“Tell me, will she spank you, Joey?”
“She’ll kill me,” Joey said simply.
Nanny has been such a blessing to the Fane household, especially after six-year-old Joey’s baby brother died mysteriously under his care. Now, after two years of treatment in a school for disturbed children, Joey is finally coming home. For some reason he’s taken against Nanny. Unfortunate, since his mother relies on her so much.
Nanny always knows the right thing to do, however. She’s determined to stay, and no mere child is going to stop her. But she may have underestimated her opponent…
A taut, menacing novel of suspense, The Nanny is given an extra frisson by the prospect of a homicidal war of nerves between an old lady and a child. The tension comes from being unsure whether Joey is a remorseless killer, an emotionally unstable child, or an innocent victim. Similarly, the manipulative Nanny might be dangerous. Then again, she may simply be an elderly woman desperate to hold onto her home. The result of this uncertainty is a blurring of the line between parent and child, caregiver and killer. The book is at its best when sticking to these themes, before it is derailed by an overly complicated ending.
Nanny is supposed to be on temporary loan to the Fanes. This suits Joey’s father Victor just fine—he can’t wait to give her back. When she was recommended by his English secretary (and Nanny’s former charge) Althea Gore-Green, he assumed Nanny would be caring for the children. Instead, she has turned much of her attention to his wife Virgie, especially after the traumatic death of their toddler. Much to his annoyance, Nanny stays on even when there are no longer any children in the house. Victor feels that “he lost his child and wife on the same day.”
What none of them realize is that Althea had her own motive in finding Nanny another job. At twenty-four, she is tired of being under the thumb of her overprotective mother Penelope, who colludes with Nanny to keep her a little girl forever. Althea has her own adult interests, which include her boss Victor Fane, and she’s desperate to escape Nanny’s clutches and lead her own life.
Similarly, little Joey has learned to be self-sufficient at his progressive school. He wants to choose for himself when to eat, bathe, or take medicine. His independence does not fit into Nanny’s strict Edwardian regime. “Joey is himself,” his social worker at the school worries. “He’s now and she’s the past. He stands for what is putting an end to her kind. He is everything which is wrong to her. He is everything she hates and thinks wrong. She is the perfect picture of an English nanny and Joey is precisely the wrong child to be with a nanny.”
This creates a bizarre situation. The children resist Nanny’s authority, confident in their ability to make their own decisions. It’s the parents who feel increasingly unable to navigate a complicated world. Virgie and Penelope are mothers who do not trust themselves to raise their own children; all they want is to retreat back to the nursery themselves, where everything is simple and Nanny is always there to take care of them. Virgie has grown so helpless she can no longer even dress herself. She just sits there, extending her foot to have a slipper put on. As Nanny brushes her hair, “The brush said, swishing, ‘A child like you? A child cannot take care of a child,’ the brush said. ‘How will you do without Nanny? Without Nanny you’ll do something terrible again.'” Althea is not exactly a sympathetic character, but her assessment of Virgie’s situation is accurate.
“No one knows better than Nanny—except perhaps Victor—that you’re not his wife. You’re nobody’s wife. You’re not even a woman, and who would know that better than Nanny?” Now Miss Gore-Green’s hand went to her breast, but not to stanch a bleeding wound, but rather to show that she was a woman. “Whereas,” she said, “whereas a child—” here she pointed at Virgie’s bare foot, at the raveled robe, at the fair hair lying on Virgie’s shoulders—”only needs a nanny!”
The real love triangle, however, is between Penelope, Virgie, and Nanny. Penelope has been raised by Nanny since she was born. She suffers from a heart condition and believes she can’t get by without Nanny. (Penelope’s inner monologue is wonderfully oblivious. “Really, she thought, if Nanny could only get her mind off that boy, she would notice how very good I’m being!”) She has been counting down the days until Joey’s homecoming, when Nanny would return to her. Penelope doesn’t yet realize that Nanny has no intention of returning, that a younger, needier “child” has replaced her in Nanny’s affections. Still, like a discarded lover, she tries to woo Nanny back from Virgie, adding an unpredictable element into the into the battle between Nanny and Joey.
The character of Nanny (tellingly, her real name is only mentioned once) is like the dark side of Downton Abbey. Virgie is delighted to have a real, old-fashioned English nanny in 1960s Manhattan, without ever spotting the hatreds and resentments hidden behind Nanny’s submissive smile. “How very different Nanny was to these young American parents who are weak in dealing with their children because they need to be loved. Nanny had never needed to know more than that she was doing the right thing,” and yet so much abuse can be administered under the guise of discipline. The reader gets a taste of Nanny’s child-rearing style when she tends to a stranger’s “happy little” baby in Central Park.
“And he’s going to take cold, poor little love,” Nanny said. Reaching down again with a practiced motion, she grasped with her left hand the waving arms and pinned down the small beating legs with her forearm, while her right hand drew the woolly blue blanket up from the foot of the pram. She then tucked the blanket under the mattress bottom, left side, right side, so that, captured and swaddled, the tiny arms and legs writhed and jerked but couldn’t free themselves. “Nanny, Nanny, he doesn’t like being covered!”
“Better not like it than catch cold.”
Nanny appears to be the perfect servant, thinking only of her duty to her employers. She is still a human being, however, with emotions that may come out in ways that Virgie and Penelope never anticipated.
For most of its length The Nanny is everything it should be, a true shocker that is unafraid to examine the darkness and vulnerability of childhood. What at first appears to be a struggle to the death between two equal partners shoots off into unexpected directions, all the way to a surprise ending. That ending is the trouble—not only does it play out implausibly, but everything drags on for so long that the reader has plenty of time to think about how implausible it is. Like the title character herself, The Nanny makes a good impression but finally overstays its welcome.
Kirkus, April 16, 1964
Read on, you will, it’s very preposterous-but still a gruelling bedtime story.