Modern Languages

Q&A with Lisa Algazi Marcus, author of Mother’s Milk and Male Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative 

First of all, congratulations on the publication of Mother’s Milk and Male Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to write the book? And how did the project develop from its initial formulation to the book it has become?

When I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, I read Balzac’s epistolary novel, Memoirs of Two Young Married Women, and the breast-feeding scenes struck me as intriguing and weirdly modern. Renée, one of the title characters, describes her experience of nursing as pleasurable, even orgasmic, and suggests that it’s an acceptable substitute for the sexual fulfilment she lacks in her arranged marriage. I wondered how a male author writing in the 1840s could deal so frankly with a topic that was still taboo in the 20th century. But this question was not relevant to my doctoral project on motherhood in the works of Stendhal, another early 19th-century author, so I tucked it away and came back to it a decade later, after breast-feeding my own two kids.

At that point, my goal was to catalogue all the representations of breast-feeding in nineteenth-century France, focusing mainly on literature but including some visual arts and popular culture, to try and explain the discrepancy between those representations and the real-life situation of nursing and non-nursing mothers of the time. I collected examples of breast-feeding in various texts and images, starting with the Napoleonic era through the turn of the 20th century; I spent time in libraries searching obscure texts, and colleagues from all over the world would send me interesting snippets. I also read up on the history of breast-feeding and the wet-nursing industry to better understand the socio-historical context. Slowly I started synthesizing all the information and formulating a thesis, but it wasn’t until the book was almost done that I realized the theme: most of these representations had very little to do with reality, and everything to do with the (mostly male) authors’ fantasies about the maternal breast. The obvious exception was, not surprisingly, George Sand, who had breast-fed her own children and who had a very no-nonsense approach to the subject in her novels as well.

What were some of the key discoveries you made during the process of researching and writing your monograph?

Thanks to a passing mention in a compilation of trivia on breast-feeding from the late 19th century, I discovered a disturbing novel by journalist Alexandre Hepp called Another’s Milk, published in 1891. It tells the story of a depraved wet-nurse who sexually abuses the boy entrusted to her care. Hepp claimed to have based the novel on a true story and framed it as a cautionary tale for any parent thinking of hiring a wet-nurse. Much of the rhetoric echoed the warnings of doctors and moralists of the day about infant mortality and the falling birth rate and was reminiscent of Zola’s novel Fécondité, published 9 years later, but whereas Zola remains a part of the literary canon, Hepp’s work has been all but forgotten.

Photograph of Dr. Charles Monot in the Museum of Wet Nursing and Public Assistance, Alligny-en-Morvan (Photo credit L. Marcus)

As I was preparing for a research trip to Paris in 2017, I discovered that a new Museum of Wet Nursing and Public Assistance had just opened in Alligny-en-Morvan in Burgundy. That region was renowned in the 18th and 19th centuries for its excellent wet nurses, and I had read many stories about the area, including that of Dr. Charles Monot, a local doctor and mayor whose work on infant mortality rates among wet nurses’ infants had a huge impact on public opinion in Paris in the 1860s and ‘70s and contributed to the passage of the Roussel laws restricting the wet nursing industry. I immediately wrote to the museum and planned a visit. When I arrived in this tiny village in the middle of a breathtakingly beautiful nature preserve, about an hour from Dijon, I was greeted enthusiastically by the museum’s founders, including former village mayor Jean-Pierre Cortet, who told me the story of a very public quarrel between Dr. Monot, a Bonapartiste, and Dr. Despiotte, a Republican. Despiotte had written a pamphlet in 1867 criticizing Monot for his harsh condemnation of local wet nurses and accusing Monot of using his political power to stifle opposition to his medical views, and I was able to read the original pamphlet, donated to the museum archives by Monot’s descendants. Hearing the two sides of this very personal and public quarrel in the place where it happened was a fantastic way to feel connected to my subject, and the board members seemed thrilled that someone from the U.S. was showing an interest in their new eco-museum. I’m looking forward to sending them a copy of the book.

Was there anything that surprised you during the development of your own readings of Rousseau’s Emile, (or any other texts that informed your research)?

It was surprising to discover how highly acclaimed author Germaine de Staël thought of Rousseau and his glorification of mothers, considering that her own success as an author seemed incompatible with the type of womanhood touted in Rousseau’s works. In fact, many well-educated women of the day praised Rousseau for giving mothers their due, even though he also told mothers to stay at home and raise their children rather than being active in the public sphere.

Speaking of women who loved Rousseau’s work, I was amazed to read the breast-feeding manual of midwife Angélique Le Rebours, first published in 1770 and re-issued dozens of times through the 1790s. The book was based directly on Le Rebours’ observations as well as her own experience as a mother. It was fascinating to read her practical advice on everything from latching on to timing of feedings to dealing with breast infections, much of which echoed the La Leche League manual, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, that I had depended on as a new mother over two centuries later. Even more surprising was the first time I actually had the chance to hold an early edition of Le Rebours’ book at the National Library in Paris: it was a tiny, pocket-sized manual, perfect for carrying around to consult whenever needed. In the 19th century, male doctors slowly took over the fields of obstetrics and paediatrics, and their bizarre views on infant feeding, supposedly based on science but lacking in practical knowledge, persist to this day. It was fun to discover a time when midwives knew better.   

Aspects of Mother’s Milk and Male Fantasy touch on the words of the feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter. In what ways does her claim that the pressure to breast-feed signified “a reduction of woman to the status of an animal species, as though we were all female chimpanzees” inform your book?

Badinter has long critiqued essentialism in defining gender roles. In 2010 she published a book called Conflict, Woman and Mother analysing French society’s definition of good mothering and its threat to hard-won rights for women. She made many valid points, but it seemed to me that while her use of hyperbole made for great quotes for the popular press, her attitude also sounded strangely reminiscent of 18th-century Frenchwomen’s feelings on breast-feeding. Many upper- and middle-class women of that time saw lactation as an activity for farm animals and peasant women that was not only beneath their dignity, but also disgusting in a very visceral sense. Nursing women were often portrayed as dirty, smelly, and ignorant, and it was widely accepted that breast-feeding would cause a lady to lose her figure and thereby become less attractive to her husband.

Lisa Algazi Marcus in front of the wet nursing museum, Alligny-en-Morvan, France, 2017 (Photo credit Charlie Algazi)

Badinter’s first book, Mother Love, released in 1980, was my introduction to the problematic practices of the wet nursing industry. In the book, she claimed that the appalling infant mortality rates in 18th-century France and the underlying neglect and indifference on the part of mothers proved that the maternal instinct does not exist. Badinter’s work influenced my thinking on that issue as I began this project. However, as I learned more about the history of motherhood, it seemed to me that Badinter was attempting to impose 20th-century feminist standards on 18th-century women who may have seen their outsourcing of childcare and infant feeding as the only means of maintaining their autonomy. There was a certain judgmental tone in Mother Love that I found problematic, and I heard it again in Badinter’s 2010 statement on female chimpanzees. What interested me most about this, though, was that in 1980, Badinter criticized 18th-century mothers mercilessly for refusing to breast-feed, and then in 2010, she condemned with equally biting rhetoric those who pressured current French parents to breast-feed. For me, this contradiction epitomizes the ongoing struggles of feminism to figure out what to do with mothers and babies. Whose rights come first, the mother’s or the child’s? It’s a complex issue that continues to haunt us in questions about the infant’s right to their mother’s milk as well as abortion and reproductive justice.

Would you be able to tell us a bit about what you are working on now?

I’m working on an English translation of a lesser-known novel by Émile Zola called Fécondité, published in 1899. The novel is a fascinating socio-historical document on the Malthusian practices of late nineteenth-century France to limit births, including contraception, sterilization and abortion, and the only existing English translation dates from 1900. As I was completing my book on breast-feeding, I went looking for specific quotes on wet nursing from Zola’s novel and saw that those passages were totally missing from the English translation. Turns out the translator had to leave out entire sections to avoid prosecution under Victorian England’s obscenity laws, so the bulk of the novel has never been translated. My goal is to remedy that situation, although it may take some time since the novel is over 700 pages long!

You can now purchase Mother’s Milk and Male Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative by Lisa Algazi Marcus via the Liverpool University Press website.


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