Tea by the Nursery Fire

I found this short, large print biography in the local library while I was on a quest for Noel Streatfeild books. For a Streatfeild fan, Tea by the Nursery Fire: A Children's Nanny at the Turn of the Century is fascinating reading. It's the biography of Emily Huckwell, familiar to readers of A Vicarage Family as Grand-Nanny, the beloved nanny of Victoria's father (Victoria being the thinly disguised figure of Streatfeild herself).

Emily was born in Sussex in the 1870s and at twelve years old, went into domestic service. She started as nursery maid and ended up as head nanny. At one point she did contemplate marriage, but her fiancé was killed in an accident and for the rest of her life, she devoted herself to 'her' children. Certainly Streatfeild's father was devoted to her, much more so than to his actual mother. No wonder, because Emily brought him up, loved and disciplined him, and he rewarded her with his first love.

This book is a window into another time, where people 'knew their place' and didn't question it. Emily is clearly the origin of all those comfortable, loving but strict non-mother figures that litter Streatfeild's fiction -- Nana in Ballet Shoes, Peaseblossom in The Painted Garden, Pinny in Tennis Shoes. Long after nannies had disappeared from the average middle class household (let alone the genteel poor who form the majority of Streatfeild's fictional families), these figures keep cropping up, with increasingly strange relationships to justify their presence -- an old school friend, daughter of a former patient -- and these women, always single, seem content to join the household as something between a servant and a relative, always doing the worst chores, the mending, escorting the children round town, and never complaining about their lot. They are always a fount of folk wisdom, which it transpires comes straight from the lips of Emily Huckwell: Satan finds work for idle hands, don't care was made to care, it will all be Sir Garnet.

It seems that Grand-Nanny was such an integral part of Streatfeild's own family that she found it impossible to imagine any family without a similar figure as part of it, taking up the slack from Streatfeild's universally useless mother-characters.

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