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The Underside Of Chivalry

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 28, 2009

THE WET NURSE'S TALE

By Erica Eisdorfer

Putnam. 259 pp. $24.95

It's become a sub-genre: the mini-saga set in vaguely Napoleonic times about a spirited female living in England, having adventures, making her own way as best she can. From the title and the cover, this book seems a little dubious -- lots of breasts and steamy sex and way too much romping. But "The Wet Nurse's Tale" turns out to be informative, unusual and intelligent.

So much of the literature written in these times was by men -- men of means, who seemed to have spent their days wandering the countryside, looking for milkmaids to tease or harass or ravage. (Or maybe they were only bragging.) I remember a class in graduate school taught by a pale, dreamy man who one day woke the students from their collective torpor by reading aloud from a nobleman's memoirs, something like "I turned her on her head and slapped a pound of butter in her breach!" The professor, who wouldn't have said boo to a goose in real life, looked wistful. They used to have fun in those days! They rollicked! (No one ever wrote down what the milkmaids thought.)

But "The Wet Nurse's Tale" takes the point of view of just such a girl. She grows up in a poverty-stricken village in which every citizen depends on work over at the Great House, where a family of the gentry lives in oblivious entitlement. Mr. Bonney, a crass boor, enjoys hunting and the occasional rape; Mrs. Bonney, idle and vain, is more than happy to have her husband slake his lust elsewhere. Their children are two chipper daughters and Freddie, a glum young man who hates horses, is an unashamed mama's boy and looks forward to no particular future.

The Bonneys' Great House is only a mile or two away from young Susan Rose and her luckless village family, but they exist in separate worlds. Old Mr. Rose is much the worse for drink, a whiner and a bully. Mrs. Rose has put bread on the table for years by being a wet nurse, while popping out her own babies left and right. Susan finds herself in the middle of a clump of siblings, most of whom are comely and blond (good English stock, for all their penury), and some of her first conscious moments bring the realization that she's pudgy and red-faced with lots of unruly, wiry hair. She's good humored, though, and remembers always that she has a pair of fine blue eyes, a quick wit and a generous heart.

Soon enough the time comes for Susan Rose and her delicate younger sister, Ellen, to take their turn working for the Bonneys. Ellen is pretty enough to be hired as one of Mrs. Bonney's personal maids, while Susan is put to scullery work. But it's Ellen who ends up raped and beaten by Mr. Bonney. Susan, by sheer unattractiveness, avoids that fate. She ends up having sex with the piteous Freddie on the floor of the pantry for the next few months. He's nice enough, but she gets pregnant, goes home, has the baby and is soon hired out by her unscrupulous father as a wet nurse in a nearby town, while her own baby starves.

The merit of this novel is in the considerable information it gives us about the lives of the servant class, how domestic life actually worked in those days, and the strange station that a wet nurse might occupy in a household, isolated between social classes but utterly indispensable. (Also included here are a dozen mini-chapters that are statements from women of the day, each of whom has her own good reason for putting her children out to nurse, ranging from breast infections, to mental illness, to helping with parish work or the harvest, to prostitution, to a mother's death, to simply not wanting to lose one's figure.)

At the first home where Susan Rose works as a wet nurse, she ventures out to get a bad tooth pulled, wanders into the town's Jewish neighborhood and ends up crashing a service at the local synagogue. She loves the whole scene, she tells us, and implies that her dark hair and ruddy complexion allow her to fit in better here than with all those bland blonds she's been brought up with. The nice Jewish dentist ends up asking her home to dinner to meet his family, so we know where that's going.

Babies have to be weaned, and Susan Rose soon ends up in her own village again. Freddie's still there, and although he's far from the romping sort, they console themselves a few times in the neighboring forest, and there she is, pregnant again. Her awful father and Freddie's awful mother get into the act, and the novel takes a gothic turn. But Susan Rose is determined, this time, that her child won't perish.

Again, the strength of "The Wet Nurse's Tale" isn't in the plot (which gets a little out of control at the end) but in the common-sense character of Susan Rose, who is far from the received notion of bawdy, but nobody's victim, either. And also for the hundred little details about what it was like to keep a middle-class home going then, how a poor person managed to change her wardrobe, how the shopping got done and the babies got raised. The whole notion is light-years away from noblemen out on prancing horses looking for girls to ravish, but it may be a pretty good take on how people actually lived in those days. I liked it very much.

See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Tracy Kidder follows a young African doctor into hell.

-- E.D. Hirsch keeps fighting for cultural literacy.

-- Real estate speculators confess their sins.

-- A historian busts some Berlin Wall myths.

-- And the secret life of Marilyn Monroe.

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