Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny by Katherine Holden (The History Press, 2013)

 As a historian who has previously worked as a nanny, Katherine Holden does indeed know best when it comes to the history of the nanny profession in Britain. Neither a servant nor a member of the family, both more and less than a mother, and combining itinerance with stability, the nanny has always been a shadowy figure. She has only really held the spotlight wearing the face of Julie Andrews, so it is high time that someone fleshed out the character beyond Mary Poppins and Maria from The Sound of Music.

What makes Nanny Knows Best especially illuminating is that it approaches its subject substantially from the perspective of the nanny. This may sound like an obvious thing to do, but as Holden’s arguments make clear, nannies have consistently – in their real lives and their afterlives – been defined by the families for whom they worked. What about the families the nannies themselves grew up in, their motivations for becoming a nanny and their career trajectory, and what about their private lives? Holden foregrounds these questions from the beginning, with chapter titles such as “Nannies in Training” and “Life Beyond the Job”. The richly textured analysis of each question draws on extensive interviews, memoir and archival material, all sourced from former nannies, their employers and charges, magazines like Nursery World and training institutions such as Norland College and Princess Christian College. The book also explores how the fictional nanny in film and literature has participated in shaping the history of this figure, alongside her real counterparts.

The result is a sensitive and nuanced narrative of the role of the nanny throughout the twentieth century, and the particular strength of Holden’s approach is that the data she gathers through interview and memoir often includes accounts from more than one member of the same family, even spanning generations. Numerous accounts are woven together throughout the book to construct a history based on first-hand experience. For instance, the chapter on “Living Inside the Mother-Nanny-Child Triangle” covers topics from the clothing and feeding of children to conflicts between mothers and nannies using evidence given by Lavinia Pearson, Viola Bankes and Lesley Lewis, who recall their experiences as children raised by nannies. Their accounts corroborate and enrich each other, and although it can be tricky to keep up with who’s who, Holden’s clear writing and the accompanying family photographs keep the reader on track. It is not, however, a book to be dipped into for quick facts: it is best to read at least a whole chapter at a time.

One of the key developments in the history of the nanny is the gradual decline of domestic service. Holden’s study provides a fresh angle on this social evolution, and as such the book is of interest to those concerned with twentieth-century British history more generally: the nanny, as a figure occupying a space between servants and those they served, experienced the changes in this relationship from both sides (and then some). She is therefore a particularly visible site of social change, as the chapter “Continuity and Change Over Time” demonstrates.

Charting the decline of wet nurses (who took the place of the mother more fully than the nanny later would) throughout the nineteenth century, Holden shows how this shift drove the professionalisation of childcare – parents began to look more for expertise than good milk. This correlated with a change in the types of service positions that existed: in the early nineteenth century the upper classes ran large households of servants, and the various elements of childcare might be divided between a number of people, from wet nurse to nursery maid to governess. The middle classes, on the other hand, were more likely to have just one servant to do everything, incongruously referred to as a “General” (p. 76). As the nineteenth century wore on, the “expanding and increasingly wealthy upper-middle class” (p. 78) employed more domestic staff, though still less than the aristocracy, and began to have a nanny in charge of childcare.

But it was the First World War that catalysed the biggest changes in the British class system, domestic service and family life which continued throughout the twentieth century. Characteristically, Holden uses the story of one nanny to illustrate a broader narrative. Amy Dike (1894-1993) worked as an under-nanny and then nanny in upper-middle-class families. In 1916 she abandoned this career because of a conflict that Holden has shown to be common to the nanny profession: Amy was being asked to take on housework as well as childcare. What was new at this time was the presence of good alternatives, as the War had opened up many jobs to women. Amy went to work in the Post Office and eventually gave up work to marry a postman. This pattern, which Holden describes as typical, “drastically reduced the servant labour force” (p. 86). Since the financial ascendancy of the upper-classes was waning, and many had to downsize, the era of the servant was clearly over.

However, nannies remained in demand all through the middle of the century, as mothers were forced to take on more housework themselves and appreciated the expert advice of a trained nanny, or indeed a pliable young girl they could train themselves. Holden traces how the previous dilemma as to the servant status of a nanny also changed during this time, with the most pressing conflict being the nanny’s ‘substitute mother’ status. With many upper and middle-class families now living in smaller homes, and mothers having more involvement with their children, the question of how close a nanny should be to her charges became imperative. This question has persisted right up to the present day: as women increasingly developed careers in the late twentieth century childcare continued to be a vital and difficult issue, and here again Holden’s interlacing of first-hand accounts creates a detailed picture that considers all perspectives. This picture also includes the new variations on the nanny figure that emerged between the 1950s and 70s, au pairs and mother’s helps. Though they were no longer regarded as servants, Holden makes clear that it was “the status of these women that changed, not the kind of work they did” (p. 95), which included housework and childcare. Of course, the transition to this new kind of service did not happen seamlessly, and the analysis includes tidbits such as the 1970s au pair who “felt humiliated when her employer dressed her up in a uniform and called her ‘Nanny’” (p. 97).

Finally we reach Mary Poppins and her companions, from the murderous (in the 1965 Hammer horror The Nanny) to the nostalgic (Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited). Such fictions illuminate the ambivalent emotions surrounding the nanny figure, and Holden’s study of these ties in nicely with the twenty-first-century ‘Supernanny’ Jo Frost, who is part fact and part fiction, both timely and archaic in her televised childcare interventions. The paradoxes she embodies are illustrative of those that trouble the issue of childcare today, and Holden presents a compelling explanation of the continuing race and class hierarchies that operate silently in contemporary childcare, and the dilemma of the modern woman who is pressured to ‘have it all’. The subtle conclusion to this book, which recounts how Holden’s interviews had brought a former nanny back in touch with her charges and helped them resolve their conflicted emotions, ends with a quiet call to recognise “the importance of nannies” and the genuine love they can give (p. 224). This does not just refer to actual nannies, but the conceptualised nanny figure as an alternative parent who can offer stability and care when others cannot. Nanny Knows Best offers a resonant history of this figure and the impact she has had as an ideal, a site of social conflict and change, and a relic of the past. And, of course, as part of a narrative that continues.

Carina Hart works in Outreach at Warwick University, and holds a PhD on human beauty in contemporary fiction. She writes about feminism, beauty and body image at her blog,www.beautifulintheory.com.