Nanny Brown’s Scrapbook: photography by Jackie Norman
An Edwardian blog . . .
I was asked to photograph an album and was handed a battered Scrapbook with pasted in cards, cuttings and photographs. I flipped through and read ‘Hearty Greetings’, ‘A Cargo of Good Wishes’, ‘With Love from Nicky and Mandy’, ‘I married in May’. So far so ordinary. I then discovered that the author of the scrapbook, Grace Brown, went to a Memorial Service for Queen Victoria in January 1901, collected flower pictures, and glued in sermons exhorting people to fight their worst impulses. OK, I have the picture of a typical late Victorian woman. Then I turned over a letter at random and read ‘Frank escaped deportation by the skin of his teeth and in March was fighting in Germany with the United Nations…’ I realised I was holding an extraordinary testimony of someone who witnessed and recorded cataclysmic events spanning over fifty years from the death of Queen Victoria to the Holocaust.
Grace Brown, however, was not directly active in these events: she was not even a passive spectator, but she was a recipient of information about how it affected the lives of others. The Scrapbook is an Edwardian Blog, although paradoxically a mute one. As a children’s Nanny, she did not voice her own opinions. We see nothing that she wrote or drew, except dates marked when she replied to a letter. Everything in her scrapbook is information that has travelled in one direction only: to her, yet it still functions as a Blog. She would probably feel far too exposed if she had written a diary, and anyway it would be too dangerous as she was always in the employ of others and living in their homes.
Cards form the bulk of the items pasted in the scrapbook: often only Christmas cards and New Year cards with dutiful notes, of the type we have all sent. They mark her testimony to herself of how she was esteemed by the families she worked for. This would be labelled as a form of ’stroking’ these days, and her scrapbook is her proof to herself that she was valued. Were they like the selected reviews of their creative work people place in their blogs? Don’t we all need to pat ourselves on the back publicly? But I wonder if she was aware of how terse most of the comments were in the cards she was sent time and again?
The newspaper and magazine cuttings she chose are often quotes from the Bible, references to patriotic duty in the time of War, and sermons about keeping on the straight and narrow, or being frugal. They were common currency at the time, and are very like the tag lines and ‘bon mots’ that people put under their signature or moniker in discussion forums and blogs on the internet today. We like to demonstrate or ‘prove’ that our opinions and points of view are right.
Whom did she share this book with? Did she show her employers, the parents? Probably not, it was too personal: the times she engaged with them would be likely to be formal, and she had probably learned the necessary trick of self effacement. The appearance of some of the cuttings might be evidence that she involved the children in some of the work: they are raggedly cut and include comic snowmen, animals, elves and clowns. The scrapbook might have been shown to her brother whom she lived with after she ended her working life: perhaps that was where she continued working on it. What we know for certain is that it was completed, it was kept, it ended up in a seaside antique shop, and that we are her unintended audience who are allowed an direct insight into what it was like living that life in those times. It is as if we were peering over her shoulder as she cut and pasted . . .