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8 August 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 11:43am

Why does fiction so often treat the nanny as a psychopath?

By Annie Lord

In the acknowledgements for his new book The Victorians, Jacob Rees-Mogg thanks The Help. “My troop did not delay my work…as Peter, Mary, Thomas, Anselm, Alfred and Sixtus were kindly looked after by my wife Helena and, of course, nanny”. nanny doesn’t have a name, nor a capital letter to identify her subjective personhood, but nanny is certainly deserving of gratitude. nanny is the grease that keeps the family machine from jamming. nanny is the tissues in the bag, the duster on the light fittings, the serving of the Lemsip. nanny is thanked because, without nanny, it would be impossible for others to reach greatness.

Despite his complete commitment to unreality, Rees-Mogg is disappointingly not a character in a novel. If he were, nanny may well have poisoned him and slept with his father. Unlike the real world, where domestic labourers often fall victim to physical and sexual abuse, as well as racism and working overtime for no extra pay, in literature, nanny often becomes the threat. There, she is the stranger we thought we knew, tearing the family down from the inside.

Ever since people started suspecting that the life-sucking ghosts in Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, were a figment of the governess’s psychopathic nightmares, tales of evil nannies have gripped audiences. In Seth Holt’s The Nanny (1965), Bette Davis plays an evil biddy, drowning the pretty daughter in the bathtub, poisoning the mother’s steak and kidney pie and suffocating rosy-cheeked boys with pillows. In psychological thriller Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) the Mott family’s nanny is hitting heads with shovels and breaking legs in the blood-soaked pursuit of vengeance. Then there’s The Simpsons episode where the ‘babysitter bandit’ tiptoes around the cellar hunting down Bart and Lisa, her voice thin and slippery, cooing: “time to brush your teeth, wash your face and say your prayers.” 

Over the past few years, a number of books concerning nannies have been published. Most notably Leïla Slimani’s Prix Goncourt-winning Lullaby and in the next month, Madeline Steven’s Devotion. How do they bring new light to the figure of the nanny, do they manage to empathise with the role or is it just more psychopaths smothering the children?

In Lullaby, nanny Louise is better at her job than Mary Poppins (that is, until she stabs the baby with a sushi knife). She is the invisible glue that holds the fragile edifice of family together. She scrapes hair back into neat ballet buns, hangs little bags of lavender between coats, and cooks meals so tasty (“ham hock with sage and delicious vegetables”) that food never has to be forced down throats. She cleans and organises, sewing “the buttons back onto jackets that they haven’t worn for months because they’ve been too lazy to look for a needle.” She immerses herself in the world of play, building the kids an Indian tepee, telling them that the algae floating in the pond is witches hair, folding her body into a washing basket for another endless game of hide and seek. 

Louise has nothing of her own except a mounting pile of debts. She has no life outside her employment, no music to fill her ears, no friends to make her laugh, no husband to make her dinner. Her body is a useless cadaver when left alone. She either vegetates in front of a true-crime documentary or furiously cleans her apartment, scrubbing her lamp with such force that “the dust falls in big grey flakes into her hair”. Sometimes she just waits for Myriam and Paul to need her again, sitting on her plastic slip-covered sofa, her lashes mascaraed, skin powdered, hands clasped together in prayer as she waits for a call. Somewhere between a wounded lover and a heathen waiting for forgiveness. Faced with the long slow stretch of a day without them she is injured: “A sort of shapeless, painful magma burns her insides and it takes an effort of will to stop herself from screaming.” Louise’s fate recalls that of Nanny Hawkins in Brideshead Revisited, who even after the children have grown up and left, lives in the nursery among the choo-choo trains, silently thumbing rosary beads and dreaming of how sweet it was to hold a warm baby against her chest.

Aware of how quickly she could be disposed of, Louise hopes Miriyam and Paul will have another baby; a screaming, puking, blessing that would keep them reliant upon her services. If only upper-class women still used milk nurses. She cooks Myriam “spicy soups” “cinnamon rice pudding” and other dishes reputed to increase fertility. She watches Myriam’s body for signs of pregnancy, swollen breasts, glossy hair, glowing skin. She rifles through bin bags, recites incantations, and washes underwear by hand. Until one evening Louise is left distraught after finding a spot of red drying on the green and white bathroom tiles. With the family not offering her another baby to tend, she ends up killing the one they already have.

Unlike Louise who suddenly snaps, the nanny in Devotion, Elle, is a psychopath from page one. As a kid, she watched slasher horror films and walked into the forest with her friends to make blood pacts. When a man points her towards the church of a religious cult where several nuns were killed and dumped in the river, she walks around it several times at night as though praying a priest would drag her in there kicking and screaming.

Elle is also resentful of her position in the shadows of the family unit. She is bored of picking up gurgling baby William and wiping the mushed banana from his cheeks, instead, she wants to replace Lonnie, the mother of the family, to transmogrify into her flesh, take her big house and hot husband. Days after entering her employers’ Upper East Side home, Elle starts making an inventory of Lonnie’s belongings in a notebook as though commodities hold the key to her essence. Elle rifles through the junk draw in the kitchen and writes down its contents, “light bulbs, batteries, rubber bands…” in the shower caddy she sees a nameless goo-filled jar, “I ran the product between my fingers, tasted it with the tip of my tongue – coconut oil and salt.” When she finds Lonnie’s dried up chewing gum in the wastepaper bin Elle puts it in her mouth so it becomes “soft and sticky again”. 

For a while, it seems like Elle might be succeeding in this feat of body-snatching. Dressed in Lonnie’s white linen dresses, pink lip gloss and moisturiser, the two women go to an artists’ retreat together and swap roles, with Lonnie pretending to be the nanny in front of the other guests. The family host a Labour Day party at their Hamptons home and the two women take ecstasy together and Elle lets her mind imagine she is inhabiting Lonnie’s body. While the rain pours down, they splash around in a swimming pool and when they climb back into the cold air, Elle notices Lonnie’s goose-pimpled, jaw-clenched, shivering body, as if it were her own, “I could feel her own heart rate.” When Lonnie’s angry dad approaches them to reproach their classless behaviour, “be careful” Elle whispers, “Dad” as though he really were her own father. They even start to move the same way, “stepping lightly, in sync, down a hallway” and fear grips them when they are apart, even if only for the length of a toilet break. 

Elle becomes a disease the family can’t shake, her actions becoming erratic and unpredictable. While she enjoys feeling like an established part of the family unit, they see her as a parasite. She has come out of the shadows and now they see her mopping up baby sick, watching baby monitors, her personal life spilling out into the open. It’s improper, children can be seen and heard, their nannies should be neither. 

The idea of something putrid lurking in the cosy familiarity of home is enticing. Books with dangerous nannies work because there is a real fear of them in our world. In the late Noughties, parents began buying nanny cams and nanny spies record those looking after their children. This is invented paranoia as opposed to any actual epidemic of dangerous nannies. In fact, nannies seem to be falsely accused of violence far more often than they are actually convicted. In 1999 Louise Woodward was falsely accused of murdering a baby in her care – after a lengthy appeal, highlighting injuries the baby had sustained several weeks earlier, her sentence was commuted to involuntary manslaughter and Woodward was freed. In 1991 a New York family accused their au pair Olivia Riner of killing their child via arson because of not attempting to rescue the baby when the house started to burn. She was eventually acquitted. 

By laying bare the struggles of existing in the liminal space between employee and family member – of only being invited to dinner as a treat, of being second best to the warmth of mum – these books sympathise with the plight of pathological nannies. But they also airbrush out many of the concrete concerns that domestic labourers face: that of low pay and long hours, of badly behaved kids and even worse parents. Most nannies would like to return to their own families than join someone else’s. The one that lives far away that they can’t afford to pay to go and see. Lullaby is based on the real-life actions of Yoselyn Ortega, though the contextual details of the case Slimani departs from are telling. Where Louise is white, Ortega was Dominican. Where Louise had reams of perfect references, Ortega had fabricated hers in an attempt to flee a punishing factory job.

The evil is not nanny, but the way society treats her. A book that confronted poor labour conditions might be harder to stomach than a psychopath plotting to kill because then we might actually have to confront our own ills and not nannies. We would need more than a spoon full of sugar to make that medicine go down.

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