Our Favorite Fictional Nannies

P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins

A few years ago, nanny reality shows were a fixture on prime-time television. British nannies, to be exact, unsurprising considering our fascination with the most British nanny of them all. Though their TV counterparts came to a predictable end, we still love the colorful caregivers of literature. Here are some of our favorites:

Mary Poppins
It all started with the series of books by P.L. Travers, first published in 1934. Since then, the story about a magical nanny who is blown by an East wind to Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane has been turned into a hit Disney musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (who could forget that accent?), as well as a blockbuster Broadway production. The books, however, differ from their later incarnations in a few ways, most notably Mary’s treatment of the Banks children (in the books, she’s a bit mean) and her more inconspicuous use of magic.  Fans of the original gravity-defying nanny (and her amazing accessories) should check out Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, a biography that inspired the new film Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney’s efforts to adapt Travers’ series for the big screen.

Nanny McPhee (aka Nurse Matilda)
Most of us know this dour, wart-covered lady from the movies of the same name. But before the movies there was Nurse Matilda, a nanny whose stories inspired the McPhee films, and have been compiled into  The Collected Stories of Nurse Matilda.  Yes, there are some similarities between Nurse Matilda and Mary Poppins—including magical gifts and a penchant for accessories—but there’s a huge difference between the two. Nurse Matilda uses magic to teach her ill-behaved charges a lesson (if, for example, a child fakes an illness, that child might later find herself in the hospital). For more on the Poppins vs. McPhee matchup, here’s what McPhee actress Emma Thompson has to say about it. Burn!

Aibileen Clark
Aibileen, the nanny/maid from The Help, might not be magical in the Poppins sense, but the tenderness she shows for emotionally neglected Mae Mobley is nothing short of otherworldly. When Aibileen documents her life story for Skeeter, we come to understand just how many children she cared for and raised, undoubtedly instilling the same sense of self-worth in them as she did in Mae Mobley.

Ole Golly
What’s not to love about Ole Golly?  As the nanny for doggedly curious child spy Harriet M. Welsch, Ole Golly is stoic and seemingly unflappable (even when being fired by a livid Mrs. Welsch). Ole Golly encourages Harriet to pursue her interest in “remembering everything” and “knowing everything” by writing in notebooks.  She also doesn’t shy away from calling attention to the young sleuth’s judgmental and headstrong tendencies, telling her, “There are as many ways to live in the world as there are people in it, and each one deserves a closer look.” This makes Ole Golly the perfect sounding board for Harriet, a girl who’s ready to take on the world.

Jane Eyre
Oh, Jane. If only Care.com had been around when she was searching for a governess position—maybe she would have thought twice about signing on at Thornfield Hall! Well, probably not, since people aren’t inclined to mention the mentally ill wife they’ve locked in the attic when searching for childcare applicants. But before all of the Mr. Rochester business began,  Jane proved a very capable governess to Adele Varens.

Who’s your favorite nanny/babysitter/governess in fiction?

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