Beatrix Potter was already popular by the time she published The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911). The introduction to our 110th anniversary copy says the tale was created specifically to appeal to a new, American audience, with the inclusion of chipmunks.
What is the difference between nannies and nurses? How do you pick the nanny in the illustrations of books for children? Easy. There was a dress code.
According to Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney, Edwardian nannies had a strict dress code.
In the nursery, the nanny wore a white or grey cotton print dress and apron and, when out walking with the children, was permitted a black, navy or dark plum coat and a black straw bonnet.
You can see examples of this dress code in children’s illustrations.
COMMON FEATURES OF STORIES WITH NANNIES
The parents are colourless and unremarkable except for their utter cluelessness.
The nanny might be actually magic, or seems to work magic due to being a ‘child whisperer’
The children are highly spirited tricksters
The nanny sees right through the children and although she may have a harsh exterior, has a heart of gold
The children are at least upper middle class
Nanny stories of the old-fashioned kind, set in large houses, are probably from an earlier era such as the Edwardian
The plots tend to be episodic rather than dramatic, with each day bringing a new adventure which is over and solved by bedtime. But there is still a character arc whereby the children become better behaved (or more morally upstanding) by the end of the story.
The magical nanny who arrives at the door, fixes the family’s problems then leaves is known as the Travelling Angel Trope. Therefore, nanny stories have something in common with traditional Westerns.
While books for middle grade tend to be of the Mary Poppins type, young adult literature includes stories in which the young person (woman) herself is the nanny: Nanny X by Madelyn Rosenberg, Confessions of a Teen Nanny by Victoria Ashton and The Nannies series by Melody Mayer are some examples. These stories are a great way to put a middle-class or poor girl in with wacky rich people, a storytelling trick which is always ripe for conflict.
New nanny stories often have Edwardian or Victorian settings. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series is a middle grade example; Jane by April Lindner is a YA example of stories set in big, mysterious houses with strange goings-on.
Here we have a couple of different costumes for Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, but both times she wears the white apron with the black dress and her hair tied in a bun at the back.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was an eccentric lady that parents turned to when they became frustrated with their children’s misbehavior. The modern-day Super Nanny. Today Mrs Piggle-Wiggle would be the star of her own TV show.
Mrs Piggle-Wiggle’s advice: Let the child do what they want until their behaviour back-fires. Then she would tell the parents to do some nasty little trick that sends the kids running to the sanctity of good behaviour.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a woman who lives in an upside down house in a town filled with misbehaving children. Luckily, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is the proud owner of a magical chest left to her by her pirate husband, which contains a variety of very strange (but very effective) cures for things like bad table manners and truancy. We need more books like this today. Maybe then we wouldn’t have things like Honey Boo Boo Child.
What was the difference? Were they the same person?
NANNY: An individual who provides care for one or more children in a family as a service. Traditionally, nannies were servants in large households and reported directly to the lady of the house. Nannies were outside the hierarchy of the rest of the service staff of a large household, as demonstrated by this chart from Life Below Stairs by Alison Maroney:
To a young, modern reader, the word ‘nurse’ does refer to a person who works in a hospital or otherwise alongside doctors. Nurse no longer carries the meaning of caregiver of children in a home setting. This is probably why we have a movie franchise called Nanny McPhee and not Nurse Matilda.
NURSE MATILDA OR NANNY MCPHEE BY CHRISTIANNA BRAND
There were three Nurse Matilda books: Nurse Matilda, Nurse Matilda goes to Town, and Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital. In Nurse Matilda/Nanny McPhee, a ‘governess’ (the word used in the modern advertising copy) uses magic to reign in the seven ne’er-do-well children in her charge who keep scaring off other household staff. Nurse Matilda is an ugly witch with a magic cane. Her ugliness represents the ugly characteristics that the children acquired in their short lives, making use of the Rule of Seven in storytelling. This is of course related to the idea of Seven Deadly Sins. For example, the sin of greed is exemplified when the naughty children eat too much porridge and jam and buns and bad-for-you things at breakfast. Nurse Matilda thumps her stick and the children keep eating and eating until their insides are filled with porridge and they all have stomachaches. The movie Se7en for kids?
Mr Brown in the films is a slightly hopeless, hardworking undertaker. In the books they haven’t killed off the mother — instead there is a ridiculously fecund Mr and Mrs Brown.
The Browns live in a large country house with a butler, cook and tweeny (Evangeline). In case you were wondering, a tweeny is a maid who assisted two other members of a domestic staff.
Nurse Matilda simply disappears ‘without explanation’ at the end of the third book. However, when considered in light of the travelling angel trope, her disappearance is entirely understandable. The enigmatic Nurse Matilda arrives when children need but don’t want her, but must go when they want but don’t need her, which lends poignancy and resonance to the ending. It is hoped the young reader, too, does not want Nurse Matilda to go.
There is a fairytale element to this series relating to beauty. Does Nurse Matilda really get less ugly (in a magical way) as the children learn to behave better, or do the children learn to look past her ugliness as they learn to love her? This is basically the message of The Frog Prince, in which young women are told to marry the man their father tells them to marry — don’t worry, even if he’s basically a toad you’ll learn to love him.
The Nurse Matilda books were illustrated by the author’s cousin, Edward Ardizzone.
OTHER RELATED TERMS
NURSEMAID: A nursemaid or nursery maid, is mostly a historical term of employment for a female servant employed in the field of the care of children within the community of a large household. The term ‘nursemaid’ has wide historical use, mostly related to servants charged with the actual care of children, including in many cases the duties of a wet nurse. In ancient usage the terms ‘nursemaid’ and ‘nurse’ are largely interchangeable. Everything that a parent ordinarily might do, especially the more onerous tasks, could be turned over to a nursemaid.
WET NURSE: a woman who breast feeds and cares for another’s child.Wet nurses are employed when the mother is unable or chooses not to nurse the child herself. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, a woman would earn more money as a wet nurse than her husband could as a labourer. Royal wet nurse held special regard for life. The English wet-nurse in Victorian England was most likely a single woman who previously gave birth to an illegitimate child, and was looking for work in a profession that glorified the single mother. There were wet nurses who were on poor relief and struggled to sufficiently provide for themselves or their charges, and then there were professional wet nurses who were well paid and respected. The wet-nurse’s own child would likely be sent out to nurse, normally brought up by the bottle, rather than being breastfed.
GOVERNESS: While a nanny looked after the children in their baby and toddler years, a governess would be hired once the children required education. This could be from as young as three years of age. While boys were sent to school, girls often stayed home for their entire education. Sometimes the governess came from a quite well-off household herself, but for those women it was considered quite shameful to become a nanny, since it meant you were probably required to go out to work (and had failed to find a husband).
MODERN ENGLISH NANNIES IRL
The royal family not only dresses their children as if they’ve just stepped out of the Edwardian era; their nannies are also dressed from an earlier time.
When I lived in London on a working holiday visa, I spent about a month walking through the richest parts of London on my way to a course. At this time I’d see a lot of young primary school-aged children in their expensive private school uniforms and the women escorting them looked a little too young to be their mothers, and not at all related by facial features and colouring. After a while I realised these women weren’t the mothers but the nannies. They were otherwise dressed in regular smart casual attire.
Breakfast eating has changed a lot over time, at least in the West, which in turn has influenced other cultures. These changes have of course been reflected in children’s literature.
“As for me, I was hungry, and contented myself with silently demolishing the tea, ham, and toast…” wrote Anne Bronte in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848. But the times were already changing. The health of Britons was already being affected by the industrialization of food. Bronte writes several pages later of the vicar, in uncomplimentary terms:
He had a laudable care for his own bodily health — kept very early hours, regularly took a walk before breakfast, was vastly particular about warm and dry clothing, had never been known to preach a sermon without previously swallowing a raw egg — albeit he was gifted with good lungs and a powerful voice, — and was, generally, extremely particular about what he ate and drank, though by no means abstemious, and having a mode of dietary peculiar to himself, — being a great despiser of tea and such slops, and a patron of malt liquors, bacon and eggs, ham, hung beef, and other strong meats, which agreed well enough with his digestive organs, and therefore were maintained by him to be good and wholesome for everybody, and confidently recommended to the most delicate convalescents or dyspeptics, who, if they failed to derive the promised benefit from his prescriptions, were told it was because they had not persevered, and if they complained of inconvenient results therefrom, were assured it was all fancy.
The Edwardian Era In England (1901–1910)
At nine in the morning, servants would be required to do as following:
9 a.m.: The family breakfast is served. While the servants have had porridge or, if they are lucky, bacon and eggs, their employers will be greeted with an array of silver covered dishes with bacon, eggs, kippers, kedgeree, devilled kidneys, freshly baked rolls and fruit.
— from Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney
The servants themselves had a less lavish breakfast, but they did often get bacon and eggs if they worked at an opulent house. If they stayed in their working class homes they would’ve been stuck with porridge.
1929 Rural America
In A Long Way From Chicago, two children visit their hillbilly grandmother each summer. There, they eat pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions for breakfast — as much as they like. Then the depression sets in.
1943 Rural America
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is set during WW2 and is heavily based on stories told to her by her own mother. A breakfast scene shows the exact era in which mothers quit cooking breakfasts for their brood:
“Well, look who’s up,” my mother said as she came in the door, a basket of eggs in her hand. She tied on an apron and said, “Scrambled or fried?”
“I already had cereal.”
1975 (Australia vs America)
Exchange Student is about a 14-year-old Sydney girl who spends a year in Ohio, USA. This observation marks the exact era American breakfast traditions started to be adopted here in Australia:
“My brother will never believe the things they have on this menu,” she said. “He’d go wild over all these pancakes and syrup and the blueberry waffles and things. He’s always complaining about being sick of having eggs and bacon for breakfast.”
— Exchange Student by Estelle Grey
From See You Thursday by Jean Ure:
For breakfast there were sausages and tomatoes. Mrs Fenton announced the fact with a brisk: ‘Here we are, then…sausages at twelve o’clock, tomatoes at six.’ Marianne wondered what on earth she was talking about, until slowly it dawned on her that she was describing for Mr Shonfeld’s benefit the postiion of things on the plate. … They never had sausages; not for breakfast. Sausages were supper. She couldn’t eat them at quarter to eight in the morning.
So what did Marianne prefer for breakfast, if not sausages and tomatoes?
To spare Mr Shonfeld’s feelings, she forced herself to eat it. Her mother would only say: ‘What’s the matter with those sausages?’ if she didn’t, and then she would have to say that she didn’t feel like sausages and then Mr Shonfeld might start thinking about bacon and eggs and wondering if it were his fault.
It’s not cereal and toast that Marianne is missing, rather another kind of meat. Later, taking Mr Shonfeld shopping at the supermarket, she recommends eggs, because eggs are nutritious.
What would a modern dietitian think of a breakfast of bacon and eggs? Well, that depends. If you’ve been trained by the government then you’ll be recommending ‘heart healthy whole grains’ for breakfast, along with a small glass of fruit juice and dairy.
But look a bit further and you’ll see a growing number of health professionals — equally well-qualified and equally smart — who are looking at the very latest research in health and nutrition and drawing a very different conclusion. Loren Cordain, Sally Fallon, Dr Mary Enig, Gary Taubes, Mark Sisson, Nora Gedgaudas, Chris Kresser, Chris Masterjohn, Stephanie Ruper and many others are all telling us something quite different about breakfasts:
1. Not everybody needs to eat an early breakfast to maintain good health
2. All meals should include a thumb-sized portion of fat for satiety, with ‘low-fat’ products ideally banished from existence
3. Sugar should be avoided — and not just added sugars, but any processed carbohydrate which breaks down to sugar (glucose) in the body
4. All meals should include vegetables, not just the dinner meal, which is actually in line with the government recommendations (the pyramid and the plate — breakfast doesn’t give you any free pass on the vegetables)
5. Fruit should be eaten in moderation, and if you’re going to juice it, throw away the juice and eat the pulp. There’s nothing you get from fruit that you can’t get from vegetables.
6. Trans fats are terrible for the body.
7. Industrial seed oils (‘vegetable oils’) should be avoided at all costs
8. Animal proteins are superior to plant proteins in every single way
9. Each meal needs to contain some animal protein
10. Fat doesn’t actually make you fat. Nor does it lead to heart disease.
Our great grandparents knew this. (Maybe even your grandparents, depending on your age.) That’s why they ate meat and eggs for breakfast.
Season six of Mad Men is especially interesting because it’s set in that period of American history in which the ad men were charged with the job of persuading the public that margarine is healthier than butter, and that extruded cereals should be taken at breakfast, straight from the supermarket shelves, rather than meat from the local butchery.
Those ad men did a wonderful job on us. Now, even though every bit of good science is telling us to go back to eating the pre-industrial way, our idea of a ‘healthy’ breakfast is so embedded in our culture that it’s almost impossible to think in any other way. It all changed in the 80s.
Take this Whitbread award winning passage from 1988:
Every morning, after walking the dog, I wait for the post. Our postman, despite his vigorous life, does not look healthy. His skin is showing signs of trouble within; a tinge has spread over his cheeks, a sort of threadwork of veinous blood vessels, suggesting cardiovascular irregularities. The surface of his skin is being irrigated by diverted blood; that is my diagnosis. I would guess that the beneficial effects of walking miles every day are nullified by his daily breakfast of sausages, egg and bacon. I have seen him with his fellow postmen gathered for these huge breakfasts at Lil’s Cafe, near the Electric Cinema. There’s hardly a person left in the developed world who doesn’t not know that this sort of diet is fatal, yet Cockneys must have it. All Cockneys are unhealthy as a result.
– Leading The Cheers by Justin Cartwright
It’s no accident that literary breakfasts parallel exactly the food trends of our society. Equally interesting: breakfasts of toast, margarine and cereal also mark the beginning of the diabetes epidemic. Since fat helps to regulate blood sugar, this is no coincidence.
Breakfast Is A Liar, Might Not Be Most Important Meal Of The Day from Jezebel. The Paleo eating community has been saying this all along, by the way. If you’re a paleo person you eat breakfast when you’re hungry, even if it turns into lunch. You also eat vegetables for breakfast. This might seem totally weird until you realise that even the government issue food plate does include a large portion of vegetables, and nowhere does it say you get a free pass for breakfast time.