Look what you might fish up if you advertise for a nanny

By Anne Sebba, The Lady, November 22nd 2013

Most people who advertise for a nanny in the hallowed columns of The Lady classified advertisements are looking for just that. But 60 or so years ago, when the novelist Enid Bagnold advertised for a nanny for Annabel, her granddaughter, Samantha Cameron’s then 3 year old mother, she also found the idea for a play. ‘The Chalk Garden’   became the most successful play she ever wrote and, since it offers two terrific parts for older actresses, is regularly revived.

There is something of an Enid Bagnold moment right now as her novel The Squire * has just been republished by Persephone Books and my biography of her ** is newly republished by Faber Finds.

In 1952 Enid was living in Rottingdean, Sussex and rather feted as the highly successful author of National Velvet, which had just been made into a film with 12 year old Elizabeth Taylor. The household consisted of her retired husband, Sir Roderick Jones, former head of Reuters, her brilliant son Timothy, who had lost a leg at Anzio, his beautiful young wife Pandora and Annabel.  Pandora had been just seventeen at the time of the wedding in January, 1948 and became a mother seven months later. Although her parents, Sir Bede and Lady Clifford, prominent Roman Catholics, were rigidly opposed to the match, Enid decided that such young love was wonderfully romantic. She adored Pandora, loved all the paraphernalia associated with babies and giving birth – she had had four children herself – and so took charge of the young couple, offering them a home until Timothy was established as a barrister.

But even though she saw the newly enlarged Jones family as a sort of ‘private club,’ and told Cecil Beaton she felt ‘more Queen-Bee-ish than ever,’ she needed domestic help more than ever and in post-war England that was not always easy.

So she advertised in the local Sussex papers not precisely for a nanny but for a ‘Lady,’ without specifying any qualifications and was deluged. She said later it felt as if all the originals and castaways of Hove and Brighton had come out of their single rooms to present themselves at her door. But one applicant  stood out and was hired. She had ‘a high Roman nose and white hair’ and she lived, according to Enid, in a sort of inner silence in which she tried to enfold the child, never entering conversation if she could help it. Enid was intrigued by her, especially when one day a judge friend, Sir James Cassels came to lunch and told a story of a woman with a life sentence and what became of her. The new nanny, at a separate table with Annabel, had her back to the judge but nonetheless showed a strange, almost trembling, interest.

“She not only turned around, she came right round as a ship turns and you see its bowsprit.”

From this strange action Enid, with her novelist’s imagination, invented a past for this woman. Had she been someone whom Cassels himself had condemned to death but who had, on appeal, had her sentence commuted to life imprisonment? Enid was fascinated by the mind of a murderess, not a cold- blooded serial killer, but ‘a woman who committed a murder which could be remotely sympathetic’ and so, bizarrely, retained the murderess-turned- governess working in the Jones household.  History does not relate for how long nor the possible effect she had on her young charge. But Enid had strong ideas on the nursery routine, including the need for breastfeeding,  and so educating the young mind was something she would never entirely relinquish to anyone she employed.  She was fascinated by what she called ‘staff’, but always complained, for example, that the housemaids were ‘unsettled’ and worried about the effect this had on family life.

What is clear from the play, revived most recently with enormous success by Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse and seen by David and Samantha Cameron, is that Enid saw herself living in a matriarchy in which men played secondary roles. She believed that motherhood gave her a moral authority denied to men and that the most important decisions in life were taken by women. Since Annabel is currently one of the UK’s most successful businesswomen running the furniture store OKA that she co-founded and Samantha was creative director of the Bond Street stationer, Smythson, before she became wife of the British Prime Minister, it seems that Enid may have succeeded in instilling a sense of more than just moral authority in her offspring.

Anne Sebba is giving the Ninth Persephone Lecture on Enid Bagnold – Writer and Mother at the October Gallery on November 28th. For tickets please phone Persephone Books on +44 (0)20 7242 9292

*The Squire  by Enid Bagnold  Persephone Books £12.00

**Enid Bagnold : A Life by Anne Sebba Faber Finds £12.80