The Wet Nurse's Tale

The Wet Nurse's Tale

4.0 29
by Erica Eisdorfer

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A debut novel set in Victorian England with a delightfully cheeky heroine who will have everyone talking.

Susan Rose is not your average Victorian heroine. She's promiscuous, lovable, plump, and scheming. Luckily for Susan, her big heart is covered by an equally big bosom, and her bosom is her fortune- for Susan becomes a professional wet nurse, like her


A debut novel set in Victorian England with a delightfully cheeky heroine who will have everyone talking.

Susan Rose is not your average Victorian heroine. She's promiscuous, lovable, plump, and scheming. Luckily for Susan, her big heart is covered by an equally big bosom, and her bosom is her fortune- for Susan becomes a professional wet nurse, like her mother before her, and she makes it her business to know all the intrigues and scandals that the upper crust would prefer to keep to themselves.

When her own child is caught up in a family scandal, Susan must use all of her street smarts to rescue her baby from the powerful mistress of the house. The scheme she weaves is bold and daring, and could spell ruin if she fails-but Susan Rose has no intention of failing.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In her first novel, Eisdorfer offers as a guide to Victorian England her entertaining and surprising protagonist, Susan Rose. A bawdy young woman who could easily have walked off the pages of The Canterbury Tales, Susan ends up wet-nursing after getting unexpectedly and illicitly pregnant, and her alcoholic and abusive father forces her to leave her child and take up the occupation. Her journey into the intimate lives of England's upper crust proves an illuminating and dangerous one as Susan jumps from family to family-until her father sells her son. As Susan attempts to balance other peoples' babies with her quest to regain her own, she is faced with difficult choices between duty and love, and between her life and her child's. Whether she is carousing in the Jewish quarter or planning how to reclaim her son, Susan navigates the stratified social world with humorous vigor. A promiscuous, randy and hefty lady, Susan's a vibrant character, at once sweet and scheming, and given to such a crass frankness that even readers wary of historicals may want to give this a look. (Aug.)

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The Washington Post
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.)
—Carolyn See
Library Journal
Bawdy Susan Rose grows up in Victorian England watching her mother serve as a wet nurse to supplement her drunken father's wages. She knows that her homeliness and impoverished background relegate her to a lowly status, but, seeking a better life, she works as a maid at the Big House. Never one to turn down pleasure, she becomes the young master's lover, which results in pregnancy. What is an uneducated, unwed mother to do, aside from engaging in the lucrative profession of wet-nursing? But temptation leads Susan astray again, and a second illegitimate child is sent away by her father. Frantic, Susan sets off to locate the baby and lands in the foster home where he has been placed—as his wet nurse. VERDICT Susan is blatantly immoral, but readers will be charmed by her lively voice. This and the cast of quirky characters, along with a fascinating glimpse into the underbelly of Victorian life, make up for a somewhat thin plot. Recommended for fans of Philippa Gregory (see review on this page), although this novel is lighter fare. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/09.]—Jamie Kallio, Thomas Ford Lib., Western Springs, IL
Kirkus Reviews
Illegitimate pregnancies lead to a career in lactation in Chapel Hill bookseller Eisdorfer's inventive first novel. Victorian ladies who couldn't or wouldn't breast-feed their infants hired someone like Susan Rose to do it for them. Susan, one of ten children, leaves her farm family in the English village of Leighton to work as a scullery maid at the local Great House. Soon, however, her Rubenesque figure and generosity with her favors lands her in trouble. After several meetings in the pantry with the master's son, Freddie Bonney, she leaves the Manor; unbeknownst to her employer, she is about to give birth. Furious at the prospect of one more mouth to feed, her venal, drunken father Tom is mollified when his wife, herself a retired wet nurse, finds Susan lucrative employment as live-in milk source for a succession of families in nearby Aubrey. But she can't take baby Joey with her, and he dies after being weaned too soon. While in Aubrey, Susan has a brief affair with a Jewish dentist. When work dries up, she goes back to the Manor and resumes trysting with Freddie. Assuming (erroneously) that Freddie is the father of Susan's second out-of-wedlock baby, Tom blackmails the Bonneys, who farm out infant Davey to their London cousin, Mrs. Norval. Insinuating herself into the Norval household as a wet nurse, Susan soon discovers that Mrs. Norval is decidedly not the maternal type; in fact, she's psychotic. Playing on her mistress's delusions, Susan concocts a subterfuge, too delicious to reveal here, that enables her to rescue Davey from the Bonneys' misguided charity. Periodic set pieces illustrating reasons for surrogate suckling reflect exhaustive research but interrupt the story's flow.Susan is such an appealing narrator and heroine, however, that readers will cheer on her quest for a true home. An engaging romp propelled by Susan's infectious voice and determined resilience. Agent: Alexandra Machinist/Linda Chester Literary Agency

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

There was snow on the ground when my time came. I’d expected pain but, Reader! How could this be! I bellowed, I know I did. “It’s like shitting a pumpkin, it is,” I cried.

“Shut up, if you can, girl,” said Dinah, the midwife, “for you’re hurting my ears and you’ll be fine in the end. I’m feared your baby’ll be deef with the noise you’re making.”

“I’ll never be fine in my end again,” I panted, which made her laugh herself, but then the pains started back up and so did my shrieks.

When it was all over, I cried for my mother, to think what the poor thing suffered for all of us. And then I did what I’d seen my mother do for my whole childhood, and that was to open my shift for the baby and let it nurse.

- - -

My mother told me that at first, she didn’t take in other people’s children because she wasn’t a cow now, was she? But when Father wasn’t drunk, he’d become frustrated at his wife’s constant greatness and he’d hit her. One day she took someone else’s child to nurse along with her own and she was paid for it, more than she ever made plaiting straw for hats or for selling eggs. And so she gave that money to him as a little extra and he drank it away and was a lamb for a week. She seemed to have milk for both her own and another, so why waste it, said she.

“Mother,” I said to her once, when I was small, “will I nurse a babe as you do?”

“Well, my dear,” said she, “you’ll need more than that to do it,” and she pointed at my own flat front and then laughed and hugged me to her so the baby in her arms gave a great squawk and then a belch. I recall her words for twasn’t long before I began to grow, and when I stopped, well, I could nurse the whole of England now, is how I can say it best.

My name is Susan Rose. Here I sit in a lady’s house with a lady’s babe at my breast, and it’s where I’ve been before though the house was different and the baby too. I’ve got what rich ladies need right here in front of me and I learned to do what I do by example. It’s my mother’s milk that washed me up on this shore. It has got me to places far from my own mother, and it has got me close to those I should have avoided and it has got me far from my own hopes, but I dream still. Nursing’s good for dreaming, for it takes a good deal of sitting still.

In this house, the Chandlers’ it is, I nurse a pair of little ones. I’m feeding one now and there’s another awaiting in the cradle across the room: I can hear it mewling for me already and if it wouldn’t disturb this wee one, almost asleep now, I’d get up from my chair, with him still suckling away, the dear, and fetch the next one. But it would. This one’s a persnickety little mite, and doesn’t like to be jostled once his eyes begin to droop. The girl’s different. It’s as if she’s already accustomed to waiting for her brother’s leavings and to catching sleep where she can. Of the two of them, I’d bet on her.

- - -

My mistress is the shrew, Mrs. Chandler. She hates those babies for losing her her figure, and she bids her maid lace her as tight as she can bear it, which sours her temper yet more. She bedecks the babies in cheap lace that scratches so they squall when she’s showing them and so who could wonder why they fret? Yesterday, her mother tried to say something to her about it but she’d have none of it. “Mother,” she said all high about herself, “this is Chantilly and it’s from Paris and that’s all there is to it.” Mrs. Haver, as the lady’s mother is called even by her son- in- law, catched my eye for a second but I looked away. I don’t want to lose my position even though twins are hard.

Mr. Chandler loves his wife and that’s a nice thing I can say. He’s a barrister and young but quite ugly though he’ll get better, I think. I notice things like this— how something appears now and what I think it’ll look like later on. That’s the thing of gazing at babies. It makes you right good at predicting. She’s still angry at him for filling her in the first place, is how I see it, and she hasn’t yet let him touch her, at least it doesn’t seem thus, from the way he gazes at her as if he could eat her. She’ll give in to him, I suppose, sooner or later, when she wants some bauble, or when natural urges strike her, which they will, once she stops hurting down below. Her bosom is still almost as big as my own, but those bladders will burst soon: that’s how we put it, my mum and I, though it’s not a very pretty image and I hope you’ll forgive me for it.

Mrs. Chandler’s house is not as clean as I could like. There’s often grease on my cup and on the handle of my fork. And just yesterday, I saw one of the housemaids flirting with the farrier’s boy for a whole half an hour and then give short shrift to the linen. I see a lot through that window, as I sit still at my duty. I do love a window. In my first position, I had no window, just a closet off a larger room, and to pass the time I sang. I know a lot of songs and for that I thank my mother, who sang to the ten of us every day over her own duties.

- - -

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. The lady stood very straight and looked at the baby in the cradle without a smile and then came up to look at the one at my breast. She sniffed like there was a dirty nappy though there wasn’t. Then she fixed her eye on me, and if I’d been a shrinker, I’d have felt like a mouse in a field with a hawk overhead.

“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 downed 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.

Later that night, Mrs. Chandler, and by her I mean the mother of the babies, this time, came up to my room to pretend to look at them, swishing around like, dipping a look into the cradle and then right back out.

“He’s asleep, I see,” about the one in the cradle, said she as if she didn’t much care, but neither did she leave. Instead, she walked around the room with her candle held high, not looking at the babies, though there wasn’t much else to see, was there? I asked myself what she could want, though I thought I knew, pretty well. Ladies’ll ask things of us milky- cows they couldn’t bear to broach with one of their own, see.

“Mistress,” I said to get her started, “this is a nice little family you have here now, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” she said, though she glared at me for talking first, “but it’s all I want for a while. It was difficult . . .”

“Aah,” I said. “Did you have a hard time of it, poor thing?”

Her face changed for just a flit. “Yes,” she said, “I thought I’d die . . .” but then, afore the sentence was even yet finished her lip got hard again. “That’s all I want for a while,” she repeated, and this time she looked at me like she wanted something, and right now.

I looked down at the head of the mite at my breast. “I’ve heard about lemons,” I said low, almost whispering.

“Lemons?” she said.

“Cut ’em in half, mash the pulp soft,” said I, carefully not looking at her, “and then, you know . . .”

It took her just one second, but then she understood. She didn’t thank me, nor did she cast another glance at the little boy in the cradle before she left.

- - -

My own mother is a little wisp of a thing, and for all that, she bore thirteen children, ten of whom lived to see two numbers in their years. I had a brother who died of being kicked to death by a horse, and I had a sister who died on the childbed with her first. Losing Ada was terrible on my mother and partly because she catched the baby herself, but it died too. My mother has seen many babies come into this world but never, she said, never had she seen as much blood as there was with Ada. It ruined the mattress, and soaked the floor under the bed, so that it had to be cut out and replaced. I loved my sister. Childbirth is a dangerous business and that’s why it’s such a joy when all goes well.

When we were young, our father was not a bad man. He would use what he made to pay the rent and buy us food and shoes, and he’d carry us about on his shoulders. The bottle led him astray, though, and he became a harder man than he might’ve otherwise been, though perhaps he’d have turned bad in any case. Tis hard to know for sure. At any rate, twas my mother kept us fed long after there was any of us at the breast.

And thus it was that there was always an extra babe in the cradle by the hearth, whereas my own brothers and sisters might sleep in a plain box like a kitten. Indeed, we older ones, especially us girls, made the paying babies our special pets as they had finer things than did we. I recall a sweet little lass all the way from Leeds, with the softest lawn bonnets you might wish for, and a funny little fellow whose own mother brought him to mine and wept when she laid him in her arms.

“Oh, Mrs. Rose,” the lady cried, “he’s the only one I’ve put out to nurse and I do regret it deeply, but it must be so. Please, watch him with care and by all means, do not let him fall into the fire!” “I’ll watch him like he was mine,” soothed my mother, but it did not help the poor lady to hear it and she wept as her husband helped her into the coach. She left us with many prayers that we would love him, as well as a pudding of some sort, and I ate very much of it.

- - -

I was always a good girl. I am neither the youngest nor the eldest of the children in my family but stuck right in the middle, right between John, who grooms for Mr. Bonney at the Great House in Leighton, and Ada, who died. When I was very little, our father worked his own fields and did a bit of this and that on the side. But when it was no longer enough to keep us, he went to the Great House and worked there: in the stables and gardening about and also some in the fields hisself. He is a big man with a full head of black hair and the bluest eyes you could ever hope to see. I inherited his blue eyes but also his stout posture, my misfortune. Ada stood more like my mother, like a reed in the wind, she was. Once, when my brother Georgie teased me for the wideness of my leg, I grabbed him and nearly broke his nose before he screamed for his brothers to help him. Now, as I think of slim Ada in the ground with her babe in her arms, I understand what my body’s for. My bosom is as deep as all the oceans and my hips as wide as the fields and now, with no brothers around me to laugh, I sometimes feel pride, though I know it’s a sin.

When I walked into the Great House for the first time, the cook told me to close my mouth else I’d draw flies into it. I was that amazed. On her afternoon off, my sister Mary, who worked in the kitchen there, had told of the carpets and the silver and lace on the underdrawers. What I did not expect and Mary, the goose, did not recall to us, was the pictures on the wall. As I scrubbed the floor or did my scullery chores, ofttimes I’d sit back on my haunches and gaze up at a field with horses so real it looked like they’d pull a cart up a hill, or a lady with her hair dressed in the old way, with that same round eye as my mistress had, looking back down at me. When, one night, I praised the pictures to Mary, she swore I was making it all up. I thought not to tell her she was stupid; she seems to feel her witlessness and also, to be charitable, they’ve not exactly given her a grand tour of the house. She’s mostly peeling potatoes under the eye of the cook.

One day, as I polished the banister of the main staircase with a cloth finer than anything I’ve ever had against my own skin, I chanced to see a picture I’d never before spied. I polished my way close to it. The picture was small in size, really no larger than one of their table napkins that I’d ironed just that morning, unfolded. Twas a picture of a young woman with a baby, a fat baby, with cheeks as red as the lady’s sash. It was a dear picture, and though I know my place, I wondered how my mother might have felt about it if she had a picture of one of her poor dead ones, just to help her remember their little faces.

“That’s the thing of it, Susan,” she’d sobbed to me when little Nancy had just died not two days old, born too soon, “their features are so muddy yet, they’re hard to stick in my mind.”

Gazing away, I didn’t even hear the footsteps masked as they were by the rug’s pile. There was a sigh, I whirled.

“Beg pardon, sir,” said I, and bent right over my work once again. Invisibleness, Susan, that’s the key, I told myself, and, looking down, I scrubbed at that banister, til I saw his boot in my way. I knew he’d seen me looking. There wasn’t any hiding it. What was I to do but bob my curtsy? I hoped to keep my place and not be sent home in shame. “You were looking at that picture?” he told me.

“Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir. I . . .” and then I trailed my sentence off. I had no excuse for looking, I knew. I wondered what could be the harm of it, but I know my place.

“The lady’s my mother. The baby’s myself.”

I looked up at him in surprise. Why, Susan, I told myself, what’s he telling you things for?

He was not a pretty young man, Freddie Bonney, his beard all in patches and a nose like a box, too stout and a dandy in any case. I’d washed his underdrawers just that morning and wrinkled my nose: they were stitched small enough, but stank for all that.

I knew better than to give him any reply but I couldn’t help it that I smiled a bit; he gazed at the picture just as I had done, but with a wrinkle in his face, as if he were trying to find the unsightly thing he’d become in that innocent smile in the paint.

Here’s the thing of it: I knew his feelings for I’d felt ’em. I’ve told you: I’m plump and red myself, but as a lass I was as sprightly and sweet a thing as ever you could hope to see. And I sometimes wonder where she went, that girl, especially when I look down at my hands all wrinkled and red from the soap, or my legs, with their black hairs. The master of the house was Freddie’s father, James Bonney. Mr. Bonney hunted a great deal, even in the roughest weather, and we servants would run to pack hampers and linens for the master’s picnics, as he called them. Once I heard a guest of his, a gentleman down from London, say to his lady, “Surely he doesn’t expect us to shoot in this weather?” She looked over at me clearing away their breakfast and nudged him none too kindly with her sharp little elbow. That let me know they’d not had money long: the ones born into it forever never cared what they said in front of us.

Mistress Bonney was planted on a settee, and if she could have never raised herself from her seat, she never would have. She’d been pretty, which you could see easily enough: her blond hair still curled and her step was small, but myself, I never preferred that weak look. I liked the young girls of the house, Freddie’s sisters, who laughed and ran, though their mother begged them to act like ladies. They did as they pleased though, and rode horses fast and stayed late at their entertainments, both summer and winter, escorted most often by a cousin of theirs, Miss Anne, when she could keep pace with them. I’m not sure Miss Anne was any older than Miss Maria Bonney and Miss Eliza, but her pursed lips and plain dress gave her situation away and some of the servants treated her slightly shabby. Not me. I felt for her, though for all that, she never cast a kind eye upon me.

As much as my master loved Miss Maria and Miss Eliza is as much as he disliked his own son. Twas too bad, really, because it wasn’t Master Freddie’s fault that he wasn’t born to the horse and that he couldn’t care a fig about a fox or a dove. He took after his mother: he liked a warm place, he liked a comfortable chair. She fed him sweetmeats when Mr. Bonney wasn’t looking.

Very early one morning, the master and Master Freddie walked into the breakfast room whilst I still set the fire, and by their leave, I continued with my work. The master snorted and then I heard him say in a voice that curled my toes in my shoes for fear I’d hear it aimed at me one day, “Don’t trouble yourself, Frederick. Your sisters will be happy to accompany me.” He laid hard on that word, “sisters.” Freddie said, “But, Father, I’ve been looking forward to it. I’m all dressed and ready, as you see.” I snuck a peek and catched the father look at the son all up and down. It is true that Master Freddie had chosen a strange, large plaid for his hunting clothes, but I knew from hearing his valet talk as he pressed the suit that it was perfectly in style.

“What’s that you’re wearing, for God’s sake?” said the master. “This is not a fashion ball, this is a hunt, man.” Freddie’s face fell— I did not dare to peep but I could guess it. The door opened and his sisters swept in. “We’re ready, we’re ready,” they cried and then, “Oh, Freddie, what a look!” Father and daughters laughed together. Master Freddie said nothing. I finished my chore and curtsied and left them.

Later that morning I went to clean the grate in the morning room. I knocked softly and waited; Mrs. Bonney often did her lying down in there. I heard nothing and so I walked in and then stopped short. There was Mrs. Bonney on her chaise, but sitting up for once, and there was Master Freddie, on the floor in front of her, with his head in her lap, and her stroking his hair like he was still in skirts and had bumped his knee. I watched them for a moment, how she looked down at him, how she murmured to him. I recalled to myself the portrait of the two of them together, she and he, he just a mite and she young herself. My mother had stroked my own head in that very way even up til I had left the house, especially if some one of my brothers had said a mean word.

“Ah, Susan, now,” she used to say, “you should try to mind your temper. You needn’t say nothing to them when they’re bad to you. They’re just boys. They mean no real harm.” And she’d smooth my coarse hair away from my forehead and whisper, “Don’t fret, lassie. You know you’re worth ten of any of the others. You’re my pride, Suzie, you’re my darling gal.”

And I’d think how lucky I was to be her favorite of all of the babes my mother’d borne. I’d feel my luck. I wasn’t the prettiest, nor yet the sweetest- tongued, nor yet the one that made her laugh the loudest, but for all that, she loved me best, though she loved us all. For my whole life, that had made up for being lumpy and angry. I’d only have to go to her and she’d pet my head and my tears would dry. So when I saw Mrs. Bonney and her son, I understood, see, what it was I was looking at.

- - -

Over the years, the Great House gave a right many of us Roses our employment. My brother John grooms there even now. My sister Mary worked in the kitchen for some years. I served there, in several positions. And finally my little sister Ellen, two years below me. Ellen had the prettiest look of all of us children. She had a red cheek and hair as curled as ever you could wish for and if you heard her laugh, why, you wouldn’t be able to help yourself, you’d laugh back.

Ellen and I came to the Great House at the same time due to the Brown sisters, both of whom worked there and who both left for Ireland to be with their mother after their father was sent to jail for drunken behavior.

Ellen expected to work for just a year, perhaps, and save enough to marry her sweetheart, Ned Loft. They’d been in love since they were tots and were biding their time til they could save enough to rent their own cottage. Ned had always said nothing was too good for her. He wanted them to start together in a nicer house than his father’s where they’d have to share a room, even as a married couple, with his old grandma. Thus, she was happy, her face all aglow at the thought of what the shillings would mean. Mary and I were glad for her, though it will not surprise you to hear that we were a bit jealous as well.

I suited a scullery job best, being strong. Ellen caught the eye of the mistress, who asked that she serve her her morning tray and be available to her when she wanted her. This excused Ellen from much of the great labor due to that she always must look presentable. So perhaps she’d polish silver with a white cloth or perhaps she’d do a bit of mending, but she wasn’t allowed to iron lest it make her sweat, and her hands must stay white, so laundry was out of the question. If she hadn’t been such a darling, if she’d smirked at me or teased me for the great load of work I had to do, I might have lost my temper and slapped her but instead, she knew my trials and gave me a sad little look when I’d walk past her with a dripping basket.

And certainly Ellen did not just sit on her backside. The mistress needed her constantly, it seemed, to bring a glass of lemon water or to find the lavender pillow, or to cut her toenails or, when she had a cold, rinse out her hankies by hand. “Full of green, they were,” giggled Ellen, as we gossiped for the moment we were in our bedroom before we slumbered. And when the mother of the French maid Minette died, and Minette went to see her buried, the mistress required Ellen to accompany her to a ball at a house twenty miles from ours and to stay there the whole night! Oh didn’t we quiz Ellen into the wee hours when she returned.

“Well, I dressed her hair, but that’s simple because you know it’s mostly a matter of pinning the fake stuff to what’s left of the real, and I’d watched Minette do it so many times. And I helped her with her stockings and laced her corset for her and clasped her necklace. And helped her with her shoes.” Then she smiled and looked as naughty as a child. “After her corset was tightened,” Ellen said, “she told me to ball some stockings and tuck them into her chemise, underneath her tit.” “She’s flat?” Mary whispered.

“As a wet sheet,” Ellen whispered back and then we three, all of us who have plenty, laughed til the tears ran.

The trouble began when the master saw her which he would do, goddamn him to hell. There was but one thing that would take him off his horse and that was the prospect of a different sort of ride. Mary had warned us, even before we arrived, about him. She tried to be polite about it and caught me in her glance too, but it was clear to the three of us that Ellen would be the one of us he’d choose to bother. During the first months of our employment, Ellen laughed about it, she did, because looks is all he gave her, and looks don’t hurt, really. And Ellen always thought the very best of people, bless her. I used to snap at her about it.

“How can you be so sunny, all the damn time,” I said once, “when you watched your father be the sort of man he was?”

“Oh well, Susan,” she said gently, like she felt sorry for me, like I was the ruined one instead of the wise one, which is what I really was, “the master’s not so bad.”

“He is, Ellen,” said I. “And there’s plenty like him. You have to be careful and not smile at every Tom and Dick that shows you their teeth.”

But she just looked at me, with her eyes full of love for me and of course, I melted and quit scolding her and now I wish I hadn’t. Though to be honest, I don’t know how she could have withstood Mr. Bonney in any case. He was the master; she was a maid in his house.

She thought the mistress would help her. We’d lie in our beds, Mary and Ellen in one and me in the second, on account of they said I sweated when I slept, and she’d confess to us how he’d put his hand full on her bosom over her dress or some other such indecency. One night she was rosy and happy and when we asked why, she told us that the mistress had caught sight of one of his leers.

“Didn’t she just redden,” Ellen said happily. “Now that she sees it herself, it’ll stop I know it.”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t believe it would stop, not for an instant, and what’s more, Mary, who usually agreed with everything anyone said, didn’t speak neither. And that scared me more than anything else.

“What do you know?” I hissed to Mary when we heard Ellen’s long breaths.

“I’m not as stupid as you say, Susan,” said Mary. “I know he’s bad, and I know it’s a boon to her not to have to worry about what’s between his legs.”

“To Ellie?” I said, confused.

“No, stupid. To the mistress.”

I caught my breath.

The next morning, I waited for Ellen to come out of her mistress’s room with the empty tray, and I pulled her into a spare bedroom. “Just say you’re sick,” I told her. “Say you’re sorry, you can’t work here and must go home because you have woman problems or pains. Pretend to faint. Break something. Do what you must, but leave this house. You must, my love. Because he’s bad and she won’t help. She’s the mistress. You must learn your place, dear. You must.”

But she only smiled at me and hugged me around my neck and kissed my red hands.

“Don’t worry yourself, Susan,” she said. “Nothing will happen to me. All will be well.”

But of course it was not. When the bell rang for her later that afternoon, she didn’t answer it. Mary and I snatched a look at each other and for a second I could see into Mary’s mind: had Ellen run? But I knew better. I don’t know why I did, but I did. I’ve always had that talent, to understand how the thing’ll be, before the facts show themselves. I knew that little Nancy would die while others were still hoping. I knew that Isaac Cray, the baker’s son, would drown if he fished so far into the river. I knew that Annie Bowen, the wife of John Bowen, would die in childbirth and that the baby would live. My own mother suckled that infant, out of pity for Annie, and never got a farthing for it.

So when later that day, we looked for Ellen and then found her up in the hayloft shaking like a dying moth, with blood between her legs and two black eyes, I felt no surprise. The groom’s boy took the horse for the doctor, who said she’d be all right in a day, but I knew she wouldn’t. As I laid the fire in the sitting room, I heard the mistress whisper to her niece that Ellen seemed to have been in love with one of the lower grooms and that they’d fought as lovers do. I gasped and they heard me, but I pretended like I was come over coughing. I cannot even be certain that the mistress knew that Ellen and I were sisters. There’s little resemblance, and why would anyone have told her?

My father came and carried Ellen off home. Mary and I cried together all night. She came into my bed smelling of yeast from the kitchen, like she always did, and yowled til I hushed her.

“We tried to tell her, we did,” she wept to me.

My teeth were gritted so hard my jaw ached. “Why did he have to beat her, the bastard,” said I. “She was so mild, she would have been far too fearful to yell. He beat her for the excitement of it.”

“Oh, Susan, mayn’t we leave this house? May we not? Let’s run.” “What, and spoil the chances for our brothers and sisters below us? Do you care to see little Bob alone in the fields all the livelong day?”

This affected Mary as I knew it would. We have a cousin of our age who is quick to smile, but slow to understand, and his mother has long blamed it on those days in the fields where he was set, from sunup to sundown, with a slice of bread but without so much as a dog for company. Twas his job to scare the crows from the fields but he was a small boy, just five years, and just learning to form his thoughts into his words.

“When he were tiny,” his mother would tell us, crying, “bright as a star, he were, and lovely. But the farmer will not allow the boys a mate when they work in the fields like that, not even for half an hour. My Jerry, he forgot how to form his words from having no one to use them on!”

“You do not want to see little Bob turn out like poor Jerry, do you?” I asked Mary. “No, you do not. So we are trapped here. We cannot leave this house and you know it. I’d like to kill the master though,” said I, “and watch his eyes turn red with his own blood. I’d like to hear him choke like as if he had a noose around his neck. Perhaps a horse will throw him and his ribs will poke right through the flesh or perhaps . . .”

But Mary began to cry again at my words so I stopped ’em, though I thought ’em in my head all the night long.

- - -

By the time Mary and I had our half- day, Ellen had already drowned herself in the farm pond near our house. When Ned heard what hap pened to her with the master, as he would of course, he turned his back on her. I didn’t know who to hate more, the man who spoiled her or the man who betrayed her.

I wept til I screamed, til my eyes were squeezed shut and my throat was hoarse, and I ached like I’d been gored. My mother, bowed with losing another child, smoothed my hair but it helped not at all, though I cried for her not to leave me. I always loved my sisters, but besides Ada, Ellen was my favorite.

We poor ones don’t get time for our mourning, though we might have a deal of it to do. The day after the funeral, my father, bleary still from the extra ale he’d drunk to help him through his tragedy, handed me a shilling as if I was a child and it would make a difference. “There’s no help for it,” said he, “you must go back, you and Mary.” My mother wiped her eyes on her apron and waved from the door. And so, sniveling in the cold and gray, Mary and I walked back over the fields to the Great House.


I do admit that I am quite exhausted, though, of course, very happy. My Georgiana is so dear to me, and I did fret about her welfare during her lying-in as it is her first and she is but slight. But thanks be to God, she passed through the trials with considerable spunk and her discomfort was not above what it might have been. The baby is a dear little mite, a girl, and sleeps well. I saw her suckle and now they both sleep.

My daughter is not averse to the idea of feeding her own baby with unborrowed milk and it filled me with gladness to hear it. Her husband seems agreeable to her idea and thus she will nurse her children, or at least this child, til it can eat gruel, if indeed it does live as it ought. I believe that it may have been my example that convinced her to keep her child with her and nurse it as it needs. It is what I did myself, as much as I could, and I credit it with the excellent health of my children. Women should not be afraid of it: it is, after all, best for babies to sup from the milk of their own mothers who carried them. I give thanks to God every day for each of my six children. I never buried one. My only sadness is that I was not able to provide the same benefit for the last of my children, my Robert, as I did for his brothers and sisters. I will tell you how it happened.

My children were set as follows: Mary and then William and then Adine and then Georgiana and then Maude and last Robert. I had not one whit of trouble nursing the first four of them, though I do recall how painful the suckling was when the babes were but small and the tits not yet readied. The trouble came with Maude, my fifth.

After nursing her for some weeks— thirteen, I believe— unvexed by any problems, one morning I woke with a fever. It came from my breast, which had become hard and streaked. No compress would help. The pain was quite terrible and I am not ashamed to admit that I wept with it as I had not in any one of my lyings- in. My husband, the best and most sensible of men, called for Mr. Diggory, who prescribed what he could but the infection was such that he must finally lance the nipple. The lancing relieved the pressure but the wound was hard to heal and when it did at last, I could see scars. I gave thanks to the Heavenly Father that little Maude had set enough that my one unharmed breast sufficed to give her suck. I began to give her gruel a bit earlier than the others to be sure that she had enough and did not want. She throve.

When I found that I was again with child, I fretted very much. Would I be able to feed this one with only one good dug? When he was born and my milk came down, it was terrible: very quick did I get yet another fever and this time in my good breast. I was miserable and the baby, who had suffered from yellowness, did not do well. I feared very much that we should lose him. Mr. Diggory, who again attended me, told me that he could not guarantee that once I recovered from this breast fever, another would not follow. He suggested that we find a wet nurse. I refused at first, but after much soothing and petting, my husband convinced me to do so. Though I was much in pain, I demanded to meet the nurse. We took the baby, whom I held in my arms the whole way, to the woman, who resided in the town of Leighton. Mrs. Rose lived in a small house with a wood floor and several rooms. Her children were mostly clean and well- behaved. The children ate their dinner at table— bread and milk and turnips and even a pie— and the girls curtsied nicely. One girl was a plump little thing, which I liked to see as it told me that they all had enough to eat. I asked to see Mrs. Rose’s husband and so she called for him, and though he did not smile overmuch at me, I could see that he was not of the poorest stock, which I could tell from his eye. I wept very much when I left Robert and pined for him all the months of his absence which were six. I would have him back as soon as I could and did not leave him a moment longer than there was need. When we rode up to Leighton to claim him back, we brought a present of ale and sugar and fruitcake to Mrs. Rose as a thanks for keeping him so well.

Robert is now a man and a fine one, though not as tall as his brother William, though if that is truly because of his young experience, I cannot say absolutely.

Meet the Author

Erica Eisdorfer was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, and graduated from Duke University. She was the book reviewer for WUNC, an NPR affiliate, for eight years. Eisdorfer has managed the Bull’s Head Bookshop, the trade bookstore on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for twenty years. She lives in Carrboro with her husband and two daughters.

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The Wet Nurse's Tale 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
sassypickle More than 1 year ago
Susan Rose is a very strong and likeable character, and what a character she is! She basically describes herself as fat and ugly and is just the hired help. Susan is definitely a very unlikely heroine, true. But there's something about her - her personality is strong and she is one brave woman! I loved this book, the story flows and is a fast page-turner. Highly recommended!
harstan More than 1 year ago
Growing up Susan Rose saw her mom serve as a wet nurse to the children of other women. She vows to be different. Susan works in a wealthy family's house, but the master's son Freddie leaves her pregnant and alone. She comes home, but her son dies. Her only avenue of income is to do what her mom did to bring in money. Susan lives a nomadic life nurturing other people's babies while having no time to grieve her loss except at night. Susan meets a Jewish dentist and has a baby David with him. However, her father sells the infant. Stunned by her paternal betrayal, Susan travels to London to become the wet nurse to her baby. When she discovers an inconsiderate truth about her child's adoptive family, she takes the baby and flees praying she finds her son's dad in the Jewish community Told from the perspective of the title character, The Wet Nurse's Tale is an insightful look at a pragmatic individual who knows her bosom is her ticket. Although she allows her compassion to at times overrule her logic, Susan pulls no punches even when raped as she goes after what she wants. The secondary characters, her mom, her lovers, and the customers enhance a profound Victorian tale that focuses on how the lower class made a living anyway they could. Harriet Klausner
FrancesNC More than 1 year ago
So-called morality is beside the point. Susan Rose, one of ten children of a drunken, violent and venal father and a mother who supports the family by nursing other women's babies, does what she needs to do. Brawny, hard-working and intelligent, she starts as a scullery maid in the local manor house and would surely have risen high in the servants' ranks had she not succumbed to the rather limited charms of the young master. The birth of this illegitimate child enables her start in the profession of wet nurse, a social and economic phenomenon that the author illuminates in the voice of a thoroughly engaging and inventive narrator. The weapons with which she fights poverty, injustice and downright wickedness are her quick wits and her generous body, and an invigorating battle it is. The reader will cheer her progress through the seamy underside of Victorian society. The author slyly provides a panorama of the sociology and economic realities of an England more often portrayed through the eyes of those who would consider themselves Susan's 'betters.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great read....The narrator grabs you on the first page and makes you care about her story. She is the best of heroine's, human. Great Read!
Lori Grosse More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting historical fiction that teaches about feminine issues of days gone by. If you've ever nursed a baby you will get a kick out of the descriptions presented here. If you've loved a child you will relate to Susan on at least one level.
bridget3420 More than 1 year ago
I absolutely adore Susan. She's far from your typical main character and that's what I love about her. I applaud Erica for her descriptions and the flow of her writing. This book gets five stars, easy.
RebeccaBarrett More than 1 year ago
There is nothing more delightful than to be drawn into a story by the language. Through sentence structure, cadence, and subtle humor, Erica Eisdorfer places the reader securely in the Victorian era of Susan Rose's exploits. Born into a large family of the lower class, Susan Rose, like her older siblings before her, must work at whatever task comes to hand for the needs of such a large family demand it as does her father's need for drink. In her small village that means a job at the Great House. Unschooled though she may be, Susan Rose is intelligent. She observes and learns and is intuitive about the lives and actions of those around her, including her betters. She considers herself a "good girl" throughout the story but she allows her compassion and desire to override her intelligence and she becomes caught up in scandal. When it best suits her, she lies easily and unashamedly and connives to manipulate matters to her own ends. For in Susan Rose's opinion it does not make her a bad person when she must do what is necessary. This is a well written tale filled with sly humor and it gives the reader a look into the not-so-virtuous lives of the underclass of English society in the Victorian era. Susan Rose is not one for self pity despite the circumstances of her life and she isn't afraid to do the nasty if necessary in order to survive and thrive.
robinfrances More than 1 year ago
A beautiful story about the unbreakable love between a child and his mother. Reminds us of the strength of women and the bond between women and their children. The character of Susan Rose is a strong and loving women who will do whatever it takes to care for her child and the children of others. I am a new mother currently breastfeeding my son and this story reinforced my decision to nurse my son no matter how difficult and time-consuming it is. I will be giving this book as a gift for my pregnant friends who plan to breastfeed their infants. If you enjoy books like "The Red Tent" or "The Pillars of the Earth" you will love this book.
Ardensmom More than 1 year ago
Spunky protagonist. Easy, fun read that you won't want to put down!
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EffieTX More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book, thought the ending a bit strange but overall, well worth my time
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