Whether they invoke fond or fearful memories in real life, the nannies of fiction are kind – even magical – creatures, says Annunciata Elwes, who rounds up her favourites.
From frightening to furry, Annunciata Elwes gives us a comprehensive list of the top six fictional nannies we’ve come to love in the past century or so, just in time for the release of Mary Poppins Returns.
She always finds ‘an element of fun’, yet keeps no-nonsense discipline. Some may be more familiar with her Disney incarnation as Julie Andrews, who sings and dances with chimneysweeps and dips in and out of pavement drawings, but the character from P. L. Travers’s books was more magical than musical. Cue tea parties upside-down on the ceiling, under the sea and with people who live beneath dandelions, enchanted merry-go-rounds and rides on peppermint horses.
‘Nanny did not particularly like to be talked to. She liked visitors best when they paid no attention to her and let her knit away, and watch their faces and think of them as she had known them as small children; their present goings-on did not signify much beside those early illnesses and crimes.’ Generally adored and sporadically visited in her quarters at Brideshead, this sweet figure is a symbol of lost innocence for the grown-up Flyte children of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Seeing one’s father in drag is most children’s worst nightmare, but it’s a treat in certain circumstances, as Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine proves. With little time to spend with his offspring after a divorce, Daniel Hillard, an out-of-work actor, disguises himself as the new nanny – hilariously portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1993 film Mrs Doubtfire.
‘If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition.’
Although portrayed in the Disney Peter Pan film as a St Bernard, Nana is ‘a prim Newfoundland’ in J. M. Barrie’s book. ‘She believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies like rhubarb leaf, and made sounds of contempt over all this new-fangled talk about germs, and so on. It was a lesson in propriety to see her escorting the children to school… she usually carried an umbrella in her mouth in case of rain… No nursery could possibly have been conducted more correctly, and Mr. Darling knew it, yet he sometimes wondered uneasily whether the neighbours talked.’
An embodiment of the sentiment that true beauty comes from within, Nurse Matilda wields a big stick, which she thumps on the ground to make magical things happen. A character created by Christianna Brand, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone and played by Emma Thompson in the ‘Nanny McPhee’ films, she starts off ugly, but is gradually made beautiful as the Brown children learn to right their naughty ways.
‘Always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse.’’
The moral of Hilaire Belloc’s Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion (a process graphically and humorously described in verse) is succinctly summarised by Jim’s father: ‘Always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.’
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