Johnson on Marcus (2022)

Marcus, Lisa Algazi. Mother’s Milk and Male Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative. Liverpool UP, 2022, pp. vii + 161, ISBN: 978-18027-008-8

Mother’s Milk chronologically analyses depictions of breast-feeding in French literature, non-literary texts, and popular culture from eighteenth-century pre- and post-revolutionary France through the long nineteenth century. It demonstrates how breast-feeding gained popularity and was a polemical subject after Jean-Jacques Rousseau published Émile, decreased in the first third of the nineteenth century, then regained some degree of propogandist popularity after mid-century. Lisa Marcus’s rigorous scholarship documents the gap between the studies in medical and cultural discourses lauding this practice, and the reticence of actual women of the time to put baby to breast to nurse their own child.

Marcus’s socio-historical analysis of dominant views of womanhood and motherhood in eighteenth-century France, detailed in chapter one, is impressive. Despite an abundance of literary and visual representations of the happy breast-feeding mother during the last forty years of the eighteenth century, the Goncourt brothers as well as twentieth-/twenty-first-century critics including Marcus, caution that such images could be misleading as they did not always reflect the attitudes of actual mothers. For example, at a 1793 revolutionary fête, mothers nursing their babies denoted a “civic duty;” however, women of different social classes viewed nursing as “eccentric,” popular, unfashionable or an act “met with indifference” (26, 10-11). During the revolutionary period, “maternal milk … became an integral part of the symbolism of the nascent French republic” (27). Marcus asserts that it also was a convenient way to keep women at home and out of politics. Despite political rhetoric positing that breast feeding was a Republican ideal, by the 1780s, most infants born into aristocratic, bourgeois or poorer homes in Paris were being nursed and raised by wet nurses. Here, as Marcus shows, the first decades of the nineteenth century saw a rapid drop in literary and visual representations of breastfeeding women.

Chapter two elucidates the reasons why nineteenth-century writers and painters did not represent nursing mothers with the same frequency as in the eighteenth century; one, for example, is that during the Napoleonic regimes, the maternal body was no longer glorified, and Napoleon’s image came to embody the government. Romantic writers François René de Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, and George Sand all depict nursing mothers. Marcus uses Allan Pasco’s premise as a loose theoretical frame—that the near absence of the mother figure in stories involving the Romantic hero may be explained by entire generations of authors being sent off to wet nurses. With her corpus, however, the theory does not hold true systematically. While representations of nursing mothers in nineteenth-century art also decrease after 1800, among the extant works is the negative example of the non-nursing mother or children’s rejection of their mothers when reaching for their wet nurses instead.

“Realism, Naturalism and the Eroticization of Breast-Feeding,” Marcus’s third chapter, analyzes shifts in representations of breast-feeding women in fiction by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. The overarching theme is “mastomania,” a neologism coined in 1898 by Dr. de Letamendi, meaning “sensual breast feeding,” though sexual pleasure through breastfeeding appeared in other medical texts as early as 1578 (51-52). Marcus states that while sensual breast-feeding scenes were “tolerated,” even “celebrated” in those nineteenth-century works, they were only accepted when “the male gaze constructed and controlled the mother’s desire [which] legitimize[d] maternal jouissance” in the context of women fulfilling the roles of mother and wife for their husbands and the nation by raising healthy children (52, 64). Two novels in the second half of the chapter either favored breast-feeding (Fécondité’s [1899] Marianne who feeds the nation) or contributed to the vitriol against wet-nursing (Hepp’s Marianne in the popular novel Another’s Milk [1891]). In the latter, the representation of “pleasurable nursing” found in medical and other literary texts was altered; the wet nurse became “evil” and morally and sexually depraved, and her lack of moral character transferred to her deadly, “corrupted” milk (76). Society accused the wet-nurse industry of contributing to the depopulation of France after losses from the Franco-Prussian war, while the representation of the aristocratic mother (Geneviève in Fécondité) who opted not to breast feed, was seen as selfish with images of her breast milk as destructive. “Without the framework of dutiful motherhood,” Marcus writes, “the lactating breast becomes a symbol of uncontrollable female sexuality” (83).

Marcus analyzes the construction of women’s patriotic duty to procreate and lactate in French literature, medical and political discourses of the Third Republic in chapter four. Citing Nina Rattner Gelbart, she notes “women’s bodies … come to be thought of as a kind of national property… counted on to ensure the regular fecundity of society” (102). Writers such as Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet along with Alexandre Hepp and Zola took a moralistic position encouraging mothers to nurse their own children for the well-being of the Republic. Despite the debates and medical treatises about this topic, middle-class and upper-class women in Paris and province preferred using a wet nurse until after World War I (85). Marcus illuminates that having live-in wet nurses in upper-class homes created one major casualty: the death of wet nurses’ own infants because when the new wet-nurse mothers went to work in the city, their own were left with non-lactating relatives. Greater concerns about protecting children’s rights circulated, as did encouraging women to breast feed their own children (“women’s milk belongs to their infants,” 87). Laws passed were not enforced or proved ineffectual. Marcus establishes how Zola reproduced those actual debates in Fécondité to bring about social and political change to the wet-nurse industry and to encourage large families for the good of the nation. When quoting Andrew Counter, she advances that Fécondité demonstrated that “literature is politics” (93, emphasis in the original). In the final decade of the nineteenth century the often nude or breast-feeding Marianne became an iconic political symbol of the new Republic’s commitment to nourish and care for all of its citizens.

Marcus’s well written book is a pleasure to read, although the material can on occasion be dense if one is unfamiliar with the texts and contexts surrounding the politics and representations of breast feeding. Generalists and specialists of French Studies, Art History and History will appreciate Marcus’s impressive archival documentation and rich historical contextualizations.     





Sharon Johnson
Virginia Tech