Susan Rose is a wet nurse in Victorian England. She resides in the homes of wealthy families whose wives have recently had a baby. Back then, it was not fashionable for the lady of the house to nurse her own child and as such this work was farmed out to the servant class. A lady of society with a newborn could not expect to abrogate her duties of paying call to other society ladies and hosting at her house these same ladies in the afternoons or to avoid her charitable duties or other wifely duties such as planning and hosting functions for the betterment of her husband’s station and prospects in society. Moreover, the care of children, unlike in modern times, was not so much a matter for public consumption, at least for the well-off. Children of the wealthy were show pieces, tended and groomed out of sight and then brought in to for a few minutes of admiration by guests.
The Wet Nurse’s Tale tells Susan Rose’s story from a little girl to her early placements as a wet nurse, her affair with the master’s son and subsequent birth of her first child, Joey, Joey’s death at the hands of Susan Rose’s father, her life as a servant in residence at the various homes after Joey and before Davey, her second child, her meeting and becoming pregnant by a Jewish dentist, the birth of Davey, her father giving away the baby and Susan Rose locating and being reunited with Davey.
Interspersed are various accounts of the babies brought to Susan’s mother (Mrs. Rose of rural Leighton) to be wet nursed.
Susan’s life, in the Rose family home, is a mostly a dysfunctional one. Her mother is the breadwinner; the father is an abusive alcoholic; and there are several children in the Rose family which are characterized as the father as mouths to feed. Susan Rose early on is brought up to want the usual — marriage and a family. However, Susan Rose is not comely and does not hold her tongue, and is a loose woman. Marriage and a family defined as such is not in the cards for Susan Rose … or at least not in the near future … or with any man in her parent’s world.
The Wet Nurse’s Tale also reveals and explores the dynamics of family life in Victorian England in the upper classes and the life of servants with the limited advantages and the more prevalent disadvantages and very real dangers faced by servants. For sure there is a wealth of books, television series, and movies on the upstairs-downstairs life in Victorian England. However, The Wet Nurse’s Tale is unique in that it focuses on wet nurses, as opposed to nannies and governesses, like so many other fictionalized worlds do.