Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The secret lives of wet nurses in 18th-century France, a guest post by Lissa M. Cowan, author of Milk Fever

With the following essay, Lissa M. Cowan, author of the newly published Milk Fever, introduces readers to the practice of wet nursing in late 18th-century France, and tells how she came to write about a woman in this surprisingly popular profession for her debut novel.  Welcome, Lissa!


The secret lives of wet nurses in 18th-century France
Lissa Cowan

Sometimes when I tell people that the protagonist of my novel is a wet nurse, their eyes glaze over and they say, “A what?” Before writing Milk Fever, a story about an 18th-century wet nurse in pre-revolutionary France, I probably would have had a similar reaction. I first came across the term wet-nursing in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy while researching for my Master’s thesis. At the time, I didn’t think much about it except that it was an unusual term. Shortly after, I picked up a copy of George Sussman’s Selling Mother’s Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France and was amazed to discover that wet-nursing was a well-established industry in France during the 18th century. I became fascinated by this little-known area of women’s history and wanted to learn more.

Wet-nursing in 18th-century France

It turns out that during the 18th century, it was common for women of the nobility and the upper and middle classes in France to send their babies to the countryside to be nursed by other women known as wet nurses. Later, high rents and the high cost of bread and taxes forced urban working class women to also place their babies with wet nurses so they could go to work alongside their husbands. One source at the time suggests that there were so many babies in the rural areas being cared for by wet nurses that Paris became a city with no babies. The profession became regulated because there was so much demand for wet nurses, and due to the high incidence of infants who died in their care. Yet, this governmental control also helped women who were wet nurses.

A municipal Bureau of Wet Nurses assured wet nurses a minimum wage and served to supply parents with a healthy staple of wet nurses. In turn, the Bureau collected wet nurses’ wages from the families and furnished the women with a monthly salary, which gave them an incentive not to neglect their duties. The state also hired wet nurses to feed foundlings.

Le Départ en Nourice (The Departure for the Wet Nurse), by Jean Baptiste Greuze, 1780

Wet-nursing continued in France until World War I. Nation-wide incentives for women to breastfeed for one year, the pasteurization of milk, and the availability of canned milk made it less appealing to women.

The perception of infants at that time

The fact that one in three infants died before the age of one could have contributed to parents having little interest in their offspring before they began to walk and talk. During this time, parents in France still considered children to be little adults with no identities of their own. They dressed boys in waistcoats and breeches and the girls wore proper frocks and bonnets. Before Enlightenment philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about the importance of educating children, there was little thought to those first years—and little understanding really about the concept of childhood. Of course today we know how quickly infants develop and how their sensory, emotional and intellectual experiences determine their future wellbeing.

So how did I come to write a novel about a wet nurse?

The inspiration

I was entranced by the idea of a woman giving her infant away to another for nursing. Yet, what drew me specifically to the culture of wet-nursing and breastfeeding was a widespread belief at the time that the thoughts of the mother who breastfed could become impressed upon the child. My imagination began to spin a story related to this idea, and I thought, what if a wet nurse existed who was educated (most of them were not)? What would the quality of her milk be like and how—in the fantastical world of the novel—might this influence the babies she nursed?

Inspiration for Armande, the wet nurse in my book, came from two astounding women who lived at that time: Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen and was guillotined for her feminist and abolitionist ideas, and Madame Roland, a supporter of the French Revolution who was also guillotined. These two women imbued the ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality and brotherhood—even though, in so many ways, they were ahead of their time.

From what I read, wet nurses weren’t very well liked and were mistrusted by the populace. Considering that they nursed so many babies at this time and helped so many families, they were given very little respect. I wanted to highlight their important role in French society while also exploring the secret lives of my characters Armande and Céleste, and their hopes and dreams for a better, more just future.


What if the only person you ever loved suddenly disappeared without a trace?

In 1789, Armande, a wet nurse who is known for the mystical qualities of her breast milk, goes missing from her mountain village.

Céleste, a cunning servant girl who Armande once saved from shame and starvation, sets out to find her. A snuffbox found in the snow, the unexpected arrival of a gentleman and the discovery of the wet nurse’s diary, deepen the mystery. Using Armande’s diary as a map to her secret past, Céleste fights to save her from those plotting to steal the wisdom of her milk.

Milk Fever is a rich and inspired tale set on the eve of the French Revolution–a delicious peek into this age’s history. The story explores the fight for women’s rights and the rise in clandestine literature laying bare sexuality, the nature of love and the magic of books to transform lives.

Lissa M. Cowan's Milk Fever was published by Demeter Press in October 2013 ($18.95 / Can$19.95, trade pb, 262pp).  Visit the author's website at www.lissacowan.com.


  1. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Very interesting. I have read that the babies of wet nurses often died of starvation b/c their mothers were busy nursing other women's infants - I have no idea if this is true or not. And of course many women died in childbirth, leaving their infants to be nursed by others.

    Sarah OL

  2. I didn't know they fed foundlings. An early precursor of the essential WIC program, I guess....

  3. What an interesting book, would love to read it.

  4. Thanks for these fascinating comments. Sarah, yes infants of wet nurses did die however there was also a very high mortality rate among infants who were nursed by women that weren't their biological mothers. One of the reasons wet-nursing became regulated in France was to help decrease the infant mortality rate.

    I really had fun doing research for this book. I hope you enjoy reading it!

  5. So glad to see this, Lissa! The protagonist of my debut (A Violet Season) is a wet nurse, too, in late 19th C America. I love it that you've taken on this topic as well, since so few people know about the important history of wet nursing, and when it's talked about it's often sexualized rather than taken as serious women's work. I'll look for your book!

    1. Hi Kathy, I responded to you but for some reason it didn't stick. Your novel sounds fascinating and have put it onto my GoodReads wishlist. I had no idea someone else was writing about this topic so thanks for connecting! It's true that it wasn't taken seriously at all and, in fact in France wet nurses were at the bottom of the social ladder. I look forward to reading your book!!

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