Mrs England, the latest novel by Stacey Halls, takes a young nanny in what we think of as the golden age of Edwardian childhood into what should be a happy home and exposes the tensions beneath the rose-tinted surface. Stacey tells Historia what drew her to this era – and this subject.
Though children have been around since the dawn of time, childhood is a relatively new concept. The words ‘Edwardian childhood’ conjure a mental slideshow of gaslit nurseries, nannies in frilly aprons, rocking horses, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, straw boaters, picnics, The Railway Children and Mary Lennox in her secret garden.
In a decided move away from Victorian attitudes, the Edwardians brought children out from the attic rooms they’d been confined to for centuries, dusted them off and pushed them blinking into the spotlight of culture, marketing and literature. Very much seen and heard, they starred in their own stories, advertised soap and clothes and songs and were even brought on to the stage.
When I initially had the idea to write a story about a prim and proper nanny who gets the job from hell (though the children are lovely), I knew at once that it would be set in this period. Perhaps it was my own love of the original Mary Poppins film, the rose-tinted, idealistic tale of the nanny who zooms down to Cherry Tree Lane with her umbrella and carpet bag and saves a family from ruin.
What if, I thought, she can’t save them because she doesn’t know what she’s saving them from? What if she can’t get a grasp on her mistress at all, and falls a little bit in love with her charges’ father because she has her own daddy issues? What if she’s really good at her job but is totally out of her depth?
In the early 20th century and for many years after, home was very much where the heart was. It was also where the mother was, despite the fact she would have a raft of servants to take on the domestic labour, as well as a nurse or a whole fleet of them to raise her children.
As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for tension, because therein lies the best story. And as a historical writer, I set a lot of my work in the home, because where are you going to find more tension? In middle and upper class homes, aside from the male head of the household, everyone was at home all the time.
The average Edwardian house had six to ten servants, three or four children, a master, a mistress and most likely a roster of people calling at the back door: butchers’ boys, knife grinders, window cleaners. A chorus line of people from different backgrounds, with different opinions, hopes, prejudices and desires.
Traditionally, we assume the nursery to be a place of safety and security, the children’s nurse a figure of caregiving and authority. In so much of literature throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the nurse is a benevolent, benign creation, there in the background to plaster a scratch or kiss a bump. Sometimes they don’t even have names, referred to merely as Nurse.
I was very interested in the viewpoint that nurses were afforded in a household. They are part of the family but not family, sort of a servant but not really that either. They sleep in the house with the children, and Norland nannies – of which my main character Ruby May is one – were forbidden from eating with domestic staff.
What a strange, unique place to occupy, loitering in corners while the children visit their parents, overhearing things, forming opinions and allegiances. The automatic tension of that position – a mini mother, a little wife for the mistress, doing the heavy lifting of child-rearing – is ripe for fiction.
There have been many tales of villainous nannies – in recent years Leila Slimani’s Lullaby. But I had no interest in going down that route; I do think that in 99 per cent of cases nurses take on the job because they have a love of little children, and a dedication to what would have been and still is very hard work, with long days and hardly any time to themselves.
Instead, what interested me was the tension posed when a very good nanny takes a job with some very good children in a very nice house, but there is something… off. Something not quite right about the whole set up, though the master is welcoming and the mistress seems harmless, if distant.
Some of my favourite novels have a streak of ambiguity running through them like a stick of rock, where nothing is straightforward and the ground shifts constantly: My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca, Fingersmith.
What interested me also was why a young woman, with every opportunity afforded to her in a modern world of factory, shop and clerk work, would choose such an ‘old-fashioned’ job, chained to a house, a family, a nursery, with a half-day off a week.
Then it occurred to me: to be a nurse is to have a second childhood, to parent others but also yourself. It’s the shedding of your birth family and the adoption of another.
Perhaps some were drawn to the safety and security of a middle-class nursery because it afforded the very opposite of what they experienced as children: a childhood far removed from what was portrayed in the books and magazines of the time.
My protagonist Nurse May is one such young woman, who is able to tie her pinafore and become a different person, with no past and no problems. But that’s the thing with the past: no disguise fools it, no location is too remote, and it always catches up with you eventually.
Read more about this book.
Stacey is the best-selling author of The Familiars and The Foundling. She’s written about the background to these novels in An absence of presence: domestic records and The Familiars and Tokens of love: the moving objects left by mothers at the Foundling Hospital.
Photo, possibly of the Chessell children: Rob Gallop via Flickr
Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the trailer for the film Mary Poppins: via Wikimedia
Nanny with baby in pram: via New Westminster Heritage
Das neue Kindermädchen from Fliegende Blätter, 1903: via Wikimedia
The darling buds of May, postcard, c1905: pellethepoet via Flickr