I thought I’d hate this book, I really did. I kept coming across reviews of it and mentions of it in Books of the Year, and it seemed like the worst kind of smug literary in-joking. It – Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life – is a collection of letters written to her sister by the nanny of the children of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. Mary-Kay (MK in the letters), previously married to film director Stephen Frears, lives on Gloucester Terrace, NW1, the same street as Alan Bennett,
But it’s not like that at all. The author, Nina Stibbe, comes to London from rural Leicestershire as a twenty year old, having left school at sixteen. This makes her not naive, but a wonderfully fresh and perceptive voice. She loves London, but as it is, not as an idea. She takes everyone and everything exactly as she finds them, with a provincial directness and an outsider’s clarity that cuts through any kind of pretension or literary star-worship. The characters might be striding across the pages of the TLS and the LRB in their professional lives, but here they’re discussing the relative merits of new and old potatoes when it comes to the topping for Shepherd’s Pie (old much better, as softer), bickering over who should be doing the hoovering and borrowing the neighbour’s saw and forgetting to return it. In other words, they’re living family life. Nina Stibbe makes us care about the family and all the details of their lives by noticing everything and wanting to share it all with her sister, with whom she obviously has the best kind of relationship; the one that consists of telling someone everything, great and small, of simply thinking and feeling in their sight.
|Nina Stibbe, and her charges Will and Sam Frears|
While she’s there, Nina decides she should get an education and takes English Literature A-Level remotely. She concludes that The Winter’s Tale has a ridiculous plot, that the Wife of Bath likes shagging and bossing men around and that Thomas Hardy was a miserable, self-important old sod who was vile to his wife. In the end, she gets an E, though she pretends to the family that she got a C (and foolishly tells a few people she got an A). None the less (this is the 80s), she gets a place at Thames Polytechnic, with all her fees paid, to study English Literature, and starts to enjoy the subject after a while. She has a teasing, competitive relationship with a helper in the Tomalin household, Mark Nunney, always referring to him as ‘Nunney’, and leaving notes for him on the windscreen of the Tomalins’ car. After a while, you realise that they are girlfriend and boyfriend, and at the end of the book you discover that they are now living in Cornwall with their kids. Nina lies quite a lot to save herself embarrassment, but she is always completely honest about the people around her.
And she gets things. She has an edgy friendship with a fellow nanny called Pippa. When Pippa switches from drinking tea to drinking coffee she is annoyed with her, because she thinks it is pretentious, and because it means she can’t drink coffee for a year for fear of seeming to be influenced. She explains this to MK, but MK doesn’t get it. ‘That’s the trouble with these writer-types,’ says Nina. ‘They understand Shakespeare and Chaucer but they don’t understand about people switching drinks and why they do it.’ She understands, though; above all, she understands family life. I kept wondering what she would make of our family if she was our nanny. Without trying to (because she doesn’t try to) she invests the ordinary and the everyday with a kind of magic, and makes you grateful for it. And I think she’s probably right about Thomas Hardy.