Jane Eyre was always a governess, never a nursemaid. However, with all the hoopla surrounding the royal birth of Archie, first child of #PrinceHarry and #MeghanMarkle, she has begun to think a lot about babies (after all, she was a mother herself–she had at least one recorded son with husband Edward Rochester). Infants were treated a certain way depending on their parents’ status; like everything in the Victorian world–and perhaps our own–wealth had a lot to do with it.
A rich baby could expect its own living space, a nursery, equipped with such items as a wicker bassinet trimmed with lace and an iron crib, often painted white or gold and adorned with ribbons. Its tiny mattress would have been stuffed with “superior horsehair”, cotton or colored wool. A nursery washstand would have been provided, as well as a fender guard to set around the open fire. Let’s not forget that, in addition to either an aloof mama (as truly wealthy women were encouraged to be, often calling their babies “little strangers”) or a doting mama in the case of the aspiring middle class, the baby would have its own servant, a nursemaid, as well as (in many cases) a wet nurse.
In the London slums, more than half of all infants died before their first birthday. Their mothers were usually expected to work and had to feed their offspring solid food early on, such as bread mashed with watered-down milk. Glass bottles for feeding were available, with nipples made of cow’s udder or a cone-shaped piece of cloth, but the bottles were often washed only once every two weeks, resulting in diarrhea and other illnesses. With fireplaces being the usual means to heat a room, without guards or fire irons the “Poor Baby” was exposed to the possibility of dreadful accidents. As for furniture, a complete set for nurse and baby cost as much as a common laborer’s annual wage.
As the poet William Blake so perfectly expressed it: “Every Morn and every Night Some are Born to sweet delight. Some are Born to sweet delight, Some are Born to Endless Night.”