We are trying to persuade our lovely neighbours to use us as baby-sitters so that they go out together for the first time in more than a year. Better not give their darling children a copy of Mary Rayner’s Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out then. Even better than Mr Pig wondering why his best shirt no longer seems to fit so well is the sinister image of the baby-sitter’s long, hairy legs as she goes upstairs to the children. I don’t want to give the plot away, but the fact that she is called Mrs Wolf should give you some idea (and for those of you who love to ponder these things, it is the NorthernReader’s contention that this is a book about the Holocaust. No, really it is).
Looking after children has tended to get a bad press in books. Yes, I know Jane Eyre ends up marrying the boss, but you must admit she has to jump through an awful lot of hoops to do so. And, in Emma, Jane Fairfax (you don’t have to be called Jane to be a governess, but it helps) is pretty clear-sighted about how soul-destroying, character-eroding and fraught with sexual and social danger the job can be. Agnes Grey also has a loathsome time at the hands of her horrible little charges (let’s face it, the Brontë sisters did not gush about children. There is, in fact, no compelling evidence that they could stand the little poppets). Elizabeth Gaskell, famously the friend of Charlotte Brontë (and how infuriating to go down in history as someone else’s chum) very cleverly has it both ways in the altogether enjoyable Wives and Daughters, which features both an unscrupulous and husband-hunting governess and a sweet loving nursery-maid who is not only French (gasp!) but Catholic (gasp! Gasp!). At the head of all her tribe, of course, stands the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Un-named and of uncertain temperamental stability, I would have thought that the Situations Vacant columns in The Lady might have seen a bit of a lull after publication, but perhaps the nanny-hiring set and the Henry James-reading set never did overlap very much. Still, it might not be a coincidence that a few years after The Turn of the Screw was published, Mr Darling preferred to employ a Newfoundland dog as nanny for Wendy, Michael and John.
PL Travers’ Mary Poppins was a pleasingly cantankerous old bat, with more than a little in common with her progenitor, and not much like Julie Andrews – although it must be acknowledged that Miss Andrews’ great strength, whether as M Poppins or as the – don’t you think? – exploited child-minder Maria in The Sound of Music is that she notably lacks the saccharine touch. The line between servile doormat and monstrous tyrant can be a thin one, with, if we are to believe the world of fiction, not much in the way of between-ground. So one is either brought up by Christopher Robin’s nanny, who sounds a bit of a sap, frankly, or by Miss Havisham, which must have had its exhilarating moments but also more in common than you might like with Mowgli’s child-care arrangements.
Being brought up by wolves, as it happens, has had its moments in the sun. The poster-boys for this experiment in trans-species nurturing are of course Romulus and Remus, who, let me remind you, are fictional (and therefore grist to our mill). Tarzan, too, is raised in the jungle (and let me tell, you, it took me years and years to realise that ‘jungle’ and ‘rain-forest’ are the same thing: a moment of realisation, I might add, in which my world got suddenly a bit smaller and a bit less colourful). But I doubt there are many takers for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books these days, not least because all that white-supremacist stuff makes uneasy reading (try the film Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, which avoids that while being otherwise quite close to the original and also stars Ralph Richardson’s memorable eyebrows).
So, child-rearing is far from easy and we need help. ‘How-to’ books on parenting have come and gone and shaped generations: were you a Dr Spock baby (quite different from being a Mr Spock baby)? Or a Penelope Leach alumna? No, better perhaps to get our tips on good parenting from such joys as the mothers in The Railway Children and Swallows and Amazons, who trust their children and treat them with respect, or from Mr Bennett, who has his faults but does at least let Lizzie know that he loves her. A cheer or two for the parent in Martin Waddell’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? Because he is – well, a he – and caring and nurturing and all those other good role models for little boys. But perhaps the best child-minder of them all, as he waltzes in, stirs their little minds up like scrambled eggs and whooshes off again, is the splendid, anarchic lexiphile – here he comes now, to a bedtime near you – ladies and gentlemen, the purveyor of Green Eggs and Ham, it’s ol’ Black-Dots-for-Eyes himself……. The Cat in the Hat. It’s enough to make you glad you never grew up.