Downton Abbey, like many great British family sagas, features a wicked nanny. Did you see the austere portrait of Queen Mary in the servants’ quarters downstairs?
That was Wicked Nanny’s cue.
Mary of Teck’s trials with nannies were recorded by her oldest son, the abdicating Edward VIII. According to him, one had been dismissed for insolence, another for abuse. Both boys were allegedly pinched to make them cry so that a return trip to the nursery was necessary. Little Bertie might have been starved. All were reported by an assistant, the undernurse, Nanny Bill.
In Downton Abbey, Nanny West got sacked for calling Sybil’s daughter a “wicked little cross-breed.” Her role was rather brief. I suspect she was a device to set up the viewer’s sympathy for her successor, who very well may do something really naughty.
Nannies during the Regency used to be called nurses. They had enormous influence over their young charges in the nursery. Happy was the family who could trust such a servant, and having found one they might retain her to stay on for future generations.
Nurses figured largely in the literature of the time. They might be intimate confidantes, mentors, or providers of safe refuge for their former charges, now grown up yet fleeing to them in times of adversity.
Indeed, one might have a mother but ’tis better to have a nurse:
Save the child–give it a truer mother, the domestic nurse, who possesses the equanimity of humble station, whose self-interest is more vigilant and attentive, and (such is the providence of nature) whose attachment often grows more maternal than that of the mother herself. — The Belfast Monthly Magazine, July, 1811
Worries over the nurse’s abilities seemed minor:
A child that is much danced about, and much talked to, by a very lively nurse, has many more ideas than one that is kept by a silent and indolent person. A nurse should be able to talk nonsense in abundance, but then she should know when to stop. — “On the Progressive Development of the Faculties of Children,” by Elizabeth Hamilton as printed in The Lady’s Magazine 1802
My favorite nurse from the Regency is featured in Heyer’s Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle. Even when she is not in the scene, Nurse’s absence is rendered quite acute.
The following passage finds the pompous dandy, Sir Nugent Fotherby, attempting to placate his stepson’s demands. He has just sawed off one of the buttons from his elegant coat:
‘No need to cry, dear boy! Here’s your button!’
The sobs ceased abruptly; Edmund emerged from the blanket, tearstained but joyful. ‘Button, Button,’ he cried, stretching out his arms. Sir Nugent put the button into his hand.
There was a moment’s silence, while Edmund, staring at this trophy, realized to the full Sir Nugent’s perfidy. To blinding disappointment was added just rage. His eyes blazing through his tears he hurled the button from him, and casting himself face downward gave way to his emotions….
Fortunately, the noise of his lamentations reached Phoebe’s ears. She came quickly into the cabin, and upon being assured by Sir Nugent that so far from bullying his son-in-law, he had ruined one of his coats to provide him with the button he so insistently demanded…
(Phoebe) said contemptuously, ‘I should have thought you must have known better! He means his nurse, of course!’