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."

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.

In essence, Nanny was on the children's side in that not exactly declared but nevertheless subtly waged state of war that can exist between the two worlds of children and grown-ups. Poppins knew exactly how to balance discipline with fun, and far from being an entirely supernatural character, Poppins surely was repeated many times in many homes in the era of the nursery. The basic thing about her is that she understood her charges, their need for order, affection, entertainment, and imagination - but above all, (as is the case with children) without sentimentality.

J. M. Barrie, in his play "Peter Pan," made the Darling family's nanny a Newfoundland dog because the impoverished family couldn't afford a human. He hit on a fascinating image: a children's servant, employed to supply and tend to their every need and whim, who was at the same time larger than they and capable of authority - and cuddly.

Nannies, by all accounts, could indeed be rather canine in their impassiveness, rocking silently as they darned socks, pretending to ignore the mayhemming kids, but actually as alert as a watchdog.

The concept of the nursery may have originated the concept of the nanny, but it was she, as she evolved, who gave this spare room (or rooms) atmosphere and flavor. The inhabitants of a house are the ingredients that turn it into a home. The inhabitants of part of a house give it its character.

The other side of the nursery equation, of course, was the children themselves. Actually, many Victorian and Edwardian children were much freer to roam about the entire house than has often been said.

But just as in today's houses where there may be a special room set aside for them - called a playroom, kid's room, television-computer-stereo room or most often, simply, John's or Maggie's bedroom - yesterday's children, I suspect, returned more than willingly to their domain. It is, whatever it's called and however organized, the physical environ- ment for the child's imagination to dwell and expand in. Of course children are so adaptable that they can do this to a degree more or less anywhere if they have to.

NEVILLE Cardus, one-time music critic on The Manchester Guardian, recalled how he as a child used to sit under the table in the kitchen, where everyone congregated because it was the only warm room in the tiny British terraced house. Imagine, under the table, where he was completely alone and unobserved.

Presumably, medieval children managed the same kind of escape tactics. But in inventing the nursery, or at least establishing it, the Victorian middle and upper classes did show their peculiar expertise in matters of home. We don't approve of the separation it fostered between parents and their children, but are we right?

There's a poem by the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas called "Children's Song" that touches on something true: It starts "We live in our own world,/ A world that is too small/ For you to stoop and enter/ Even on hands and knees,/ The adult subterfuge ... ."

In the best-regulated nurseries, the occasional entry of parents often seems to have been rather like the invasion of aliens or at least of the Queen of Sheba. This was true even at the absolute tail-end of the period of nannies and nurseries which I experienced as a child in the 1940s.

Mom and Dad were not exactly part of the wallpaper in the room still designated by the nursery. They came in mainly when pressed to do so - to see, perhaps, the latest play performed on the window seat, or watch a puppet show. Mostly they kept out and let us get on with being children therein.

I don't remember being confined in the nursery - it was really a playroom - though on the occasions when some dire form of discipline was needed, I was "sent to the nursery" as citizens of the former Soviet Union were sent to Siberia.

This odd reversion to Victorian practices was really a holdover. The assumption that I would rather be in some other part of the house may not, however, have been as certain as they imagined; though it is true that I did not like being sent there to finish chewing some awful piece of stringy, war-time beef or until I had decided to clean up some bowl of congealing bread-and-butter pudding.

On the whole, I remember the nursery as a room, just one room in a house full of child-play-potential, where very pleasurable things happened. Not the least pleasurable thing was, in fact, lying in front of the gas fire, bastioned by its statutory fender, drying my wet hair after it had been washed. That head-roasting was one of the cozy luxuriances of my childhood! And quite simply it wouldn't have been the same in any place other than the nursery. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30161.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.