Set in 1780s France, Milk Fever tells two stories. The first is that of Celeste, a servant girl, educated by her employers. The second is that of her mistress, Armande. Armande’s narration is delivered through the charming 18th-century device of a diary, which Celeste reads in hopes of finding clues to her mistress’s sudden disappearance. Celeste, naturally, is a far less grammatical and artful reporter than her mistress.
During this time of unrest and intellectual ferment, Armande has been liberally educated by her eccentric father, a publisher of banned erotic and political books. Armande teaches her maidservant, who has hitherto experienced little but violence and abuse. Celeste responds to her lady’s attention; she learns and grows, and they form a friendship across the sizeable barrier of class, a line Armande has already crossed. The loss of her baby in a gruesome accident has led her to accept (and rejoice) in the “peasant class” role of wet nurse.
Meditations upon philosophy, art, and science inform Armande’s thoughts, and her charges are not only well-fed, but seem brighter than other children. Research into the period and contemporary feminist writings (Madame Le Rebours, who wrote on breastfeeding and childcare, and Olympe de Gouges, who wrote a “Declaration of the Rights of Women”) is deftly woven into the story. Poetry and magic realism pervade the text, but, for me, the earthly portrayal of mothering and its significance to society was the heart of the book.