Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: Despatches From a Domestic Life is a memoir with a literary and arty cast of characters,
Front and centre is Mary-Kay Wilmers, the long-time editor of the London Review of Books, Stibbe’s boss in the early 1980s. Alan Bennett is the next door neighbour who pops over for supper every night. Wilmers’ friends Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn have a place around the corner. The opera and theatre director Jonathan Miller is another neighbour—and is very generous in lending tools, as they are rarely returned. Deborah Moggach lives across the street. Filmmaker Karel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” Reisz is a frequent dinner guest.
An impressive line-up, but not to Stibbe. She became nanny to Wilmers’ two boys Sam and Will Frears (their father is film director Stephen Frears) in 1982, coming to London from rural Leicestershire when she was a callow 20. “I didn’t even think they were that important or grand,” Stibbe says of Wilmers’ group. “Where I’m from really posh people didn’t live in a terraced house, they had huge detached houses with stables and horses. I remember phoning my mother and saying: ‘Oh, Alan Bennett came for tea; I think he’s some sort of playwright.’”
The joy of Love, Nina is that it is what you could call an unfiltered memoir, comprised of actual letters Stibbe wrote to her sister Victoria over five years, describing her London life and peppered with Stibbe’s pitch perfect ear for dialogue and character. Bennett is witty and avuncular, though a busybody when it came to Stibbe’s cooking (“I really oversold how good a cook I was at the interview,” she admits). Wilmers emerges as the book’s hero: acerbic, fiercely intelligent, a devoted mother.
Yet the two boys are the headline acts. Sam was 10, Will nine when Stibbe began working for Wilmers. They are football obsessed—Stibbe was initially refused the job because she supported Leicester City, not West Ham—bookish, impish and extremely bright. Their back and forth with Stibbe seems as if scripted by Woody Allen: “Dear Vic: Back in London. AB [Bennett] was away and did not require supper. Me: Where is AB? Sam: He’s gone to Coventry. Me: Literally or metaphorically? Sam: I hate it when you say things like that. Me: Literally or metaphorically? Will: He literally hates it!”
While Love, Nina will appeal to those who care about the London literary set, that quite frankly is a very limited readership. Its true strength is Stibbe’s comedic touch about universal themes of family life and of someone going out in the wider world for the first time.
Stibbe felt stifled in her early life, finding London a release: “In the village where I lived the general feeling was you had to behave a certain way and varying from that was deemed neurotic. The thing I liked most about Mary-Kay and her group was their broad-mindedness—they were interested in everything.”
She was a school leaver (“not for any really significant reason; I didn’t enjoy it and got car sick and didn’t really like the bus journey”), and part of Love, Nina is Stibbe’s intellectual journey, when she begins her academic career at Thames Poly (now the University of Greenwich). There is also a sweet budding romance with Tomalin and Frayn’s assistant, Mark Nunney.
Shortly after graduating from Thames Poly and leaving the Wilmers, Stibbe moved into a career in publishing, first as a marketing assistant at Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, which she applied for largely because the office was in her beloved Camden (Stibbe also impressed the interviewer by name-dropping Bennett). She next worked as a rep for the Open University Press, then as a commissioning editor at Routledge, before she and Nunney (yes, still her partner) decamped to Cornwall in the early Noughties after they had their second child.
A bit of chance enabled Love, Nina to see the light of day. Stibbe’s sister was moving house and discovered a box with all the letters. Meanwhile, the writer Andrew O’Hagan was putting together a book of tributes to Wilmers, and asked Stibbe to contribute. Initially stumped for what to write, Stibbe provided a couple of letters which went down a treat, especially when O’Hagan read them out at the launch party.
When she was approached by Penguin, Stibbe sent the whole tranche of letters to Wilmers and Sam and Will Frears. “The boys loved them, but Mary-Kay did have serious misgivings. I think ‘Christ no, don’t publish’ was the first thing she said. Stepping back, though, she liked the whole thing.”
Stibbe has already finished her next project, a first novel called Man at the Helm, rights of which have already been sold to Penguin and in the US and Germany.
Semi-autobiographical (“it’s about my mother’s, um, unorthodox style of parenting”), it is a book Stibbe mentions she is working on during Love, Nina.
What saddens Stibbe is that Love, Nina would probably never be written by a young nanny in a similar situation today owing to the decline in letter writing and our changing ways of communicating. “Even with my kids, I’ve recently stopped making them write thank you letters, letting them do it by email. I did carry on writing letters quite late, but then I started to feel eccentric. Somehow emails don’t last, they’re just not forever. Letter writing is a dying art.”