The Wet Nurse’s Tale by Erica Eisdorfer has one of the pluckiest heroines I’ve come across in historical fiction, reminding me a bit of Jane Harris’s wonderful The Observations.
Susan Rose is the oldest of the Rose family’s many offspring. Her family has survived on the income her mother brought in by working as a wet nurse. Susan has many memories of two babies in cradle, one of her sisters or brothers, and the child her mother was nursing for pay. Her father drinks most of the money away, but the family manages to survive by sending the children to work at the Big House as servants as soon as they are of age.
Susan goes to work as a scullery maid at the house, along with her sisters. When her sister Ellen, the most fragile of the girls, is raped by the master of the house, the Rose family is devastated, and the griefs just keep on coming. In the course of events, Susan has need to find work at her mother’s profession, as a wet-nurse. Her experiences in the homes of the gentry make for intriguing reading. Also fascinating are the interludes between the chapters, in which various mothers explain their reason for needing to send their child to a wet nurse.
Having just finished Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I couldn’t help but make a comparison between the two books, since both involve a young woman taken advantage of by a member of the upper class. The biggest difference is in the characters themselves. While things seem to just happen to Tess, Susan Rose makes things happen. She doesn’t simply take the outrages foisted upon her, she takes matters into her own hands and makes her own future. While the book doesn’t end with each and every loose end completely tied up, I was convinced by Susan’s gumption that things were going to go her way after all.