walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Unnatural History of the Nanny_, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy

I've _already_ forgotten why I bought this, which is impressive to me altho perhaps to no one else. I _think_ it was because of a footnote in one of Odent's books, but perhaps I have confused this with another book.

In any event, this early 1970s look at the use of Nannies to raise their children by the upper and upper-middle classes in Britain (and elsewhere) for a period dating roughly from sometime before the middle of the 19th century to World War II, with some significant changes appearing after WWI in particular. Perhaps because of _when_ this book was written, Freud's theories appear repeatedly in the text in an effort to make sense of the impact on the children and larger society of being raised by Nannies. This is an effort which fails almost in its entirety. Gathorne-Hardy recognizes that Freud does not work cross-culturally and spots a variety of problems himself. I'd happily take a bet that he'd remove all of that stuff from a revision, but I haven't read his Kinsey bio from about ten years ago; perhaps this is still part of his analytical toolbox.

Gathorne-Hardy used a variety of sources: biographies, autobiographies, novels, personal interviews with people who had had Nannies in the relevant time period and whenever possible personal interviews with people who had worked as Nannies in the relevant time period. He recognizes the limitations of the material and is reasonably conservative with the conclusions he attempts to draw from those materials.

Gathorne-Hardy, towards the end, clearly indicates his debt to Winnicott and his own personal aversion to farming the young 'uns out to other people. He runs over the usual Primitive Societies Raise Their Own And Don't Make Them Cry And Breastfeed Them For Years literature as it was available then (one cringes at his use of the term Eskimo). He briefly rattles through how the kibbutz operated (and one cannot help but feel his coverage is overly rosy). But the world in which Gathorne-Hardy was a father, and a citizen, was not a world which had much in the way of expectations for parenting from men. While he clearly fought that battle in his personal life (and, tragically, didn't get to do what he wanted, or he wouldn't have described his own parenting efforts as interfering with his children), his argument revolves around debates of the relative merits of Nannies vs. Mothers -- it doesn't include any particular responsibility on the part of the father much less extended family.

He is sensitive to the accusation that he's going to be heard as advocating that Mothers Do Everything: housework, a career, taking care of the young 'uns, but his response is pathetically weak. He did a _great_ rundown on how large houses in the 19th century and earlier worked in terms of head nanny, under nanny, nursery maids, etc. He broke down who did what and how many there were compared to the children. And there had to be: this was a world without indoor plumbing (I'm not saying it wasn't invented yet -- I'm saying there wasn't running water to the nursery on the top floors), in which fuel had to be hauled as well, and all the meals, and the chamber pots had to be shlepped back down and so forth. While improvements compensated for the decrease in servants that occurred throughout the 20th century, there are plenty of lessons to be learned. One of them is that people used to a particular role can take on others when times change. Households which had to cut down due to loss of money or access to servants existed then and now; it's totally unclear to me why he couldn't make an argument for hiring everything else done but maintaining a role in child care -- and expanding that role to both parents.

I'm trying to figure out if there's any earthly reason to recommend this book to other people. It wasn't that hard to get a copy used on Amazon and it was quite inexpensive used (shipping plus a very few dollars). I guess I'd say that if you like historical novels set in Victorian or Edwardian England, or watch any of the Nanny shows, or even have a huge hankering for Mary Poppins, this could _really_ do it for you. If you, like me, periodically descend into utter obsession with the details of Women's Work in Times Past, this could _really_ _really_ _really_ do it for you. It's readable enough that I suspect if you picked it up and could deal with random cultural references you _should_ get but haven't a clue about (Curzon? Who? google. Oh. Dude. I _should_ know about this guy.), and were a general reader will really wide ranging tastes, this might be worth your time.

If you _do_ read it, I'd _love_ to hear what you think of it. And if you've read his Kinsey bio, double ditto with jam AND cake.

A little shout-out to one of my readers who shall remain totally anonymous. The pram in this time period was widely used to transport 2+ year old babies/children to and from the park. I'm betting this trend was preserved in some American communities/cohorts for quite a long while. So memories in the pram can't be assumed to predate age 3 by much if at all. Surprise to me!

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