hundred-year-old nannies

Fighting words from Nancy Mitford’s character Fanny, heroine of The Pursuit of Love:

So we worked hard, mending and making and washing, doing any chores for Nanny rather than actually look after the children ourselves. I have seen too many children brought up without Nannies to think this at all desirable. In Oxford, the wives of progressive dons did it often as a matter of principle; they would gradually become morons themselves, while the children looked like slum children and behaved like barbarians.

It’s near the end of the book, where the sisters all have to move to a big freezing cold country house with a lot of small children because of the air raids on London during the war.

I notice in reading this sort of book how several generations of a family will call the nanny “Nanny”… you never know all through a book or a biography what the woman’s name is. It’s *so* bizarre to imagine having someone be part of your family but always be lower class and be treated like dirt.

Or is it bizarre? I can certainly imagine a society organized differently than mine, where my role as housewife and mother seems just as odd and uncomfortable.

I’m really unclear, too, on why the lower-status person (the nanny, or in our case, the mother/housewife/homeschooler) is supposed to be the natural and proper person to do the “civilizing” and to transmit upper class behavior. So according to Mitford’s character’s philosophy, the more aristocratic you were, the more important it was for you to be raised by someone who was *not* part of that aristocracy and who was basically a slave, someone with no status or power of their own. I’m trying to wrap my mind around it. Why would that be?

Nannies in these sort of books are always the comic relief… they are mindless, silly, maddening, and fussy. They love to complain about nothing. They’re essentially childish in that they fuss about trivial things and they are fit only for the company of children and each other. I’m just noticing that their role still exists and is now the role of any mother in the U.S. (For the stay at home dads… yes, it applies to you too. it’s the role that’s important, and you’re in it, but it’s strongly gender-linked.) Anyway, nannies are silly and annoying to real grownups who do important things. Nannies are always affectionate and motivated by love, and any urge for power can be satisfied by petty tyranny over “the nursery”. The loyal nanny stays in the family for several generations but as she gets older she doesn’t get wiser; she just gets more silly and annoying although always unconsciously and instinctively good at heart. She never wants or needs a life of her own.

(Until Mary Poppins who was completely cool… read the real book, which is not at all like the movie. Mary Poppins was a goddess, or really The Goddess, as well as being a trash-talking young woman with a red nose and a fondness for cheap hats, surreptitiously looking at her reflection in shop windows.)

Now that I think of it, Elsie Dinsmore’s “Mammy” fits right into the same picture. And she actually had been a slave but was freed by Elsie’s family (who were anti-slavery during the civil war and whose house was attacked by the KKK afterwards.) So, she was a slave (I think from New Orleans originally) and then of course continued in her role as nameless, silly, fussy, annoying, unthinking, heart-of-gold, never-needing-anything-of-her-own nanny to Elsie and then to Elsie’s children.

I’m trying to take an uncomfortable look at what happened to this (percieved… mythological…) role and this attitude towards it. Obviously the myth is still with us. . . do you see it?

Well, that’s it for my digression on nannies.

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15 Responses to hundred-year-old nannies

  1. telfair says:

    I aggressively resisted reading "Mary Poppins" until I was in the sixth grade, because of that movie. (That sucktastic earworm chimney sweeping song…the weepy pigeon dirge…) When I actually finally caved and checked it out of the school library, I was gobsmacked at what a cool customer the literary Mary was.

  2. elswhere says:

    That passage struck me the same way! I often think of it, though, when I'm feeling particularly wiped out by the bedtime grind.How's this: children are a contaminating and uncivilizing force; adults are contaminated by prolonged contact with them. But in order to become civilized upper-class human beings, children must spend time with adults to learn how to act (and to be cared for). So the nanny does this job and takes on the contagion. Meanwhile, the upper-class mothers (and fathers, goes without saying) are kept untainted and can act as models of what civilized behavior should be, welcoming the child into their society via debutante balls, etc., when they're nearly grown up and have been properly acculturated.Whereas in our model, the stay-at-home moms are the ones subject to contagion, which reduces the immediate "adult society" available to the children as they get older. Because of course the moms remain contaminated, even after the children have grown up themselves.Or is this all basically just rephrasing what you just wrote? Can't tell, too early, going to work (to civilize other people's children).

  3. Iris says:

    It's interesting that the Nurse in 'Romeo and Juliet' had exactly this kind of character too. I wonder how far back it goes?

  4. Mary Tsao says:

    Oh, oh! Caitlin Flanagan, whose book I am actually enjoying, wrote an essay about nannies and their relationship with the children historically as well as with the "woman of the house" in modern society. I want to write about this … must put together some thoughts …I noticed while reading People magazine yesterday (don't laugh), that Tori Spelling just got married. She and her husband had a ritual burning of 3 invitations before the ceremony. 2 of the invitations were for his deceased parents and the third was for her deceased childhood nanny. She even had photos of the 3 attached to her bouquet.I found that amazing but not terribly surprising. Who wouldn't love like a mother the one who took care of you during your entire childhood? Flanagan writes about how attached children of English aristocracy became to their nannies, often crying for them when they died and having deeper affection for them than their own–probably cold and uptight–mothers. Tori's own parents weren't even invited to the wedding…

  5. Iris says:

    This is a first hand account of a relationship with a nanny and her 'place' in the hierarchy.

  6. Suebob says:

    People of means will always outsource whatever can be outsourced. Any job that people view as untidy or unpleasant becomes someone else's job. Dealing with children is seen as an unskilled profession because it can be done by almost anyone. The quality of that care is not part of that equation, though.I heard an interesting interview with wives of a polygamist group. They all worked outside the home, except one, who took care of the children. The other women paid her a six-figure income because they realized how important her work was.

  7. Belinda says:

    "the more aristocratic you were, the more important it was for you to be raised by someone who was *not* part of that aristocracy"Liz, this is a razor-sharp observation, and grist for a meaty discussion! In Southern lit, the role of the "Mammy" figure is different from this white "Nanny," but has similarities. In so many novels by Southern writers, the "Mammy" is who gives the children their grounding, their connection with both the earthly and the spiritual worlds. Relationships with the parents were often cold and distant, with "Mammy" providing the warmth, nurturing, and wisdom/common sense, as well as the basic care. Another difference would be that "Mammy" quite often had her own family, including children who might have been companions of the employing family's children–at least inside the house.If you start a book group, I am SO in.

  8. dorothy says:

    Yowza. Love this. Go farther. Discuss more!

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