Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tea By The Nursery Fire - Noel Streatfeild

'Tea by the Nursery Fire' feels like an appropriate book to write about tonight - I have spent all day trying to bring some sort of domestic order to my flat, honestly I have far to much stuff to easily squeeze into a relatively small space, that I keep bringing more things home doesn't help. I've washed, hoovered, swept, and scrubbed, hung thing up, folded them away, sorted bits for charity shops, applied wax to various wooden things, produced bread, biscuits, mince pies, and even made some marmalade. I am exhausted and filled with empathy for the average Victorian servant. I think another couple of days of the same sort of activity will have things how I want them...

'Tea by the Nursery Fire' is Noel Streatfeild's reconstruction of the life of Emily Huckwell. Emily born in the 1870's left home when she was around 12 years old to go into service as a nursery maid. She progressed to under nurse and then after a scandal involving the head nurse, a gamekeeper, and quite a lot of drinking she became head nannie whilst still in her teens. The family she worked for had six children and Emily bought them all up before going on to help with their children in turn - basically her whole life was spent in service. One of those children was Streatfeild's father, this account of Emily comes from family memory.

Streatfeild knows what she's doing, her narrative is compelling (it ended in tears for me). She takes a life that is in many ways unremarkable and shows us just how extraordinary ordinary can be. Emily can just about read and write when she's sent out to earn her living, home was 10 people stuffed into a tiny cottage so money, space, and food are all to scarce to keep her at home. There is an element of luck in her early career that sends her from her first big house job as a nursery maid, to a poorer relation as under nurse. The mistress of the house turns out to be a less than maternal woman (she reads as something of a bitch) who is more than happy to put upon her staff.

Emily goes on to learn her business well, and more than that love the children as if they were her own - which in some sense they are. She clearly created a safe and happy world for her charges providing them with a childhood they could look back on with affection, they just as clearly adored her for it. Streatfield suggests that the arrangement where by the gentry saw their children for an hour a day (if they were at home) until at the age of 8 or so when they shipped them off to school sounds as strange to Emily as it does to us, but Emily is not the woman to question her place or her betters.

To an extent Streatfeild seems to question the idea class. Sylvia (Emily's mistress) comes in for a pretty hard time of it, her behaviour shown as selfish and her attitude ungrateful. Emily may be surprised at the way things change (an odd little side note is that Emily's younger sister who eventually follows her into service, albeit unwillingly, has an affair with gentry. She is summarily dismissed, has an illegitimate baby, and post war goes on to marry the man responsible) but Streatfeild isn't and she doesn't give the impression that she regrets the good old days. However what she also does is show quite clearly how desirable a life in service was to a girl in Emily's position.

Life in the cottage involves hard work, overcrowding, hunger, and a general doing without. Life in the big house by comparison provides plenty of food, adequate clothing, and relative comfort in return for hard work. As a head nurse Emily earns £50 a year - the equivalent of just over £5000 in today's money. Not a lot, but then she has no living expenses to speak of so that's basically all disposable income as well as a job for life so perhaps not so bad for the women this life suited - like Emily - though undeniably awful for those it didn't.

I've met a few Emily's in my life, people who on the surface live small lives of no particular importance and yet who leave behind a tremendous legacy of love and affection. This book is a charming memorial to one such woman as well as a fascinating record of a particular way of life.


  1. Lovely. I just borrowed this from the library a few days ago (albeit in an original 1970s edition under the title Gran-Nannie) and can't wait to start.

    1. Beware, the end had me in tears over lunch in the staff dining room!

  2. I thought that was Gran-Nannie! Isn't it annoying when they publish old titles under new names - you think something's been "discovered" and you'd better get it. Though the book is lovely.
    Diana Birchall

  3. It was indeed a lovely book Diana, and yes it's so annoying when books are published with duel titles.

  4. Ah, I bought this recently but will have to wrestle it from my mother who is reading it first. It's the ones who this life doesn't suit that are so sad - I think of the fictional ageing Miss Pettigrew, nursery governess, without any other training and aware that she's not even very good with children. Winifred Watson captures the poignancy of that hopelessness so well.

  5. This is a much more hopeful sort of book, really a lovely memorial to one of those lives that don't get a lot of attention outside a small circle but really deserve a bit of celebration. Hope you get it back and enjoy it soon!