I’m an avid listener of the Adam Buxton podcast. I love hearing his rambly chats with people and, I’ve found, that it’s a pretty good thing to listen to at work. A few weeks ago, Adam was talking to author Nina Stibbe. Before that point, I’d never read anything by Stibbe but I knew of her. She seemed like such a lovely person that I picked up a copy of her book Love Nina. I had meant to watch the BBC adaptation a while ago but, because I never watch normal TV, I never got round to it. It’s something I definitely want to watch now that I’ve finished the book. I do have to admit that, thanks to my knowledge of the show, I kept imagining Mary-Kay as Helena Bonham Carter and Nina as Faye Marsay.
I love reading collections of people’s letters. I did a course on them during my postgraduate course and it was fascinating. I love being able to compare the public voice a writer offers up in their published writing compared to the one from their personal correspondence. Getting to see a glimpse into their lives and hear the seemingly unimportant stories they have to tell. I know most of the letters I’ve written over the years would be full of absolute nonsense but they’d certainly reveal a lot about me as a person. Although, I don’t think they’d make a book. There’s only so many times my teenage self can talk about Harry Potter fanfiction before people will get bored. But Love Nina doesn’t mention fanfiction once, so it’s all good.
Love Nina is made up of a series of letters written by writer Nina Stibbe to her sister Victoria in the 80s. Starting in 1982, the letters were sent during the period that Stibbe was working as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers’s children. Mary-Kay was the editor of the London Review of Books and lived on Gloucester Crescent with her sons, Sam and Will. At this time, Gloucester Crescent was also home to a whole host of creative people who were acquaintances with Mary-Kay. For starters, there was playwright Alan Bennett, theatre and opera director Jonathan Miller, biographer Claire Tomalin, novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, and novelist Deborah Moggach. These were the type of people that Nina, without knowing who they were, was rubbing shoulders with regularly. The kind of people who would often make appearances in her letters.
Her letters reveal a great deal about what life was like living with Wilmers and her family and friends. But there is more to Nina’s letters than a look at the private lives of these famous names. They may be seemingly pedestrian in their content but Nina manages to capture real-life beautifully. She has a knack of capturing inane conversations that reveal a great deal about the people she’s writing about. The dialogue that she writes out in full is not the kind of thing a normal biographer would take note of but it is all so perfect. So full of life and humour.
And this is a funny book. Nina has an odd sense of humour; something she shares with both Sam and Will. The Mary-Kay we are introduced to here is a straight-talking but lovable woman. Perhaps a stark contrast to the formidable image of her in her role as editor. She is the absolute star of the letters. The straight man to Nina’s absurdity. What is most important about Love Nina is that everybody is presented with admiration and care. There is gentle mocking throughout but you never get the sense that Nina is malicious in her intent. There is a genuine love within these pages and it just brings more warmth and charm to the whole thing.
We see Nina progress from her role as the 20-year-old nanny to English literature student. Some of the best passages see her coming to terms with the great literary canon and the concept of literary criticism. Maybe I don’t quite agree with her view on Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy but it’s certainly fun, as an ex-literature student, following her through her course. At one point, Nina explains that critics are only bothered is there is only a “ring” of truth within autobiographical writing. Well, she takes that one step further here and it’s perfect. There is a youth and naivety to Nina’s letters that gives them a certain sweetness but it is full of wisdom and forthrightness. Love Nina is such a great read because it is so free and real. Nina has a natural flair for both writing and documenting real life. Much better than I had as a teenager that’s for sure.