THE ROYAL NANNY
The Royal Nanny by Karen Harper is what is called a book of faction – this means it combines truth with fiction. The dialogue is made up, but many of the events and people actually existed. In this case, the Royal Nanny, Charlotte Bill, was the Nanny to the offspring of the Duke and Duchess of York of England during the years 1897 to approximately 1919.
When Charlotte arrives at Sandringham, the Prince of Wales (David) and his brother Albert (Bertie) are under the watchful eye of the head nanny, Mrs. Peters. When Lala, as Charlotte became known to the boys, discovers that Mrs. Peters is cruel to the boys, she steps in and enlists the help of Lady Dugdale to help her to rectify the situation.
As the years go by and more children are born, we discover what life was like for the Windsor children, Mary, Harry, George and little Johnnie, who had epilepsy. Interspersed with the story of life “Downstairs” Lala falls for the royal groundskeeper despite the fact that people in service are forbidden to marry.
Right from the very beginning, I enjoyed this book. The author has obviously done her homework. Sometimes, I think it can be more difficult to stay within the confines of historical events and characters, rather than make up an entire fictional telling of a story. It’s important to get your facts right when you need to. It is especially difficult when dealing with royalty and the repetition of names throughout the decades. Why just the male children of King George V and Alexandra, alone, all share the royal names of Albert, Edward, and George. And their only daughter is named after her great grandmother Queen Victoria who was christened Alexandra Victoria. I hope I got all that right because it can be quite confusing.
If you enjoyed Downton Abby and Upstairs Downstairs, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy reading about the life of a real life nanny to the then King and Queen of England. We get to view what life was like before electricity and indoor plumbing, and how the children where brought up in isolation from their peers before they were thrust upon the world of life in boarding school, where they were teased unmercifully, especially poor Bertie, who had a stutter.
After watching The King’s Speech with Colin Firth, which details Albert’s (Bertie) struggles to overcome his speech impediment, I am amazed at his courage and fortitude given the life he was forced to live under the tutelage of a cruel nanny (Mrs. Peters) and a father who, while he loved his children, expected his boys to toughen up and showed them very little love and affection.
We also get to see how difficult it was for members of the royal family to live up to the responsibilities, not only to their country, but also against their own inclination. King George V didn’t want to be king any more than his son, King Edward VIII (who abdicated to marry Wallace Simpson) did.
It was also interesting to learn that the House of Windsor, or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as it was known then (the name was changed during the First World War due to anti-German sentiment) had royal relatives all over Europe who were fighting family against family during the war. It was especially poignant to have met some of these relatives in happier days before the war. We became attached to them, only to see the tides of war destroy our initial view of them.
At the heart of this story is Lala’s love for little Johnnie, who had epilepsy. During the beginning of the 20th century, people didn’t understand about epilepsy and if you were royal, it was necessary to hide this fact from the public lest you be seen as weak.
Lala could also be considered a feminist in her struggle to protect the royal children from harm, especially Johnnie, whose own family wanted to send him away. She also made a difficult personal choice that has a far reaching impact on her life.
In the end, we come to see how valuable nannies were to those they cared for. They became a sort of family and were care for and loved by those they served.
So, if you enjoy having a close up look at what it’s like inside the royal family, from the perspective of one who lived it, this book is well worth the read.