In today’s featured nonfiction, we present an excerpt from Therese Oneill’s Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children, out today from Little, Brown.
Publishers Weekly praised Oneill for keeping “her tongue firmly in cheek for this dark-humored, enlightening look at Victorian-era prescriptions for upper-class childbirth and child rearing.”
How Do I Prepare My Sacred Vestibule to Best Receive My Husband’s Life-Germ?
The Ins and Outs of Fruitful Conception
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 it 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.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.
Girls Under Twenty Years of Age—The 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.
Excerpted from the book Ungovernable by Therese Oneill. Copyright © 2019 by Therese Oneill. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.