It has been a little while since I read anything non-fiction, it does seem that this year I haven’t often been in the right frame of mind for it. So when this one came my way it did look just the thing to get me back to reading the occasional non-fiction work.
Tea by the Nursery Fire; such a lovely title, it conjures up images of a bygone age. This was a time when the women from one section of society brought up the children of another. The author of this book is of course a very well-known children’s writer, the perfect person one would think to tell the story of an adored children’s nanny. First published in 1976, this lovely little edition has been brought out this year by Virago press.
Emily Huckwell was born in a Sussex village in the 1870’s to a large family, her mother and her grandmother had both been in service up at the big house, and it was here that Emily was destined to go. So at the age of eleven, her hair up for the first time, wearing her first full length skirt Emily goes to the big house as a nursery maid. A good hearted girl well used to nursery work – having had to help her mother when she was very ill – Emily was able to show her potential early. However her time at this house was to be fairly short. When a visiting young lady tears her dress, Emily offers to repair it, being a gifted needlewoman. The young lady is Mrs Sylvia Burton, who was soon to have her first child. Sylvia requests that Emily goes to them as under nurse, and so Emily moves to Longton Place, not far away, where she starts her long career as nurse and later Nannie to the large family that Sylvia has. That first born child, John, however always retains a particularly fond place in Emily’s heart.
“In the gentle peace of the nursery week faded into week and month into month, all so like each other it was hard to remember time was passing. Except by flowers. Emily had always loved flowers and now she taught the children to love them. The first celandines, a picnic to pick primroses to decorate the church for Easter. Wood anemones, cuckoo flowers and the black thorn. Then, with a rush, the summer glories, the May trees, the rhododendrons and the azaleas; Longton Place was famous for its azaleas.”
Admittedly there is no real depth to this memoir – which actually reads rather like a novel – though it is charming and deeply affectionate. This simple uneducated woman played such an enormous part in the lives of the children of one family that the stories of her life and work were talked about and savoured, to be written down. She must have been a truly lovely woman. Even when Emily has a terrible private grief to contend with, her thoughts are always with the children in her care. She fights for them when they are ill, counsels them as they grow and start out on their own lives, worries about them while they are away at school. This is a fascinating period of British history, in the company of Emily we see the children’s father go off to the Boer war; we see the preparations for the coronation of Edward VII, the outbreak of World War 1, the advent of the motor car. Through these changing times Emily is a calm and loving presence in the lives of John, Henry, Thomas, Mary Matthew and Lucy, and soon it is their children who Gran-Nannie, as she comes to be called, is serving tea to by the nursery fire.
This was an enjoyable, fairly light memoir, which rather suited my mood this last couple of days.