I am slowly warming to Noel Streatfeild. I wasn’t very impressed by our first encounter (Saplings) but everything I have read by her since then has, in varying ways, delighted me. Gran-Nannie (recently reprinted as Tea By the Nursery Fire), which I read earlier this year, was no exception.
Based on the family’s stories about her father’s beloved nanny, Streatfeild has created a fictionalised account of the life of Emily Huckwell. Emily, a gardener’s daughter born in the 1870s, goes into service when she is only eleven. She starts as a nursery maid but over the years advances to under nurse, then nannie, and, in her old age, gran-nannie to the children of the boys and girls she once cared for.
Like Emily herself telling a bedtime story or a homily to the children, Streatfeild is absolutely matter-of-fact about the realities of Emily’s situation. There is no question about getting to choose her life’s path – Emily knows that she, like her mother and grandmother before her, will go into service. She does, however, go after the kind of work she wants and what she wants is to take care of children. Working briefly for one family, she is soon passed on to another younger and poorer family: the Burtons. Emily comes just before Mrs. Burton has her first child and ends up staying with them for the rest of her life, caring for all of the Burton children: John, Henry, Thomas, Mary, Matthew, and Lucy. Mrs. Burton is a disinterested mother and so it is Emily who sees the children through all the major events of their lives and it she who they run to with their news and their problems. Emily never marries, her one romance having come to a tragic end, but the Burton children are her family and they adore her as much as she does them.
A very affectionate tribute to someone who was clearly a beloved member of the family.