One of my strongest memories of first becoming a mother is of a day when my son was about a week old. My husband had gone to work and baby Jesse was asleep. I stepped into the shower, turned the faucets, and immediately heard the baby crying.
He’s up, I thought. He needs something. Barefoot, soaking, anxious, lactating, I hurried down the hall. The baby was asleep in his bassinet.
I got back into the shower. Same thing.
I could hear him crying. He must be hungry.
Got out again, shivering, dripping milk and water. Nope.
I don’t know how many times this happened before I figured out that some overtone of our hot water pipes bore a distant resemblance to the timbre of Jesse’s crying. And that even though I have a tin ear for melody and harmony, my heightened post-partum sensorium had caught the subtlety of sound.
Astonishing. Who knew?
Certainly nobody had told me that at that point in early-motherhood, my body (myself?) had resolved to attune itself (myself?) to my baby’s cry. And because it (I?) wasn’t about to risk getting it wrong, for a week, I heard Jesse’s cry everywhere.
Years later, I wrote this about my new-mother heroine in The Bookseller’s Daughter
She heard Sophie’s cry in the wind, in the calls of birds and vendors outside her window, even in the plumbing of the water closet. It took a week or so until the cry became part of her, utterly unmistakable and unlike any other sound in the world.
What a pleasure it was to write about something so intimately and completely my own discovery. And what a surprise, a few years later, when I read a contrasting passage in Emma Donoghue’s Georgian-set historical novel, Life Mask
. The passage is another intimate post-partum scene, set among historical
personages: The Viscountess Lady Melbourne (later to be Caroline Lamb’s notorious mother-in-law) is in bed after having delivered her daughter Emily (later to be a patroness of Almack’s). Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the sculptor, the Honorable Anne Damer, have come to visit her.
The baby started to cry and Lady Melbourne reached for a bell-pull on the wall. [She continues to tell her guests about an amusing incident, when a diamond meant for her husband’s mistress was delivered to her by mistake].
Anne had to admire her old friend’s verve. “Perhaps, if I’d been as pragmatic as you, I’d have made John Damer a better wife.”
Lady Melbourne shrugged. “One can’t conquer one’s nature. Could one of you pass the baby?”
Georgiana leapt up to scoop up the wailing infant… [the ladies continue laughing and joking for several paragraphs]
The wet-nurse hurried in just then, curtsied, and took the screaming baby.
The baby has been screaming for almost a quarter of a page, causing the fictional ladies no anxiety, no slowing of the flow of wit and gossip. No lactating. No problem (for anyone but me, the reader, who was squirming with discomfort at the imagined sound of a screaming baby). The wet-nurse has been rung for and is on the way. Donoghue has Lady Melbourne note that one can't conquer one's nature. But in this fictional rendition at least, it seems that one can do so quite well, thank you very much.
Or is it human nature at all, to respond to the cry of a hungry baby as anxiously, intensely, and all-encompassingly as I once did? Perhaps not, if you’ve got a wet-nurse to take care of things. Perhaps, it she's the one responsible for feeding your baby, you teach yourself to concentrate on other things.
I admire the passage, as a striking attempt to suggest the profound effects that custom can wreak upon what I’d felt to be so deeply natural. And to do what historical fiction should do, imo, which is call into question what we assume is human nature, by making the ordinary strange. I love that little intimate shock of the different, the foreign - the past as another country where they did things differently.
And I was particularly struck by it, not just because of my own experience, but because of my historical research. I know a lot less about Georgian and Regency England than I do about Enlightenment and Revolutionary France in this regard, but I do know that in France, the question of breast-feeding and wet-nursing was huge, and fit right into a still-bigger question of what was natural (or should I say "natural"?).
The eighteenth century was the heyday of wet-nursing in France. Not just by the aristocracy, but by the artisan and shopkeeping classes. In 1780, the lieutenant-general of the Paris police estimated that of the twenty thousand of more babies born in Paris yearly, “only one thirtieth sucks its own mother’s milk.” For the rich, it was a matter of habit and fashion; the aristocrat Talleyrand claimed that his mother had never inquired after him during the four years he spent with a wet-nurse. But the exigencies of poverty caused others to send their children away - for some years, to be nursed by women who made wet-nursing a longterm if miserable source of income. And some of the children didn't come back at all; a third of them died in at their wet-nurses’ cottages.
The situation was dire; in this, as with so many things, society was ripe for a turnaround. And so it did, in the years preceding the revolution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a lot to do with it. Passages from his novel Emile
(which my bookseller’s daughter reads) were widely quoted, like this one, which fiercely condemns women who “having got rid of their babies, devote themselves gaily to the pleasures of the town.” (Though I must also mention that Rousseau and his mistress had five children, all of whom they gave away to foundling homes.)
As surely as the fashion for bodices shifted to loose muslin, nursing one’s own infant became modish. Even Marie Antoinette (who had a lot to do with the craze for white muslin as well) tried it, though she soon gave it up and sent for the court functionary known as Madame Poitrine. But in the earnest middle classes, the fashion stuck and became a new ethos of intimacy, what we might call “family values,” and - that sticky word again - naturalness. Late in his life, Caron de Beaumarchais (whose career included writing near-subversive and vastly influential play The Marriage of Figaro
and secretly representing Louis XVI’s in its effort to arm the American revolution) created a foundation in the service of breast-feeding.What’s natural and what’s custom? How does our sense of basic human instinct and ordinary common sense change through time and custom?
Writers, have you had occasion to think about these questions and use some instances of it?
And readers, what do you think, and have you noticed any examples in your reading?
Labels: Emma Donoghue, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Bookseller's Daughter