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 ... tries its hardest, with mixed results ... As before, there are some amazing finds amid the research ... 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 ... It all makes for some odd reading ... 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.
Using advice that is entertainingly bizarre — and frequently galling — [Oneill] explores topics such as conception, pregnancy, education and recreation. Chapter titles are acidly funny ... Oneill’s general cheekiness can occasionally be her undoing. Some of the terminology she uses gets too cute. She often uses a Q&A format in which a 'reader' asks questions, but the jokey repartee, while funny, can grow wearisom. It’s unnecessary, because Oneill is so adept at extracting intriguing historical tidbits ... 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 ... serves as a reminder that pseudoscience is hardly a relic of the past ... Oneill’s irreverent guide is a reality check for those who might romanticize the era of strict self-discipline and unchallenged parental authority.
Oneill keeps her tongue firmly in cheek for this dark-humored, enlightening look at Victorian-era prescriptions for upper-class childbirth and child rearing ... The narrator’s obvious enjoyment in sharing vintage expert opinions increases as particularly horrifying facts regarding baby farms, beatings, and heroin for expectant mothers pile up, rendering the imaginary listener nearly speechless. Oneill probes each topic with a Lemony Snicket–like tone and candor, revealing how some of these beliefs eventually evolved into improved girls’ education and a kinder approach to discipline. 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.