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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to hundred-year-old nannies