Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reading The Wet Nurse's Tale: An AP wet nurse?

Gel-Filled Bed PillowsEverything's still chaotic here. On top of moving and the audit and trying to fit work in and parenting a very cranky and stressed toddler, one of our computers broke down, so Sam and I have been sharing. For normal people, maybe this wouldn't be an issue, but we live on our computers. The good news is that we've been able to get some offline (actual paper book) reading done now that our computer time has been cut in half or more!

One of the books I've picked up is The Wet Nurse's Tale, by Erica Eisdorfer. I'm only at the beginning, so this isn't a review or recommendation, just conversation. It's set in Victorian England and is narrated by Susan Rose, a feisty working-class young woman whose mother was a wet nurse and so who becomes one herself, caring for richer ladies' infants by breastfeeding and nannying them until the mothers want them back in their care. I wanted to see what it's like to choose as a profession something I do all day for free! Ha ha.

I thought this passage at the start was interesting:

Yesterday, Mr. Chandler brought his own mother up to see the babes. The boy was at the breast and the girl asleep in her cradle. ...

"And how do they do, Nurse?" she asked me.

"Rightly enough, ma'am," I says. "The girl's thirstier than the boy, but the boy cries off the breast."

"Well, see that you don't spoil him," she said just as if we hadn't been getting along fine without her for this week. "It's good for him to cry. How long has he been on just now?"

"He's not really suckling right now, ma'am," I said, "he's more dozing, the pet."

"Well, take him off, then."

We're used to obeying straightaway, of course, but I'd been alone for all the day without a word to no one and forgot myself and so before I thought I said, "Oh, but this one needs the breast to help him..."

Well, didn't she near rip that baby out of my arms, though his little mouth was still working at being roused by the talking, and there was my dug out and me hurrying to cover it and the baby wailing and Mrs. Chandler that was Mr. Chandler's mother briskly putting him in his cradle, none too gently.

And where was Mrs. Chandler the wife, all this time? Just looking out the window as if maybe there was a horse drowned in the street.

"There," said the old Mrs. Chandler, "that's how we do it in town." And then to me, "Mind your place, girl." And didn't she just blow out of the room like a high wind with Mr. Chandler and Mrs. Chandler his wife right behind her. I waited for a moment, and then I walked outside my door like to stretch. When I heard nothing and saw nothing, I went back into the room and picked them both up and put them in my lap and rocked them til they slept again.
[p. 4-5]

So, there you have it. Attachment wet nursing, Victorian-style. When I'm done with the novel, I'd like to find out what sort of research Eisdorfer did, whether it was typical of wet nurses to breastfeed on demand and comfort nurse and cosleep and so forth. I could see it happening if they were left to their own devices, because it is the most natural way of caring for a baby, but I could also see outside influences persuading or forcing a more detached style. The horrible grandmother reminds me of other real-life grandmothers (not my own mother or mother-in-law, thankfully) who interfere with a young mother's intent to breastfeed. Good thing for the babies that Susan's plucky enough to ignore the instructions when she's not being watched.

The book's due back at the library in a few days and is fairly popular, so I'll have to decide whether to finish when I can get back in line to check it out again. There's just something that bothers me about contemporary literary novels. In the first 20 pages, there were already a rape and suicide, which seems to be the way of it — depression for shock value or something. But I do like the voice of the protagonist, and I do want to read some more of these fictionalized accounts of what being a professional breastfeeder might have been like. On the one hand, the idea of paying or being paid for nursing is so foreign to me. On the other hand, breastfeeding itself is a daily occurrence!

Oh, also, the cover photo is so lovely. It's an 1839 artwork by Josef Danhauser titled, ironically enough, A Mother's Love. I dig how both tired and adoring the mother's gaze is as she rests and waits for her baby to finish feeding. And look at her discreet, 19th century-style Hooter Hider shawl, complete with tassels with which to amuse the baby! Heh heh.


Related Posts with Thumbnails