The Kingdom of Nanny and the Children
`EVEN the most sincere child-lover must admit that a separate room for the children is an important feature of a really comfortable house." So observed Magdalen King-Hall in a book called "The Story of the Nursery."Skip to next paragraph
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Lady Cynthia Asquith, describing in 1950 her privileged childhood during the last part of the 19th century, wrote of "the whole-time mothers of today, whose homes are either without any nursery at all or else without any room that is not a nursery." She remembered her own nursery with positive affection.
We still retain an image of the kind of nursery she must have been reared in, with its rocking horse and chest full of building blocks, dolls, lead soldiers, miniature furniture, spinning tops and games, and an old worn carpet. There were bars on the windows for safety and a high metal mesh guard (draped with pajamas and night-dresses) caging the fire which crackled and glowed in the grate while the rain streaked down the windows outside... .
The nursery must have suited all sides involved, because it worked well for such a long time: a part of the house set aside for the babies and young children, developed from the 16th century in Europe. It was only World War II that nursery-historians believe finally took us back to the integrated, everyone-mucks-in-together arrangement that had existed in the medieval house.
There were no separate rooms in medieval houses, and so no privacy to speak of. It was impossible for the parents to escape, even for an hour or two to return to mature language and adult interests, let alone to have some quiet. Presumably the children also wanted now and then to get away from those milling adults.
It was the Victorians who brought to its apogee the concept of the nursery as a separate, essential ingredient of a home. Perhaps they had a point.
In some houses you visit today, the, er, delightful ubiquity of the children, more wall-to-wall than the carpets, louder than the TV, does tend to put you in mind of the woman who felt that she had been born into an unfortunate generation: as a child she had belonged to the period when children were, as a matter of course, bossed about by the adults. But now, as a grandmother, she found herself in the period when adults were bossed about by the children.
A GREAT many 20th-century autobiographers have gotten and given pleasure by their reminiscences of childhood days in which Nanny's kingdom, the nursery - or in really pretentious houses, the nursery wing - was their domain. While it is doubtless true that the nursery, often in a high-up, out-of-the-way part of the house evolved out of adult necessity or preference, it was often a marvelous place of escape, security, and specialness for the children.
There was an adult-type-person in permanent residence there, of course, but though a surrogate mother, she was different from the children's parents in both education and class. It has often been pointed out that children a century or more ago were really closer, in their daily lives, to the servants in households than to their parents with their own friends and visitors.
The nanny was a servant, too. But like the governess, she was far from being at the lowly end of that hired hierarchy. Mothers, technically the employers, could even be notoriously nervous of their children's nannies, who frequently made it clear that they did not appreciate interference with their work.
Sometimes this definite personage had earlier been nanny to the children's father, anyway, and had never really stopped thinking of him as a small boy. He was as likely to be told to "mind his Ps and Qs" or "wash his mouth out with soap and water" as his offspring. So if the mother's husband could so easily be thus reduced in stature by a pointedly pronounced nanny-saying, his wife was hardly in a position to suggest some new method of blowing her children's noses or hinting that it might be nice if, just for once, they could stay up after bedtime to see the sunset. Nanny had her rules, and no one was going to contravene them.
On the other hand, from the children's perspective, as is depicted so deliciously in P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins books, the nanny may have been a bit of a martinet, and sniffed a lot, and not been impressed by whiners or whimperers, but she really was, under the crust, infinitely closer to being a child herself than the remote mother or father.