Bestseller Stacey Halls reveals her fascination with Norland and why her latest protagonist is a Norlander
27 July 2021
It was a pleasure to welcome Times bestselling novelist, Stacey Halls, to Norland in early 2020 to assist with research for her latest historical novel Mrs England (Manilla Press), whose central figure is a Norlander.
In an interview with Head of Marketing Dee Burn, Stacey reveals her inspiration for the novel and her fascination with Norland and the social mobility it continues to offer its students as an elite early years institution.
Where did you first hear about Norland?
I first came across Norland when I read a news story about Prince George having a Norland Nanny. I worked on a magazine at the time, so it might even have been a piece I was fact-checking. Something about the school and the uniform snagged on my imagination and laid dormant there for quite a long time. I keep a sort of mental scrapbook of things and places I find interesting and might like to write about one day, and this was one of them.
What inspired you to write about a Norlander?
The main appeal of writing about a Norland nurse as opposed to just any nurse was the prestige, the “properness” of it and of course the delicious detail that brings a story to life: the uniform, the testimonial books, the training at the large white villa in Holland Park. In the time the novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, there really is nowhere better or more impressive to train to become a children’s nurse. And at the same time, the protagonist in Mrs England, Ruby, always has a base she needs to touch – she can’t just disappear into the ether. Norland expects to hear from her and also she is compelled to make a success of this placement – at the time Norland operated a three strikes and you’re out policy, and this is her second position in a year, so it has to work or she has lost everything she’s worked so hard for.
Why did you set the novel in the Edwardian period?
I wanted to write something set in the golden period of childhood, which I think the Edwardian era is. It conjures images of gaslit nurseries, nurses in aprons, cheerfully burning fireplaces and rows of iron beds – Peter Pan was set at the time, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, Mary Poppins. Childhood was becoming commodified and dramatised (also idolised) in books and plays. I wanted to write something that took quite a traditional concept of a nurse with her children in the nursery and prod and poke into the corners – what is going on in that family, what are the parents’ dynamics and how does the nurse witness that relationship. Also what made her want to become a nurse as opposed to, say, a shop assistant? Is she escaping some childhood trauma of her own? The seed of this novel started out that way.
As you undertook your research, what fascinated you most about Norland’s history?
It was the fact that these girls – ordinary girls, from unremarkable backgrounds – could end up working for and living with some of the richest, most powerful people in the world. It would have been difficult to infiltrate that strata of society in any other way, even with domestic labour – but Norland had this certificate of authenticity and prestige that elevated these women beyond the circumstances they came from. It was a real agent for social mobility, and the girls’ first-hand account of a life so different from their own with a front-row view of how a family operates is, I think, ripe for fiction.
Did you discover anything that surprised you about Norland?
I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so strict! The rules in the early 1900s testimonial books were eye-opening: they weren’t allowed to eat with servants (which in itself would cause friction), they had to change their dresses throughout the day depending on what work they were doing. I was also pleasantly surprised at how many safeguarding boundaries were set on their behalf – their salary was non-negotiable, and they had arranged time off every week as well as annual leave, which even in the Edwardian era was at employers’ discretion. With the Norland Agency behind them, almost taking the role of a union, it would make it difficult for an employer to take advantage of them, which was certainly uncommon in women’s work at that time.
Nurse May is a strong, independent woman – was she inspired by any true stories and characters from your own research?
Her character was fictional, but her past was inspired by a real-life case from the end of the 19th century. I can’t say any more than that without spoilers!
The central characters in your novels are all brave women who challenge society’s expectations of them and who often save other women – why did a Norlander fit this role?
The notion of a woman going out and seeking not just work but a certificate for that work, having that work recognised, was actually revolutionary. The domestic workforce was 4 million people in the late 19th century – twice as much as agricultural labour – and nurses were part of that number, so it was very competitive but without much structure. There is something so inspiring about these women’s determination to exist and be acknowledged in the British workforce. And they would have given up so much, leaving behind their own families to become part of a new one, potentially living on the other side of the country or even the world. Norland nurses were and are very brave, pioneering individuals with a lot of resilience.
While the novel is set over a century ago, Norland graduates are still considered the best early years practitioners and remain in high demand around the world today – what is it about Norland do you think that ensures we remain relevant and pioneering today?
The ethos of child-centred play and meeting a child’s needs with kindness and respect, in a decided move away from the Victorian “seen and not heard”, is widely accepted now but was revolutionary at the time. The childcare industry is constantly evolving as research and studies catch up with the fast-paced world we live in, and it’s particularly heartening to me to see Norland’s significant uptake from state schools, as well as the bursary scheme that gives access to underprivileged students. Childcare shouldn’t be elite, and children will benefit from having been influenced by a range of diverse backgrounds and cultures; it’s good to see a 130-year-old institution still keen to learn and adapt.
Can you tell us anything about your next project?
I don’t like to talk about anything I’m working on until I’ve written at least one draft, but I will say it’s set in the early Victorian period and may even be my first non-UK set novel! Or at least partially…