Thursday, August 23, 2012

Babes and Bosoms

I read The Wet Nurse's Tale, by Erica Eisdorfer, because Aarti has Sarah Rose on her list of "Heroines Who Don't Annoy Me," along with Anne Shirley, Elizabeth Bennet, Sarah Tolerance, and Scout.  Anne, Elizabeth, and Scout recommended the list to me, and Miss Tolerance had me convinced.  Sarah Rose does not disappoint.

Sarah's mother was a wet nurse, but Sarah's first job is as a maid at the local estate.  She's an ample woman and no prettier than she ought to be, so she has an easier time of it than her pretty sister, who catches the unasked for eye of the master of the house.  The first half or so of the book is the general unfolding of Sarah's life--how she finds herself working as a wet nurse after (naturally) having a child of her own, the families she works for and her relationship with her own family. 

In the second half of the book, the story gets more urgent, as Sara's son is taken from her abruptly and she has to use her wits to get him back.  One of the things to love about The Wet Nurse's Tale is the hard-to-manage balance here between the realism of historical fiction--Sarah can't read, she's relatively uneducated, and this is perfectly well represented.  But she's smart and a very quick thinker, and the balance between those is managed very well.  She's desperately in love with her baby, but also very practical about caring for him.

If you want to look at the bigger theme of this book, it's about sexual politics at this time in history (mid- to late-1800s, I'd guess?).  There are so many male-female relationships here, and none represent any kind of modern "true love" sense.  There are power relationships (employer and employee, husband and wife), and relationships of affection (lovers of various kinds of affection, brothers and sisters), and types of acquaintance, sexual liasons, father-daughter interactions.  Sarah is quit savvy to how the world works in the sphere she resides in, and she makes a lot of pragmatic choices that seem not cold, but rather the opposite--full of human warmth and good common sense.

I read this in a very meandering way over the course of a few weeks; I think the first half of the book really works that way, since it covers years of Sarah's life and many separate episodes.  By the end of the book, however, we've become focused on one adventure, and I read that all up in a day or two.  Both halves were excellent reads, in their own way, and I definitely recommend them.  It, I mean.

1 comment:

Aarti said...

Oh, I'm glad you like my list! I haven't updated it in AGES, now that I think about it, and there are probably some heroines that I should add there. But Sarah Rose was a good one - I loved how sensible she was. So rare in a historical heroine.