Having read practically every children’s novel written by Noel Streatfeild as a child I then had mixed emotions last year on reading the original adult novel The Whicharts which was later reworked for children as Ballet Shoes. This year I decided to try another book by this author, a biography of a nanny in Victorian Britain which was the last book the author wrote in 1976 at the age of 80. When reading the below review, this should be borne in mind as if I can write anything comprehensible at that age, I’ll be exceptionally proud of myself.
Tea by the Nursery Fire purports to tell the tale of the nanny who started work at Longton Place as a nanny to the children, Noel’s father and his siblings in the 1890s, although of course this was not long before Noel herself was born. Despite this unnerving discrepancies and having devoured the author’s autobiographical trilogy which began with The Vicarage Family, I was fully aware that the setting should have been that of a clergyman and Longton Place was not, the first two thirds of the book was an interesting view of life as a servant at a time when it was still possible to become a family retainer.
The last third was quite an abrupt end to Emily’s story with whole decades passing by in a flash as the first family of children grew up and produced offspring to care for on high days and holidays only.
The tale itself walked a line between the hard life of a girl of twelve, sent away to become a servant to make room for the ever growing brood of children her parents produced, and the enjoyment a servant could gain from taking a post that allowed her to use the skills of mothering she had learnt at her mother’s knee.
I have to confess the writing was fairly consistently clumsy and depended greatly on this reader’s nostalgia for her children’s books, partly because it isn’t clear whether this book was aimed at those child readers themselves, or those of us who are slightly older although I’m glad to say it steers well clear of being patronising.
As a snapshot of social history, it works well enough but the tone being told through family stories passed down when Emily was in old age, lacks any real insight into the subject herself which is a great shame as the story without it feels as though it has been painted with very light brush-strokes.
Not my favourite of Noel Streatfeild’s books by a long way but not a bad little book for some insight into the tales those who worked across the turn of the century told to those they loved.