Friday, September 17, 2010

The Wet Nurse


"Mammy how I love, how I love you my dear old mammy." Sorry I could not stop humming that while I was reading The Wet Nurse. Not since Jayne Mansfield have breasts done so much for a career.

I did pick this book up on purpose. Am I expecting? No. Am I contemplating a career change? Yes, but nothing in the diary field. I had made a note of The Wet Nurse when the hardcover came out that I wanted to take a look when the paperback was released. It was, I did and I purchased. Why? Historical interest. It certainly was not this dreadful cover that tempted me. Take a look at that. It makes those God-awful covers on the Barnes and Noble Classics look attractive.

After a lifetime's worth of reading historical fiction and 19th century writers like Dickens, Trollope, Collins, Oliphant, Gaskell, etc I knew what a wet nurse was but that was all I knew. The wet nurse is an unexamined staple of period novels. Typically even the second upstairs parlor maid will have more character development and plot importance than the wet nurse. Sue me I was curious. My attitude is the give away that I did not expect to...well, respect this novel. I assumed from the cover, the subject matter and the prosaic title that I would get a few facts on milk production as a livelihood, average writing and maybe some entertainment. Why? What was it about a novel whose main character lactates for a living that made me prejudge ? Am I a snob?

Am I just the tiniest bit disappointed that I enjoyed The Wet Nurse from end to end? Absolutely not. My snottiness was defeated. Author Erica Eisdorfer has done a very good job. Her main character, Susan Rose, is an illiterate country girl forced to go to London to hunt down her missing son. She is able to get a position in a household and is soon given the opportunity to better her salary by becoming the wet nurse. Susan is what Dickens would have described as a 'jolly' girl. My Mom would have said that she was no better than she should have been. She is good hearted, lusty and true but not above scheming and larceny to get ahead and recover her son. You know that if Susan is going to earn herself a happy ending she will have more than her share of adventures, heartache, horrifying employers and brutality to endure. Susan is the strength of this book, not the plot.

At the end of each chapter is a somewhat abrupt interruption of the story while Susan's clients explain why she was needed in each job. These were my favorite parts of the novel. As informative as these sections were they also help the novel. They add a little balance to the story by bringing in a touch of Upstairs Downstairs to the book and with each explanation Eisdorfer brought a subtle reminder to us about how difficult surviving Victorian England was for adults and children. They also served to reinforce our view of Susan's independence and resilience.

The Wet Nurse defied my snobby this-will-be-all-cheese expectations and lived up to my desire for knowledge.


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