Two for the price of one: Mrs Crabtree introduces…
those familiar with the stories that make up Holiday House.
a disappointing, but not unsurprising result. For although the book was in print for over a century after its first publication in 1839, and although Barbara Willard presided over a reprint in 1972 (and who now is familiar with her?) its best advocate would hardly see it as a popular fare for today’s infant customers. Like many another erstwhile classic it is perhaps heading for oblivion.
But it was, in its way, revolutionary.
Catherine Sinclair, its author, announced at the start that her endeavour was to portray ‘a species of noisy, frolicsome, mischievous children’ as distinct from the educated paragons or the moral delinquents who inhabited many of the children’s books of her time, and she did it con brio. Laura and Harry, her subjects, took their frolicsome attributes to fearsome extremes, the one, at one time, chopping off all her hair while the other set the house on fire.
No matter how drastic their misdemeanours though,
their guardian, Uncle David, is liable to indulge them afterwards with nuts and raisins and comic stories, and it is left to the ‘old vixen’, Mrs Crabtree, ‘governor of the nursery’, to exact a condign retribution. True to the book’s manifesto and against all the rules of the Moral Tale, even Catherine Sinclair sides with her heedless protagonists. At the last however she comes to realise how needful Mrs Crabtree is as a counterpoise to the unrestrained romps that occur in the first half of the book and when she is pensioned off on account of her strictness the children are filled with regret (‘You must stay here as long as you live, and a great deal longer!’ says Harry). Then, as their comedy turns to a comédie larmoyante she becomes a merciful strength in woeful times.
Although Sinclair would have been one hundred and thirty-four
when Mary Poppins first blew in upon the Brown family, her Holiday House Crabtree is easily discernible as a prototype, if not a model, revivified by Pamela Travers. Furthermore, it is more likely to be from her rather than from Travers that Christianna Brand obtained her own representative of the governess classes, Nurse Matilda – called in from nowhere to deal with a vastly more numerous Brown family, whose proclivity to bad behaviour was vastly more determined than that of the wet infants of Cherry Tree Lane.
Accusations of plagiarism
would, it seems, be misplaced, despite the duplicate sets of Browns and the magic ex machina. For although Nurse Matilda did not enter the scene until 1962 as an item in Naughty Children, an anthology compiled by Christianna Brand (sporting a quote from Mrs Crabtree as epigraph), the author attributes the story to her great-grandfather and claims that (as also in the case of Sinclair) the tales were the property of a family circle and came to her in her childhood before the First World War.
‘I am going to write it into a much longer story’
said Brand in Naughty Children and in 1964 Nurse Matilda duly appeared as a fully-fledged book. As such it simply expanded the idea fundamental to the original story: that the unmanageable behaviour of the multitudinous Browns is cured not by stopping it through force majeure but by magically causing it to continue until the children are so sick of it that they plead for intercession.
The formula is exploited
throughout the book’s ten short chapters, ending with a grand reprise as the children dream that they are running away and find themselves wearily revisiting the scenes of their earlier misdeeds. The crude inventiveness of the latter (‘Miss Helen has poured syrup into all the Wellington boots’) and the mock that is made of the hapless household staff ‘behind the baize door’ has a Dahl-like character to it but is free of his tendency to engage in pay-back malice. The constant element in the narrative is Nurse Matilda’s fierce and ugly presence, gradually resolving itself Crabtree fashion into lenity. ‘When they don’t want me but need me, I must stay. When they don’t need me but want me, I must go.’
Just as Miss Poppins returned to her Browns
so too did Nurse Matilda in a couple of sequels: Nurse Matilda Goes to Town (1967) and to Hospital (1974). The formula is not open to much variation though and although Christianna Brand sustains her direct storytelling register pretty well (much helped by distressed interventions by the Baby: ‘Nock wonk my hair cuck!’) the farce, like the recurrent dream races, can get wearisome. What gives every volume an enviable buoyancy however is the design and illustration of the series contributed by Christianna Brand’s cousin Edward Ardizzone. (He too heard the stories in his childhood and the names of some of his children and grandchildren are given to some of the Brown ménage.) Apparently it was his idea to give the books a Victorian air with their small format, gilt-blocked covers, coloured endpapers, and silk book-marks (features all happily retained in the recent excellent reprints published by Bloomsbury). Above all though Ardizzone’s contribution resides in his matchless pen-drawings. The pictorial initials at the start of each chapter, the perfect observation and the placing of his vignettes, constitute an entirely unwearied response to the mayhem with which he and Nurse Matilda have to cope.
With fortuitous timing
this commentary came to be written at the moment when a DVD arrived in town recording Emma Thompson’s movie ‘Nanny McPhee’. It acknowledges its source in the Nurse Matilda books but may occasion some confusion when a paperback ‘Collected Tales’ is found to carry the title Nanny McPhee on its cover and title-page. Confusion may also descend on viewers who turn to the printed texts only after having seen the film when they will thus discover that Mr Brown was not a single dad in danger of being seduced into marriage with a harlot, nor yet that he ended up marrying Evangeline the ‘tweeny-maid’. Nice performance by the Baby though.
In my last-but-one piece on Mary Poppins (BfK No. 156) I mentioned its early success in the United States. As it happens, I have just come by a bibliography of its original publisher’s early years: Of the Making of CXXV Books (Gerald Howe, 1934). This may have been Howe’s own copy since it carries notes on sales figures throughout and has a manuscript entry for Mary Poppins at the end which reads ‘Sold 2500 (America over 25,000)’.
The illustrations by Edward Ardizzone are taken from the 2005 Bloomsbury edition (0 7475 7675 0, £8.99 hbk).
The film tie-in edition, Nanny McPhee: The Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda, is also published by Bloomsbury (0 7475 7899 0, £6.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.