Our love affair with magical nannies.

mary poppins

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!





7 thoughts on “Our love affair with magical nannies.

  1. hearthie says:

    Lots of things, not one source

    1) There’s a reality that sometimes another adult can connect to your kids in a way you can’t. Maybe they have something in common personality-wise, maybe they’re just used to more kids than you are, maybe??? But this really does happen.

    2) Inexperienced parent trope. Again, based in reality. I can’t remember any of these children being the youngest lot of a big pile – they were either children raised by interesting methods, or one of their parents was dead, or the parents, as you note, were just a bit clueless. As a mom who changed exactly one diaper in her life before her first child was born, I’ll sign up here.

    3) Fantasy should be based on good things – the ideal of someone who comes in, solves a inter-family problem to the satisfaction of both parties with creativity is LOVELY. The kids are respected and improved, the parents lives are better, everything is nice.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Elspeth says:

    Yes. Number 3 was the first thought that I considered. The idea that there is someone who can unlock the mysteries of our children’s highest, best selves in a way that we cant resonates. Especially if/when the kids are of the more high-spirited variety that leaves us pulling out hair out.

    And at the end, everyone is better for having experienced this magical, traveling angel who, having done her duty, is off to help another family in desperate need of only what she can provide.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Practical Conservative says:

    The magical nanny stuff is, interestingly, pretty much all 20th century and written during various periods of upheaval as the middle classes exploded in size and also transitioned away from hired household help with the rise of technology and mass education efforts. Even Nurse Matilda was written during the very tail end of the UK moving into a more American-style minimal live-out/nobody for middle class+ mothers. So you have this one magical lady who doesn’t abuse the kids, isn’t desperate and/or lower-class and thus badly treated herself, and is only there for exactly the time you need. It’s like Little House on the Prairie compared to the realities of homestead/prairie culture, the relationship is extremely similar.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    That, TPC, is very insightful! I hadn’t really considered the historical context for such stories when I sat down and jotted this out so thanks for those additional historical notes.

    It makes perfect sense that the stories correlate with the changing economic, social, and familial dynamics of the times in which they were written.

    I’ll be mulling that over for the rest of the day no doubt.


  5. ofmariaantonia says:

    I never thought of Mrs P-W as being like a magical nanny, but she most definitely is! (The neighbourhood children always seem to be hanging out at her house…)

    In my book, I have to say that Mary Poppins is the grandmother of all magical nannies! And it’s funny that she’s not actually the kindest nanny in the world. But Jane and Michael (and I suppose John and Barbara) LOVE her. So by extension, we love her. She allows for just enough adventure in their lives, but brings a great stability with her no-nonsense presence.

    As for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, she makes things right in the world. And the fun of it is the creativity that goes into her cures.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:

    As for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, she makes things right in the world. And the fun of it is the creativity that goes into her cures.

    Yes. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s creative cures were always fun to read. I think my favorite is the progressively tiny plates for the boy who insisted on eating tinier and tinier bites of food. I felt so bad for him as he wasted away, but he did learn the importance of eating well balanced meals in a way he wouldn’t soon forget!

    Betty MacDonald was a gifted storyteller. I don’t know if you’ve ever read her memoir The Egg and I, but she is equally gifted at humor when writing for adults. I think you’ll enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

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