Nina Stibbe’s comic memoir, Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home, is a romp through London’s creative upper crust. Set in the 1980s, Stibbe was a 20-year-old stuck in England’s “boring” midlands, when she decided to escape to “glamorous” London to work as a nanny. “I didn’t have any burning ambition to be a nanny,” Stibbe admits; she just couldn’t find another way to get to London.
She’d dropped out of school at age 15 because she was “a bit disgruntled” that she hadn’t gotten into the classes she wanted. Like “boring” and “glamorous,” “a bit disgruntled” are Stibbe’s words. They’re also her words when she admits that she left school “in a huff” and when she later confesses about school:
I thought, what’s in this for me? Nothing’s in it for me. It’s a long bus journey every day. I used to arrive at school feeling a bit nauseous. Ugh. And then when I found I hadn’t been put in the good exam—I was put in sort of the second tier. … And I was just appalled, and thought, oh, well, stop that. I’ll go on 15p an hour doing a job. And I did that. And I had a nice time. A lovely time. I worked in a nursing home with old people. It was brilliant.
But a few years later, her friends who had stayed in school were leaving the midlands for college and Stibbe wanted to leave too. Love, Nina begins as she arrives in London and starts her job as nanny to the two sons of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. The memoir consists solely of Stibbe’s letters to her sister Victoria, as Stibbe tries to explain “this world that I’ve ended up in.”
Stibbe confesses to “exaggerating and tweaking” her letters to ensure they weren’t dull. And when she reads them now, she says she wonders, “Did that happen? Or am I lying?”
They’re legit questions because, as Stibbe admits now, “Half the time I’m telling fibs to Mary Kay. I’m telling the kids to fib.…I’m crushing the car and telling them they can’t tell her.”
Indeed, the theme of Love, Nina is truth and lies and lies and truth, the very topics discussed in an autobiography and fiction course Stibbe took in college. (Through the influence of the creative elite who flowed through the Wilmer household—such as playwright Alan Bennett, director Jonathan Miller, and biographer Claire Tomalin—Stibbe decided to go to college, which she considers the growth of her character over the course of the memoir.)
In fact, Stibbe frequently writes to her sister about truth and lies. At one point, she tells Vic that “writing truthfully is very hard.” A paragraph or two later she writes, “It’s sort of: to tell the truth, you have to lie a bit.” Five pages later she says, “There’s always a lot of autobiography in fiction and fiction in autobiography. It has to be that way otherwise they’d be unreadable (except by the author).”
Stibbe even ends the book on a lie as she recounts that she falsely filled out questionnaires for her boyfriend Nunney’s thesis research and never told him. Even her discussion of Nunney is a lie by omission, because she never admits to her sister—and thus the reader—that they’re dating. “I never would have written it in a letter to her,” Stibbe says now. For one thing, she and Vic didn’t talk about such matters. For another thing, “I was always trying to be cool, I think.”
In fact, what may be most interesting about Love, Nina is the untold back story that had to be left out due to the epistolary structure of the book. And that riveting tale is about her wealthy family, which became “very, very poor” during Britain’s 1970s recession. “We sort of had a complete turnaround from living with horses and swimming pools…,” she says. “And what was quite interesting looking back is that my mother had to suddenly go to work instead of lazing around and drinking alcohol and having affairs. Suddenly she was driving a laundry van. So it was quite interesting, and it was interesting how relieved we were just to be ordinary.”
But readers won’t have to wait long to read that story, because it will be Stibbe’s next book, written as a novel, as she claims she’s stopped lying.
“There was a group of us talking about how when you’re younger you sometimes think it might be easier to tell a little lie and actually what a trap they nearly always are and how liberating the truth always, always is,” she says. “So it surprised me to look back and see just how many little—” And suddenly she stops the sentence and begins a new one. “But then I’m quite honest about my lies.… I don’t think I was a sly liar.”
No. But she was a funny one.
Suzy Spencer is the author of Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, a memoir.