03 January 2019, The Tablet

Looking for the real Mary Poppins: childcare fact and fantasy


Looking for the real Mary Poppins: childcare fact and fantasy

A trainee nanny plays with children at the world-famous Norland College in Bath
Photo: PA, Ben Birchall

 

As the mysterious, magical nanny returns to cinema screens, is it possible to recognise in P.L. Travers’ character anything that relates to childcare in the twenty-first century?

A few years ago, while researching a book about the history of domestic service in Britain, I found myself stumbling when it came to the role of the nanny. I just could not find an account that told me what it felt like to look after other people’s children for a career, a lifetime.

What I wanted to know was not just what a nanny did but what it was really like to live in a family not one’s own, part of the unit and yet somehow on the edge. It was hard enough to find accounts of the interior lives of most career servants, but the nanny’s seemed particularly hard to pin down.

There were plenty of accounts of how their now-adult charges remembered them (including several disturbing ones of nannies who had shaped forever young boys’ sexual development), but on the whole most descriptions drew affectionately on middle-class nursery hardships like being fed on boiled cabbage and castor oil. And in the memories of their former children, nannies always seemed to start out as paragons of practical femininity in starched aprons and end up as comic and spinsterly “characters”. Nannies themselves seemed to be silent, and their thoughts, desires and feelings were very rarely touched upon.

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