|Picture nabbed from
I seem to be on a little run of lovely books at the moment, although Tea by the Nursery Fire: A Children’s Nanny at the Turn of the Century (1976) by Noel Streatfeild doesn’t have quite the same feel as Patricia Brent, Spinster. It’s not as funny – indeed, it’s not trying to be funny. But it’s another book that is so enjoyable and cosy that you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a duvet.
Noel Streatfeild will be known to many of you as the author of Ballet Shoes and other books of that ilk. Indeed, she is known to me as that, but I haven’t actually read any of them – the only Streatfeild I have read is the Persephone (Saplings) which I don’t remember having very strong feelings about, but finding racier than I’d expected. Well, as you’d imagine, Tea by the Nursery Fire isn’t remotely racey. It’s the complete opposite of racey, even if there is the odd bit of illegitimacy and out-of-wedlock liaisons going on along the way.
It’s difficult to say whether Tea by the Nursery Fire is fact or fiction, and the blurb has cautiously opted for calling it a blend of the two. Noel Streatfeild is writing about her father’s nanny, from childhood in the 1870s until her death. Streatfeild never identifies which of the child characters is her father, so I couldn’t work out whether one of the last generation was Noel herself under a pseudonym, but I think it’s fair to assume that Noel either never met Emily Huckwell, or at least never spoke with her to any meaningful extent. Thus every detail of this many-detailed story comes either from passed-on memories of her father, or from her own head.
Everything progresses as you might expect – we start with scenes of a poor and big family, where boys are expected to become labourers at 14, and girls head off at the same age to find a ‘position’ somewhere. Emily is given the lowest rung at the local squire’s – basically the maid of a maid of a maid. Only a chance comment at family prayer’s, where she offers to mend the dress of a visiting family member, gives her the opportunity to move up the ranks (and escape the watchful eye of the house’s unpleasant housekeeper). She goes to the much smaller residence of the woman in question, and aids the friendly and wise nanny there.
And on it progresses – scenes full of nannies and their charges, maids and their duties, mistresses and their ways. It’s a late-Victorian world which is chiefly familiar to me through the eyes of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Of course, the tone Streatfeild takes could scarcely be more different.
I loved reading Tea by the Nursery Fire, it was heartwarming and sweet, but I think I might have really loved it if Streatfeild had taken the heartwaming down a notch. Emily is basically perfect, and never puts a foot wrong. She is very wise, very kind, and very forgiving. There are a few moments of tragedy in her life, and while it is true that she deals with these calmly, rather than with the semi-histrionic heroism so beloved to 1940s cinema, she also doesn’t seem to be impeded in her path of virtuous goodness.
All of which makes her a nice, rather than lovable, character. But it is understandable – she is the sort of paragon that you can imagine a child believing his nanny to be. Still more, the sort of person that son’s daughter would wish to believe in.
Yes, it’s lovely. Perhaps it is only the cynic in me that would have loved it rather more if Emily had let loose with an acerbic aside now and then.