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Non-fiction as cosy as fiction
on 31 August 2013
This little book (218 pages) by Noel Streatfeild (no typo, that really is the spelling) is subtitled "A Children's Nanny at the Turn of the Century". It is non-fiction, but reads as easily and cosily as fiction.
Noel Streatfeild describes the life and times of Emily Huckwell, a Sussex girl born in the 1870s who went to work as a nursery maid when she was not yet twelve years old. Eventually, she was made head nanny to a wealthy family and looked after two generations of their children. One of those children became the father of Noel Streatfeild.
All "her" children loved her very much - which is hardly surprising, seeing how well she treated them and how much time she spent with them, in stark contrast to their own parents, who would see them for one hour between tea and bed time when they were little, and ship them off to boarding schools when they were older - and so Noel was of course introduced to her father's old nanny when she was a little girl.
In those days, people did not question that girls from poor families went into service until they married, and boys worked as farm hands. It was also not questioned that servants were available at all hours and every day; having a week off was all they had in a whole year, and sometimes they did not even take that, if they felt they could not be spared.
The work Emily does, the children and their parents and the other staff at the house are all well described, as are the big houses where she works.
The rhythm of daily life is occasionally interrupted by visits to or from other families, and punctuated by family prayers, meals, lessons and walks.
I was reminded of The Lady's Maid, a book I read almost two years ago, but there are differences: "The Lady's Maid" is an autobiography, written by a woman who did not have much formal education, which shows in her writing style. But it also goes much deeper where her feelings and thoughts are concerned, while "Tea by the Nursery Fire" necessarily has to remain on the outside of its main subject for most of the time, and the author was a professional writer.
Speaking of the author, my first surprise was to learn that Noel Streatfeild was a woman. Up until then, I thought that Noel was a male first name, Noelle being the female version. My second surprise was to read (on Wikipedia, where else!) that her books are well known and very popular; I had never heard of her before.
It really was a good read, giving a close-up portrait of "Victorian and Edwardian life above and below stairs", as the short summary on the back says. Children from around 10 years could, I guess, find this just as interesting as an adult reader.