Tea by the Nursery Fire (by Noel Streatfeild)

I love the way that so many previously out-of-print books by well-known writers are being republished these days. One of my favourite children’s authors is Noel Streatfeild (best known for the classic ‘Ballet Shoes’), and I’m delighted to discover more and more of her books becoming available again. I’ve bought one or two and added others to my wishlist, gradually adding to my collection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘Tea by the Nursery Fire’, which was previously published under the title ‘Gran-Nannie’. I realised that it was a biographical rather than fictional account, but looked forward to reading it nonetheless. The byline on the front describes it as being about a children’s nanny at the turn of the century - meaning the turn of the 20th century, when Noel Streatfeild was a child.

The book features Emily, born into an impoverished home with a large number of siblings. She knew that her destiny was to work as a maid of some kind in an upper-class home; her mother, when younger had worked at a castle. So at the age of eleven, barely literate, Emily leaves home and begins in service as assistant to the nursery. Her one skill is in sewing; when she mends something for a visitor, she is offered a different post where she gradually progresses to become ‘Nannie’ - the chief of the nursery - in her teens.

The narrative charts Emily’s experiences as she learns to deal with very different children, and the sadness she feels that they spend so little time with their parents. She grieves as the boys are sent to boarding school at the age of seven or eight, and instils what seem now like old-fashioned ideals into her charges, peppered with cliches and odd sayings that she learned from the nanny she first worked for.

It’s written for children, although some of the content - albeit skated over - might need explanation by parents. The character of Emily is nicely done, with the majority of the book from her viewpoint, although there are a few departures from that which feel a bit odd. I was also a little disappointed that the writing doesn’t flow as Noel Streatfeild’s other books do; the sentence structure feels stilted in places, with some of the punctuation lacking entirely.

I also realised that the chronology can’t be correct; according to the book Emily was born in the 1870s, but one of the children she looked after - John, her secret favourite - was supposed to have been Noel Streatfeild’s father. Comparing with her childhood biography ('A Vicarage Child') and other biographical information, it appears that Emily must have been born at least a decade earlier.

The latter sections of the book are a bit depressing, as Emily loses the opportunity of marriage, and then young men around her go off to war and don’t return. The ending is then very abrupt. However, I’m sure it’s realistic and assume that the majority of the narrative is at least based on factual reminiscences so perhaps the chronological gaps are where little or nothing was recalled.

Notwithstanding these issues, the book paints a pleasant picture of life in the late 19th century and is good from the social history point of view. Neither Emily nor her mother saw anything wrong with the class system; going into service wasn’t easy at first, but life was a great deal better for working class teenagers in a home where there was warmth and plenty of good food. With society so very different in the 21st century, it’s good to have books of this kind.

Recommended in a low key way. Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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