How Nina Stibbe found her voice

Reasons to be Cheerful’s author once struggled to find her own style - but the letters she’d written to her sister, published later as Love, Nina, show that she had it all along

Often the first bit of advice given to aspiring writers is: “Find your own voice.” Just as often, it’s also the most useless. And before I read Nina Stibbe, I’d have questioned whether it was even possible. After all, where exactly do you find your voice? How do you know if you’ve found it or not? And if you do start obsessing about your voice when you’re writing, how do you avoid becoming self-conscious and mannered?

Stibbe provides a case study. She published her first semi-autobiographical novel, Man at the Helm, in 2014. That was more than 30 years after she first started trying to write such a book and numerous failed attempts. The trouble was, she says, that she was trying to write in the style of other literary writers. It wasn’t until she found her voice that she managed to break through.

Or, more accurately, it wasn’t until Stibbe’s sister Victoria found her voice. Nina had written a long series of letters to Victoria when she was working as the live-in nanny to the sons, Will and Sam, of the London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, on Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town back in the early 1980s. Victoria found them decades later when she was moving house – and they turned out to be gold dust.

It was partly their subject matter that made them so valuable. Wilmers was a brilliant and formidable woman in her own right, and incredibly well-connected. The young nanny found herself in a fascinating world. Nearby, there lived the polymath television star, theatre and opera director Jonathan Miller, playwright Michael Frayn, biographer Claire Tomalin and film director Karel Reisz (of The French Lieutenant’s Woman). The great Alan Bennett was also a regular supper guest (not to mention a surprisingly effective repairer of broken household appliances).

But there was more to the letters. The thing that really counted was the young Stibbe’s voice: the warmth with which she writes to her sister, the easy intimacy, the wit. After the letters were collected and put out as Love, Nina in 2013, the New York Times described her style as “observant, funny, terse, at times a bit rude”.

It contains the greatest review of Thomas Hardy’s poetry ever written: “Most of them are rubbish and do not help me understand him. They make me think of him as wallowing and moaning and wishing for the olden days and that he hadn’t been such a cunt to his wife.”

The young Nina also provided the ultimate opinion on Seamus Heaney: “His pen is an embarrassment to him for not being a spade (like his dad’s and his dad’s dad’s).” And a neat summary of Philip Larkin’s verse: “The mardy ramblings of an oddball.”

Alongside the criticism, there’s wonderful dialogue:

Alan Bennett: Very nice, but you don’t really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew.

ME: It’s a Hunter’s Stew.

AB: You don’t want tinned tomatoes in it, whoever’s it is.

Stibbe also knew a thing or two about getting in the last word. “Who’s more likely to know about beef stew,” she wrote to her sister, “him (a bloke who can’t be bothered to cook his own tea) or The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook?”

She has a keen eye for sights, sounds and smells that bring the early 80s right back to life, including a wonderful riff on the new fashion for fresh herbs: tarragon is “a bit lawny”, while mint “reminds me of a toilet in a particular cafe”.

As well as the endless laughs, there are moments of love and poignancy. Just before she moves out of the Wilmers’s house, she writes to her sister about how she’ll miss them all and that she wishes she could return to their house to watch football: “Not that I like it that much but I like watching it with them. MK mentions if a player has nice hair and Sam puts the Vs up to the ref and Will covers his face at the tense bits. They’re just themselves watching football only more so.”

It’s no surprise that Love, Nina became a bestseller. It’s to Stibbe’s additional credit that she realised where the appeal lay and applied her rediscovered voice to her novels. Those sharp observations, period details and cheeky moments of insight and open-hearted affection are all present and correct in Stibbe’s other novels – including Reasons to Be Cheerful.

So too is the deceptively easy style, and the cleverly naive voice. Not to mention jokes about dentistry and learning to drive. It feels a lot like reading the young Nina’s letters – which is not only high praise, but also goes to show that, sometimes, writing advice works. Finding your voice turns out to be a very good thing. Just make sure you also get a job on a street full of geniuses in the early 80s, turn out to be just as clever as all of them, prove it in letters to your sister and get her to return them a few decades later. Easy.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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