Literary Style: Love, Nina

“Dear Vic… MK uses a kind of basket thing. Like a shopping basket, but soft stuff, like hay not straw, but straw-coloured with muted stripes. Long leather straps over the shoulder and a pickpocket’s dream. I’ve gone on to a longish canvas bag like a plumber’s bag. MK can’t bear to look at it… Will says it’s Pinteresque (which is good and bad). Sam quite likes it, it reminds him of a cricket bag.

College is awkward (bag and shoe-wise). You can’t be girly or you look like a slag, therefore it’s easy to go the other way and be too blokey. The other day I wore a long green cardigan that Mary Hope gave me from a shop called Hobbs where everything’s smart (and good quality) and a bloke in my seminar said I looked ‘luxurious’. And all the girls wanted to try it on. In other words: it was inappropriate.

Love, Nina.”

Nina Stibbe, Love Nina: Despatches from Family Life

So this book is non-fiction, and it’s kind of strange to imagine a wardrobe for a real person, but I loved it too much so I’m not going to let it bother me that much. Love, Nina is a collection of letters written by Nina Stibbe to her sister Victoria while she was working as a nanny in the 80s for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the infamous editor of the London Review of Books. There’s a cast of characters, some of whom you may have heard of before (Alan Bennett pops over for dinner, Stephen Frears are the kids Sam and Will’s inept father, journalist Claire Tomalin hosts the best teas).

But despite this there’s a sense of looking into a life that’s all too familiar: they’re the London literati, but they still have trouble keeping their plants alive and cooking lasagna. It’s comforting, and all too often, rip-roaringly hilarious. There were moments – too many to count – when I burst out in real life laughter in bed while reading it. It’s been a long time since a book made me do that.

Maybe this is the kind of book only parents and/or former nannies will like. I was a nanny when I was at university, and I remember all too well some of Nina’s exasperation at her two charges and their precocious wisdom. “How do you say son of a bitch in German?” one of them asks innocently at the dinner table. The chaos of family life is exactly the kind I love, especially when it is peopled by quirky eccentrics who don’t wear shoes, adopt stray cats off the street and tell lies to get out of trouble. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book where cigarettes were called ‘fags’. I forgot how charming I think that is.

Style is very much secondary to this book – how could it be at the forefront when there are REAL PEOPLE like Alan Bennett wandering in and giving cooking advice – but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend most of the book imagining the kinds of things that Nina wore. And Mary-Kay too; she’s described in the book as being bird-like, very small and thin. I imagined her in lots of Joan Didion-esque outfits. Nina, on the other hand, was cast in an array of slightly more 80s version of what I used to wear as a nanny: overalls and jumpsuits, straight leg jeans and tee shirts, big cosy cardigans and comfortable sandals. Something about being a nanny requires clothes that work. Utilitarian to the core.

These pictures by Nick DeWolf of his French au pair in the 60s (the stripey tee shirt one and the jeans and white tee shirt one) always seemed to me the perfect representation of what being a nanny looked like. Carefree, a little bohemian, with texta marks on your arm and chocolate smears on your shirt.

The thing is, like this book, it’s never about the clothes when you’re a nanny. It’s a way of dressing I strive to emulate in real life: one that recognises that there are more important things to think about. A wardrobe that consists of perfect jeans, comfortable knits and a few dressy pieces “just in case” is kind of the dream.


– Hannah-Rose Yee, Undone Girl


Images via and Tomboy Style

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