The Wet Nurse’s Tale
By Erica Eisdorfer
Putnam, 259 pp.
She’s got breasts, and she knows how to use them.
But not the way you think. Susan Rose is a young servant-class woman in early Victorian England. She discovers that her ample endowment can provide not just milk but milk money, and she begins earning a living as a wet nurse.
The profession is almost unthinkable to us now, but it was quite common in Susan Rose’s day. The socioeconomic position and impact of wet nurses on their communities gave Carrboro author Erica Eisdorfer the inspiration for The Wet Nurse’s Tale. Narrated jauntily by its protagonist, the novel is a comic picaresque grounded in serious historical concerns.
The plot comes from an old tradition: Country bumpkin goes to the big city. In Eisdorfer’s book, it takes a while for her bumpkin to get there, but when she finally does arrive in London, it’s for the most urgent of reasons: Her baby has been taken from her, and she must find and retrieve him.
But it’s the getting there that drives the book. Susan Rose is an illiterate (or “didn’t have my letters,” as she would say), and so her narration is conversational and easygoing. There are lots of “twere”s and “twasn’t”s and constructions like “I quick gave the baby I was a’holding to the cook.” (It doesn’t quite make sense that Susan keeps addressing us as “Reader,” since we can only accept the character’s voice as a transcription, an oral history, albeit a literarily varnished one.) The dialect style is hard to maintain, but Eisdorfer keeps it from tiring, largely because her tale moves too briskly to bog down in language.
Despite Susan’s sunny disposition, The Wet Nurse’s Tale is deceptively brutal at times. In order to reach a happy endwhich you can see coming from a long way off in this rather mechanically plotted bookSusan has to overcome plenty: an abusive father; the rape and subsequent suicide of her sister; the death by illness of her first child while Susan is off nursing someone else’s infant to earn money for her family; two unwanted pregnancies; and her own rape by a coachman. Suckling the children of wealthy parents, some of whom are chilly at best and cruel at worst, is a relative breeze.
Susan’s bumpy and eventful ride is briefly interrupted at the end of every chapter by a short, extra-narrative, first-person explanation (“Mrs. Boatwright’s Reason,” “Rachel Chancer’s Reason”) that justifies each teller’s employment of a wet nursewho happens to be Susan Rose. Mrs. Moore’s reason is that she can’t leave her husband to do all the work in his growing shipping business. Mrs. Cross’s reason is one of health: She develops a painful infection. And so on.
It may seem odd to keep forestalling her story, but Eisdorfer has a serious motive for it: All 12 of these reasons broaden the reader’s understanding of wet nursing’s place in Victoriana. Rather than simply looking down on the tradition as misogynistic barbarism, we see that it was necessitated, and even validated, by an entrenched socioeconomic system. The reasons also create, by their collective memory, a sort of support community around Susan; the women of the reasons are not only her employers but her sisters in a culture that made wet nursing inevitable.
In other words, The Wet Nurse’s Tale is a work of materialist feminism, and its gaze keeps landing, unsurprisingly, on money. Milk is a commodity, after all, and the English empire always knew how to extract what it wanted by colonizing and enslaving the possessors. It also operated a complex hierarchy of servitude at home, and Susan Rose belongs inextricably to what her family calls “the humbler contingent.” If they have milk to sell, they must sell it.
But the indomitable Susan stays bucked up throughout most of her adventure. “All my life I’ve liked a bit of what’s not the usual,” she announces, then spends most of the book participating in it. Forthright about “my lumpy figure and my potato nose and my rough hair,” the randy lass enjoys rolls in the hay with one of her masters and a Jewish dentist, and she engages voluntarily in at least two unbiblical sexual practices.
In making frequent, self-identifying reference to some of the bad girls of the BibleTamar, Bathsheba, JezebelSusan forswears Christian innocence. She breaks many of the Ten Commandments: adultery, false witness and thievery, to begin with, and perhaps others, depending on how you choose to interpret the devious means by which she plots to regain possession of her unjustly repossessed baby. The Wet Nurse’s Tale might have gained more complexity and grip had it done more to develop the tension between Susan’s lighthearted narrative style and her rather sinister scheming.
As it is, she seems like a pretty reliable narrator, and we can easily forgive her transgressions, because Eisdorfer keeps showing us, through the actions and words of her ardent protagonist, that they’re manufactured by one of the deepest and most powerful human needs, at once implacably ferocious and indescribably tender: that of a mother to raise and protect her own child. That is, after all, why she produces milk in the first place.
Erica Eisdorfer appears at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham Thursday, Aug. 6, at 7 p.m.; at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh Wednesday, Aug. 26, at 7:30 p.m.; and at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Pittsboro Saturday, Aug. 29, at 11 a.m.