Stacey Bartlett: Nannies are quite often a ‘middle class luxury’ - what made you decide to base your novel on one in 2011?
Fiona Neill: I was intrigued by the ambiguity of a character who observes family life intimately from the inside, without actually belonging. Nannies are privvy to many intimate aspects of a household that people would rather keep to themselves, particularly those nannies who live in with the children in their care. They witness arguments, overhear conversations, and absorb the daily triumphs and tensions of family life. Their presence is taken for granted and as such their employers almost unconsciously place an enormous amount of trust in their diplomacy and discretion.
Their role is very complex: sometimes they are required to take decisions that many parents would find challenging. The nanny in my novel is working for a very wealthy, privileged family in central London. She is a student who becomes a nanny to clear her debts and comes from a coastal town in Norfolk. The lifestyle of the family where she goes to work is totally removed from her own. They have multiple homes, take frequent foreign holidays and have a whole staff looking after their daily needs. WIthout revealing too much of the plot, the nanny in What the Nanny Saw finds herself witness to a crime and has to decide whether to reveal what she knows to the police or keep the information to herself.
SB: What do you think it means to be a 21st century nanny?
FN: I think in some respects the role of nannies in the UK is reverting to its traditional historic stereotype, particularly among very affluent foreigners who have moved to London over the past 15 years. Nannies in these households are not unlike Victorian nannies who deal solely with children, while responsibility for all other aspects of running a large house rests with other staff (cooks, housekeepers, drivers and ground staff), and among this elite British nannies still have a lot of cachet. Some of the nannies I interviewed were also acting as tutors to their charges in a similar way to an old fashioned governess. They were responsible for giving extra tuition and making sure that homework was completed properly. Most agreed that they were treated very differently to other members of the household. They were obviously paid more, but also were more likely to be asked to eat with the family or introduced to visitors. Salaries of more than £60,000 are not uncommon, and nannies in these positions are utterly professional, with proper qualifications and a sense of vocation about their work. Many see their role as trying to introduce a degree of normality into the lives of the children they look after.
SB: Would you have a nanny?
FN: When I went back to work after the birth of my first child I employed a nanny to look after my son three days a week but she failed to turn up on the first day I was due back at the office, so I ended up roping in my mother-in-law for a couple of days a week and using a nursery for the other two. When I stopped working full time at The Times and went back to writing features, I had much more flexibility and created a patchwork of child care involving my cleaning lady, mother-in-law and a Slovakian former au pair. If I was working full time out of the home then I would definitely employ a nanny if it was financially viable. I now employ someone to help out after school so that I can work a full day. In the holidays her daughter, a student, also helps out. But I still sometimes rely on my mother-in-law. It's fair to say that without her I would never have been able to keep working.
SB: What do you think the big fascination with nannies is all about?
FN: I think nannies who work for well known people fascinate us because we know they have the inside scoop on intimate details of their lives and we live in a culture that is obsessed with celebrity. There have been a couple of scandals involving nannies that have grabbed media attention, Jude Law's affair with his children's nanny for example, but actually it is significant how rarely these nannies betray the trust of their employers. Sometimes this is because they have signed confidenitality agreements but mostly because they tend to always work for celebrities and they know that loyalty is paramount if they want references for a new job.
SB: If you had to be a nanny to any famous couple who would it be?
FN: If I had to be a nanny I'd definitely work abroad, preferably in Latin America because I'm a Spanish speaker and have lived there before. I've never been to Cuba and I think it would be really interesting to work for someone like Fidel Castro because he'd probably treat me well and I'd get to meet some really interesting people.
What the Nanny Saw by Fiona Neill is published by Michael Joseph, 18th August, £7.99, paperback original.