An interview on breastfeeding and wet nursing with Erica Eisdorfer

by Jessica Powers

Erica Eisdorfer’s new novel, The Wet Nurse’s Tale (Putnam), was released on August 6, 2009.  The novel follows servant Susan Rose, a strong, independent devil-may-care woman whose dalliances with her young master get her into trouble and propel her into the wet nursing business. But a working class girl with a baby she wants to keep alive is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of social mores, scheming fathers, and the very nature of the wet nursing business in the Victorian era.

I was so taken with the novel (definitely recommended!) that I followed up with Eisdorfer in a telephone interview a couple weeks before the book’s release.

 Q. Tell us how you got the idea for this story.

There were three things that were the genesis of the idea for my novel.

First, you know how you know people who were born into the wrong gender or the wrong time. I always felt I was supposed to be British, so that was part of it. I read everything [related to Great Britian]. It seems like the place I oughta be.

Second, I nursed my own kids for a long time-one till two and the other till five. With my second child, we quit so she could go to kindergarten; it was kind of a mutual decision.

Third, for most of my life, I have worked in a college campus bookstore. I’ve never been a servant, but I know what it’s like to have to cut somebody’s crusts just so, to work for people that require a certain behavior. I understood that I was bending my behavior-we all have to do that to a certain extent but that was what gave me the idea for the servant kind of thing and the class sensibility [that pervades the book]. It’s a long shot and a real servant would roll their eyes at my comparison, but my experiences as a bookseller allowed my imagination to roam, and I took it from there.

Q. Obviously you feel passionate about breastfeeding…?

I feel very liberal about nursing. It doesn’t matter to me whether women do it or not. I think it’s a woman’s choice and ought to be. I do remember [after my first birth], I had to go to work right away, and I remember reading Mothering Magazine and feeling really terrible about myself. But I was a single parent and I had to go back to work. Women really need to be supported in whatever decision they make. I don’t feel like I’m a big pro-nursing advocate, but for me, nursing was vital. I wanted the experience of a natural childbirth. I felt it was better for the baby, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t feel like that the women who don’t breastfeed, that their babies are so much less healthier.

Breastfeeding was important for me. It was like a rite of passage. And then once you start to nurse your kid, there is that connection that is so intense.  I loved it. As my daughter grew, and she loved it too, it was just sort of, I wish I had the words for it-it was this intimacy that I can’t imagine finding in another way, an understanding. I don’t want to get too mystical, but I loved doing it and I’m glad that I nursed the second one for that long. The first one, she decided [to quit] and I was sad. The second one, we both wanted to continue. It was a mutual decision to quit.

Q. How did you draw on personal experience to write this story? How did you draw on research?

We have a really great library on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill and I needed to use it to research all the stuff about the [Victorian] era. I needed details, like how long it would have taken for a coach ride from Middle England to London. The thing about it was that [the plot contained] a time constraint. The main character’s milk couldn’t dry up, so everything had to happen real fast once her baby was taken from her. I would never have thought I would write a novel where those kinds of mechanical things needed to be figured out so much. Then there was stuff about the lifestyle. I read that the idea of the nursery didn’t come around until the 1850s or so. And then, [I had to do so much research] just about breastfeeding. I’d never really thought about how the baby bottle is a pretty recent invention, that the lack of a bottle was the reason for the wet nurse. I’d never put it together that the baby bottle was invented in the 20s or something, so up until then the wet nurse was essential if the mother wasn’t going to nurse the baby. Have you ever read Great Expectations? I’ve read it two or three times, and I never understood why it was such a big deal that Pip was brought up by hand. I thought it meant that Mrs. Jo spanked him, but now I understand that it meant he was spoon-fed. They spoon-fed these babies, which is why so many of them died. This is why the French government made a law that wet nurses couldn’t leave their own child until they were 2 months or so, though of course, who was going to enforce these laws? It wasn’t like these women were wet-nursing for fun. They starved to death, their babies, thousands of them.

In fiction, you can write around things. I’m not sure I believe that women’s feelings towards their children have changed that much since the dawn of time. You hear that, oh, there were so many babies that died in the earlier centuries that people got used to it. That’s kind of the folklore, the urban legend, but I think that’s ridiculous. I don’t believe that. We’re led to believe that the poorer classes were coarser with coarser emotions but I don’t believe that either, especially since the poorer classes had their children with them whereas wealthy women farmed out their babies to the wet nurses.

Q. I seem to recall you mentioning, in your initial email to me, that there were no similar novels on the market with a wet-nurse protagonist.

I haven’t ever found one and I’ve been buying books for the shelves of the bookstore for 25 years. And my kid is 20, my older kid, and I was so into nursing, I feel like I would have seen it. There are a couple books, a title called Esther Waters [by George Moore], and she is a wet nurse but I don’t think it’s that important to the book. How could it be? The author is a man. I don’t think he’d be able to understand-I think it took a woman to write my book. I felt like the character, Susan Rose, is coarse enough to tell you all the stuff, how it feels in all the different ways, when you’re full, when you’re empty.

Q. Can you explain the oversight? Are wet nurses a relatively invisible part of women’s history? Why?

I could only find two scholarly books about wet nurses. They’re both out of print. There was a third book that was about wet nurses in America but was more American history oriented.

When I first wrote the book, I entered into a contest called A Woman’s Write, and I won $500.00, and the first thing I did was buy this out of print book from Canada [called We Nursing: A History from Antiquity to the Present by Valerie Fildes. ]. It’s a wonderful resource and tells all about antiquity to now.

Q. Did you ever wet nurse?

You know, the thing that made me jump into writing this book: a friend of mine had twins and she couldn’t nurse, I came home from visiting her and I said, “My poor friend, she can’t nurse her babies,” and my husband said, “You should have been a wet nurse.”

A couple friends of mine adopted a tiny infant the first day she was born, I nursed that baby. But they’d been bottle feeding her and you know how a baby that’s been bottle fed prefers the bottle, so she never took to the breast, and that was sad.

Q. How common was it to employ a wet nurse during the Victorian time period?

I think it was quite common. My sense is that is when the middle class really came into its own. It was uncommon, from what I read, to not have a wet nurse if you were able to afford it. It was a status symbol. It was right then that wet nurses started going to live with the families rather than what had always been, which was to bring the baby to the wet nurse and to leave it there until it was weaned. So it begs the question as to what happened to the wet nurse’s baby. A lot of them died, if not simply by starving to death, then because they were so weakened, any fever that came along could take them. Some families would let the wet nurse bring her baby. I don’t know why, probably simply to save money if she’d come cheaper.

Q. How common is wet nursing today? Has formula virtually replaced the need for a wet nurse?

There were two recent examples. One was last year when formula was corrupted, I forget what it was now, and so nursing mothers began to be in high demand because that was a safe way to feed babies. Six weeks ago in People Magazine, they featured this guy, I think he’s an academic at a university in the Northeast somewhere [Robbie Goodrich, a professor in Michigan]. His wife was a professor as well and she died in childbirth. The baby’s name was Moses. The father knew that his wife wanted to nurse the baby, so he was applying to breast milk banks and paying for all this breast milk. The people who were in his church put out this round robin thing, and they took turns nursing him. The thing that kind of made you roll your eyes-there was the picture of the happy dad and the happy fat baby and all these women, and then it had this little inset about, “Oh, well, sometimes wet nursing can be very dangerous, disease can be passed.” I guess it’s important that if someone has HIV, you shouldn’t let them nurse your kid, but it’s silly [to worry about disease when a perfectly healthy woman is nursing someone else’s child].

Q. A major subplot in this book is how female servants were vulnerable to their master’s sexual desires. How common was it for female servants to find themselves in Susan Rose’s position-or her sister’s position?

I didn’t read into that much. I kind of imagined this one young woman, and I liked giving her some power in that relationship. I’m sure that there were examples of master’s preying upon their female servants, but it pleases me to think that sometimes the tables weren’t turned entirely, but there was some agency on the part of the woman. I understand that women feel differently about themselves now than they did a hundred years ago, and they feel more of a sense of entitlement and empowerment. But my wet nurse was sort of a smart cookie. She seemed to understand her own motivations. She had desires of her own. And she wasn’t fooling herself into thinking it was something it wasn’t. There must have been people like that. Over the course human history, people have changed but some things remain the same. Your baby dies and you’re sad. That’s always been the case. And if you want something, for whatever reason, you try to get it, and sometimes you don’t think about the consequences. (laughs)

Q. As I was reading the story, I was struck how many times the main character, Susan Rose, commented on the differences between the wealthy folks she served and people in her position. It felt like the book was a subtle commentary on class in Victorian England. If your book ever got adopted into literature courses, it would lend itself naturally to a Marxist analysis. How do you feel about that?

It was a deliberate choice, although I’m not educated enough to have put it in those terms. There was some anger, maybe frustration is a better word, with my current life. I’m a  perfectly intelligent person who has felt the tension of having to work for others, having to bend my own sensibilities for others, for my superiors. That really informs this book in a very great way. It is apparent to me that those who are in a more powerful position in the workplace, for example, think of those who are in a less powerful position as less intelligent, and that’s always pissed me off. I’ve been a merchant for 30 years and in this situation where you bend what you think is correct to the whims of others, and I could really understand a person like Susan, having to nod and say “yes sir.” 

I’m not sure if that speaks exactly to what you’re saying, which is about the broader society, but this is a book about a girl, a young girl, one woman’s experience.

Q. How did you juggle writing and your job as a book seller?

And my job as a mother! I don’t know how I did it, I wrote it sitting on the coach, in 15 minute pieces. And I felt guilty. You know, if I wasn’t writing this book, I could be helping my kid with her homework. So I just forged forth. I stayed up late.

Q. How long did it take you?

It took me nine months. This is sort of cheesy. But then it took me another year to revise it and then sending it out and the classic story of not being able to find anyone interested in it. I think part of it is the idea that a wet nurse is kind of icky. Putnam wanted a different title because they thought The Wet Nurse’s Tale was icky. So I spent all of last summer looking through every folktale, lullaby, and nursery rhyme [for a new title] but it ended up being The Wet Nurse’s Tale because it’s integral to the story.

Q. Do you have plans for future books? What are you working on now?

I’m working on something right now, a big long family saga, another novel. It’s set from the 20s to the 70s in Hollywood and New York and Warsaw. The Hindenberg is in there, baseball, the Goodwill games. It’s one of those heavy, heavy research books. I like it, I really love it. I think that’s common, that love of research, we [writers can] get so into the research that it’s hard to get out of it. There’s an attraction-repulsion thing to writing. You want to but it’s very difficult…yet you can’t not do it.

2 Responses to “An interview on breastfeeding and wet nursing with Erica Eisdorfer”

  • Hi, I wonder if you can help me? I am looking for information on what the Victorians might consider to be an appropriate length of time to have a wet nurse employed, when the natural mother is dead, the father anxious to have as little dealings with the baby as possible and money is no object. I am writing a book and although this is a small detail in the book, I want it to be as accurate as possible. Thank you very much.
    Annie Swift

  • Annie, I suggest you try to contact Erica Eisdorfer directly, maybe through her Facebook account. I think if you google her name as well that her email comes up at the bookstore where she works. Anyway, I also recommend that you look at the bibliography of books she lists in her book and see if one of those books can help you.

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