You might not guess from the cover of this debut novel that the epigraph would be drawn from Olympe de Gouges’ “Declaration of the Rights of Women”.
But one can be dressed in satin and lace and be a revolutionary, of course.
As was Olympe de Gouges, although her portrait was more modest.
(Perhaps her wrap was designed to conceal a plunging neckline.)
“Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents?” she asked.
Lissa Cowan’s Milk Fever poses the same question, but through story.
More specifically, through the story of Céleste, who is working as a servant when she meets Armande Vivant.
Armande was the wet nurse for the family Céleste worked for, in the years preceding the French Revolution, but Armande was not like the other wet nurses.
She “spoke and walked like a gentle lady unlike most of her profession who were coarse as tree bark”.
Intrigued by the woman immediately, Céleste asks the estate’s cook about Armande. The cook explains that just as “a gentlewoman gobbled sweet breads and pies and puddings, Armande devoured poetry, philosophy, history and botany”.
“This, she said, made her refined, and also made the infants in her care different from other children. Everybody knows, the cook told me, her hands resting on her plump middle, when a child sucks at a woman’s teats, the thoughts of that woman are impressed upon it.”
You know I couldn’t help but quote such delightfully bookish passages (with talk of pastries too, no less). But these passages also serve to illustrate the novel’s style and some of its preoccupations.
The prose in Milk Fever is accessible; it does not mimic the narratives of 18th-century Europe.
Rather, it invites contemporary readers into a story which does not feel more than two hundred years old. So, there is gobbling and devouring but without a wholly anachronistic tone.
In this sense, Lissa Cowan’s work reminds me of Mary Novik’s style in novels like Muse, which also considers the position of European women in times of great political and social change.
And the author’s decision to root the narration in the voice of a marginalized observer recalls works like Pauline Holdstock’s Into the Heart of the Country, affording a voice to one who rarely appears in the historical record.
For while the cook finds it worthy of note that while gentlewomen might have the opportunity to indulge in baked goods, Armande does not have that opportunity.
(Nor would there have been a portrait of Armande commissioned by an artist like Alexander Kucharsky, for whom Olympe de Gouges sat.)
And while Armande has the capacity and opportunity to indulge in books, the cook and Céleste do not.
“Books covered the walls: brown spines with gold letters, green spines with red letters, dusty yellow with words surrounded by fanciful lines.”
Class is certainly a consideration in Milk Fever.
But the novel’s over-arching preoccupation is the power which resides in every woman, the capacity for nourishment (within and without, for herself and for others), a capacity which can be intoxicating and overwhelming, liberating and, yes, revolutionary.
“Before, I was a mere servant watching from afar as the wet nurse suckled. Then I was part of her life, holding and changing babies, burping them, and rocking them to sleep.”
Céleste’s is not the novel’s only voice, however; excerpts of Armande’s diary add another dimension to the story.
(Céleste’s voice is firmly established before this narrative shifts on a plot point, but it’s unsurprising that the novel is not solely rooted in voice and character, given it opens in the tumult of 1787.)
Armande nourishes Céleste alongside her babies, but Milk Fever affords Céleste the opportunity to develop beyond her subserviant role as the story unfolds; she feeds and grows metaphorically. Indeed, the fact that Céleste is the primary storyteller illustrates that fact.
But also important in the novel are the relationships the women have with Armande’s father, whose position is complex politically but his intentions are straightforward and kind. Céleste’s experiences with men have been characterized by as much darkness and fear as she finds in the tunnels beneath the Vivants’ home, but M. Vivant has something else to offer to Céleste and to the novel.
The oppressed may have limited opportunities for resistance, but in the pages of Milk Fever the women are fervent in their desire for change, even while the public sphere is slow to follow.
Lissa Cowan’s novel is a pleasure to read.