Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Bloomsbury 2005 (1964)
And as they spoke — lo and behold! — there was a knock at the door, and there stood a small, stout figure dressed in rusty black; and she said, ‘Good evening, Mr and Mrs Brown, I am Nurse Matilda.’
She was very ugly — the ugliest person you ever saw in your life!
With this unpreposessing description we are introduced to a character who had figured in stories told over generations in the author’s family. In Nurse Matilda and its sequels Christianna Brand gives her version of a type of governess that would have been familiar in Victorian and Edwardian times, dressed in ‘rusty black’, stern in manner and almost witch-like; yet beneath a harsh exterior one hopes for a matronly individual with children’s best interests at heart.
The Brown household consists of the parents, the regular assortment of staff, and “a huge family of children; and they were terribly, terribly naughty.” Terribly naughty is almost an understatement: an uncountable number of Brown offspring (the author dares the reader to identify them all) are the most devilish of imps in hell you can imagine, over whom their parents and an endless succession of despairing “nurses and nannies and governesses” are unable to exercise any control.
But the arrival (only marginally less spectacular than that of Mary Poppins) of the much vaunted Nurse Matilda “in rusty black” promises to put a damper on the mayhem; a sharp rap on the floor with her big black stick — a counterpart of the more famous parrot-headed umbrella — is ever the prelude to the children learning lessons the hard way. “Your children will require seven lessons,” the parents are told, and that’s what the little terrors get.
The heroine of this book is undoubtedly the title character, but one who appears the least appropriate. Her hair is scraped into a bun like a teapot handle, her eyes are like black boot buttons; yet despite a nose like two potatoes and a huge front tooth like a tombstone she outshines every other individual in the story, and when she is absent for a few pages you miss her.
This little gem is such a delight, and in more ways than one. My first impression is that this is an ideal book to be read aloud to children at bedtime, a chapter at a time over ten days. Any moralistic pill to be swallowed is sugared with the sheer irrepressible excitement of children behaving badly — cutting off pigtails, displaying dreadful table manners, teasing the servants, dressing up animals in their Sunday best — along with the repeated phrases, casual cruelty and obsession with food that characterise favourite fairytales, plus the extravagant lists which gleefully pile Pelion on Ossa. Young listeners will appreciate the drawn-out inevitability of repercussions following the Brown offspring being given enough rope to, as it were, hang themselves.
Then of course the eye is mightily entertained by the line illustrations supplied by the inimitable Edward Ardizzone who, it turns out, was the author’s cousin. The dust jacket flaps of this Bloomsbury edition provide enchanting photos of both artist and author as Edwardian children while the board binding also features the jacket’s image embossed in gold, but it is the inside drawings that really draw the eye.
If the plot outline of Nurse Matilda sounds familiar it’s because it was adapted for the Nanny McPhee films, the title changed no doubt to avoid confusion with Roald Dahl’s book Matilda and its film and musical spin-offs. While the screen versions were admirable nothing, in my opinion, beats the theatre of the imagination when this story is read or listened to.
Amidst the hilarity there may be the odd tear or two as the implications of Nurse Matilda’s early warning dawns on the audience:
‘The more they don’t want me,’ said Nurse Matilda, ‘the more they must need me. When my children don’t want me, but do need me: then I must stay. When they no longer need me, but they do want me: then I have to go.’
And, after “the ugliest person you ever saw” has her final apotheosis, the children’s rewards for bettering themselves are some recompense for their sadness at losing her.