What seems a deceptively simple tale of a young woman who follows in her mother’s footsteps, earning her keep as a wet nurse in Victorian England, becomes instead a morality tale. Susan Rose harbors no pretensions about her position in society, reporting to the Great House when she is of age to begin service. Neither is she vain, her girth and plainness hardly a threat to the men who seek female company. No, Susan is a safe girl to work in the big house, where local daughters seek to better their fortunes and learn the skills of ladies’ maid or downstairs servant.
Susan and her sisters have already received a harsh lesson about the fate of females if they fall prey to a master’s wandering eye, their beautiful disgraced sister dead after such an encounter left her with child. Our protagonist is simply good-natured and generous, with few expectations and a soft heart. After a few unexpected tumbles with the young man of the house, Susan is not surprised to find herself pregnant, realizing she can begin her career as wet nurse after giving birth. She’ll take a few blows from an angry father, but the sweet baby she gives birth to is worth the discomfort.
Life’s cruelest blow comes when least expected. Hired out to nurse a woman’s infant, her own tiny baby dies of fever. All along Susan feared it was too early to leave him, and she was right. Now she’s inconsolable. So begins Eisdorfer’s haunting tale of a young woman with the wits to make her way in the world but subject by birth to the limitations of a class-bound society. When Susan again becomes pregnant, she determines not to leave this babe behind but to keep it with her always.
Unfortunately, Susan’s gentle nature doesn’t extend to the rest of the world, or even as far as her family. While on an errand, Susan’s baby is spirited away by a greedy father and taken to the Great House, where the boy is sent to another home, another mother. Unskilled - save for her generous flow of milk to nourish babies - and illiterate (“I did not know my letters”), Susan enters foreign territory as she follows her son to London and schemes to save him from the arms of a woman who seems at best unhinged, at worst insane.
The protagonist is spirited, a hardy, perhaps homely girl who must marshal the resources to outwit a society that views her as invisible, a female of low class and no education, her small salary insufficient to provide for mother and child. As like many women before her, necessity breeds the cunning to protect her tiny son from an unfit mother. Susan gains entrance to the London home where her child’s wails drive his new mother to distraction. The early days of Susan’s foray into service for her betters are soon overshadowed by the dangerous plan that might or might not save the baby from a terrible fate.
Contrasting class and society’s expectations for the wealthy and the poor, hefty Susan Rose would seem to face an insurmountable task with painfully limited resources. But it has ever been the way of the world that the less fortunate do what is necessary to overcome impossible odds, Susan a mother first and a servant only by trade. Her frank sexuality is a refreshing alternative to the Victorian pretensions of wealthy women, Susan unbowed by her actions as she heads directly to the one place she has deemed to be safe.