There was a nanny debate the other night in our house. No, we’re not considering getting a nanny! The debate centered upon which is the most magical magical Nanny. Is it Nanny McPhee (originally Nurse Matilda) or Mary Poppins? After this post at Of Maria Antonia recently reminded me of the similarly delightful Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I came away wondering about our love affair with magical nannies, and began Googling in an earnest search for others I may have forgotten.
Including the delightful dog Nanna in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, it was clear that the magical nanny trope extends beyond my original limited imagination of what a magical nanny is. She’s not only characterized by the possession of literal magical powers, but also has a magical effect on the entire family as she serves. The literary blog Slap Happy Larry outlines the general story arc of children’s books which employ the magical nanny trope:
- 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.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, an American story, necessarily demands a slightly different twist on the notion than we find in the the other renown stories, typically written by British authors. In contrast to Nurse Matilda, Mary Poppins, or even Nanna, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t live with her charges. Instead, she is a kindly neighborhood lady whom all the children love and all the parents trust to know just the trick to rectify their children’s bad or detrimental behavior.
This short exploration doesn’t even begin to address the numerous nannies and nursemaids to be found in adult literature, who are far more likely to have a significant effect than magical powers. The unrefined but devoted Mrs. Wix from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew springs to mind here. I’m not sure I could even exhaust the list in a short post as short as this one. This leads me to the question:
What is it about the magical nannies that grabs hold of our imaginations and makes us enjoy them so? I have my own hypothesis, but I’d much rather hear yours first!