, if you’re a new (or expecting) parent who is looking for wisdom about raising children, Ungovernable is definitely not the book you’re looking for. For one thing, I can guarantee that there is nothing in this book that is going to adequately prepare you for raising a child in our 21st Century, technologically-minded world. It certainly does not include any words of wisdom about how much screen time you should allow your child, or recommendations regarding organic versus non-organic foods.

Ultimately, however, what Oneill manages to demonstrate through Ungovernable is that the ways in which we raise children need to be different than the methods approved of by the Victorians, because our children live in a different world…with vastly different challenges and social expectations.

“Imagine writing a whole book with the goal of having the reader (who is far mouthier than she need be, might I add) reject the message! Insanity!”

Ungovernable, by Therese Oneill (page 266)

Even if you are not (or are not planning to become) a parent, if you’re interested in the Victorian Era, you will probably still find Ungovernable to be an interesting read.

If you are interested in reading either Unmentionable or Ungovernable, it should be noted that they definitely accomplish their task of revealing what life was actually like in the Victorian Era. The reality of this time period is not what we’re used to seeing in books and movies. Both of these books occasionally deal with difficult topics, and they reveal Victorian attitudes and stereotypes that you may not have known existed during this period.

While the idea of seeing the reality (rather than the romanticism) of this period may not appeal to everyone, if you are interested in having a better understanding of what Victorian life was really like (especially for women), I think you will find both books worthwhile.

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