“Nanny shall fetch her,” says the odious Mrs Norris, orchestrating the arrival of little Fanny Price at Mansfield Park. Unseen and unheard, Jane Austen’s Nanny enters literature for the first time. Like governesses and housekeepers, nannies are mother substitutes. Although they are most often to be found in children’s literature, the rise of the working mother means they have recently been gaining an important role in adult fiction too.
Nannies, once called nurses, first appear in children’s literature in Peter Pan (1911). Too poor to afford a human helper, Mr Darling has a protective Newfoundland dog in a nurse’s cap called Nana (who remains behind when the children fly away with Peter). Then as now, the nurse/nanny status for adults and children alike was ambiguous: “Always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse,” suggested Hilaire Belloc in his cautionary poem, after the disobedient Jim runs away from his and gets eaten by a lion at the zoo.
For children, Mary Poppins is the ideal nanny, though her original persona in the books by PL Travers is a lot sharper and less sugary than her popular Disney incarnations. Quixotic, vain, mysterious and short-tempered, she ensures that her magical adventures with the Banks family have a sharp smack of the corrective to them, and though she always rescues her charges from peril, she is more goddess than mother’s help – perhaps recalling that in Greek myth, Demeter became a mortal child’s nurse while searching for her own daughter Persephone. Christianna Brand’s magical Nurse Matilda, the hideously ugly “nursemaid” to the Brown family children arrived in 1964 to an equally minatory effect, gradually becoming prettier as the children became nicer; the series was made into a successful film by Emma Thompson.
But an adult interloper can be sinister too, as Catherine Fisher’s exquisitely terrifying new YA fantasy The Velvet Fox shows. Its heroine Seren must battle a vengeful supernatural being that bewitches her adoptive aristocratic Welsh family.
Ever since Jane Eyre, the idea of a young woman entering a strange and possibly dangerous household has haunted our imaginations; as a witness to a family’s most private moments who is halfway between servant and confidante, she is the ideal spy for an author. She can even, as in Anne Fine’s Madame Doubtfire, be an estranged father in disguise.
Leïla Slimani’s bestselling French shocker, Lullaby, took from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (and from a real life murder case in New York) the idea of a seemingly perfect nanny who turns out to be a killer. Where Candia McWilliam’s well-crafted 1989 novel A Little Stranger turned this into a lethal class battle between a pregnant new mother and her nanny, we know from the outset that Slimani’s coldly dispassionate narrator has murdered the little children left in her care by their lawyer mother: the question is why. Let us not forget that the nanny (as with Brideshead Revisited’s Mrs Hawkins) became the emotional centre of many upper-class children’s lives, warping them as often as not.
For most readers, nannies remain unusual or uncommon – proof of a family’s privilege. However, this year has seen three notable adult novels with nannies at their centre. Jill Dawson’s captivatingly lyricalThe Language of Birds explores the life of “Mandy River”, based on the one murdered by Lord Lucan, and for once puts the nanny centre stage as a person in her own right. Madeline Stevens’s slow-burning thriller Devotion dramatises the resentment that a poor young woman might feel when working in the home of a rich New York couple, and the unhealthy friendship that develops between her and the children’s mother. Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key is a wonderfully suspenseful riff on Henry James’s classic The Turn of the Screw, set in the Scottish Highlands and with toxic children at its heart. Nana the dog has never seemed more left behind.
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Mary Poppins, Madame Doubtfire and a murderer: the best books about nannies have 890 words, post on www.theguardian.com at November 9, 2019. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.