Francis Bacon's Nanny by Maylis Besserie - read an extract

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We present an extract from Francis Bacon's Nanny by Maylis Besserie, translated by Clíona Ní Ríordáín and published by The Lilliput Press.

At the very centre of the life of one of the twentieth-century's greatest artists was the most unexpected of life-long influences. The aptly named Jessie Lightfoot shielded the young Francis Bacon from the brutish violence of his bullying father, as well as from his worst self-immolating excesses later in life. The tenderness, wit and warmth of this inimitable Nanny stands in illuminating relief to the sulphurous palette that defined Bacon’s work.

In the final of author Maylis Besserie's Irish-French trilogy, her preoccupation with the art and lives of artists who crossed borders between France and Ireland has a fitting climax as Bacon confronts the boundaries between the real and the imagined.


I seem to be there still, feeling the rain lashing down on my cape, water seeping into my bones as I walk through the door of Cannycourt House, introducing myself like a drowned rat to Mr and Mrs Bacon – 'Jessie Lightfoot, I’ve come for the job as a nanny …’ No sooner had I finished greeting them than my boots, which were full of holes, began to spew out all the Irish mud I had picked up on the paths, soiling the carpet in the great hall at Cannycourt House. I can tell you that I felt ‘as guilty as that cat who just ate the canary’, as my mother used to say! Ah, I can assure you that I didn’t dawdle, I took my leave and scuttled off towards the children’s quarters, and the servants who showed me the way followed me like shadows, mopping away my errors. Talk about making an entrance, having to slink away, slithering like a snail all the way down until I reached the corridor when I could finally take off my bloody boots. And then who did I see coming towards me? Two little fellows, as tiny and handsome as could be: one standing up, the other on the floor, Harley trotting along with his head down like a dammed soul while my baby Francis crawled at his feet, polishing the floor with his saliva, wiping it with his belly. A beautiful baby, he is, I can’t believe it – lamb’s eyes, face as round as an apple. And such cheeks. But mind you, he’s quite something, he never looks down. When he holds out his arms to me and says, ‘Carry Nanny,’ he knows what he wants, I’m telling you, and you can’t expect him to give up. He’s right there up against my leg, patiently waiting for me to give in. And he gets his way, I give in, of course I do. I carry him. Sometimes I even carry him around for hours. He’s so cute, my little one, and so sensitive. If it makes him feel better, I carry him – why wouldn’t I? He’s calm with me and very affectionate; he hides his face in my neck, rests his head on my shoulder. You should see what life is like here: the children have no right to anything, they’re herded like animals upstairs, and even then, to the back of the house. They hardly recognize their own parents when they see them at teatime or at Sunday lunch. The parents call them down to give a toothy smile for their guests, shake their hands as if they’re strangers and give them back to me just as quick, as if they had the plague. Ah, with these people there are no displays of emotion, you can rest easy. When I think of Mr Bacon’s affection for his dogs, the petting he gives them.

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To come back to the story about the boots, I was furious, you see, I was forced to borrow boots from the stables until the following day. And those grooms, I don’t like them at all, oh no. They’re brutes and smart alecs. Always snotting their sleeves or squatting behind bushes. And when you rub their noses in it, they dare to say it’s the dogs. Well, they wouldn’t dare pull that one with me. I was brought up in England, in Cornwall, in the hamlet of Burlawn, and I’m not going to learn manners from the Irish. In fact, I found it hard to get used to Ireland at first – the change of air and all that – but the wages on offer were more than fair, there was no question of being picky. I said to myself, they want a nanny, I’ll be the nanny, why wouldn’t I be? As long as they don’t expect me to be a wet nurse – I’m still a maiden! – everything will be fine.

I haven’t told you about Cannycourt House. Lord, it’s grand and smart, and such a luxurious house! Eighteen rooms, plus the outbuildings. Ah, what a change of scene for me. Yet when I arrived in 1911, I’d already been a maid in London for twenty years, and yes, Miss Lightfoot was no longer a spring chicken. You can imagine, I was almost the same age as Mr Bacon – ‘the Captain’, as we call him – well, retired Captain, now his hobbies are hunting and racehorses. Some Captain he is, a bloody puritan, more like, who laughs when he burns himself! He forbids everything in his house, no alcohol, no this or that. But it doesn’t stop him from being as mad as a Christian, a real beast, always ranting, spitting his complaints, spitting his venom at his sons and at the whole world. It’s like hell coming out of that mouth, out of those entrails. Rotten from the inside out. And yet the devil looks good, swan-like in his elegance, always with his tie around his collar, and strong as an oak with it. A great swindler when you get to know him. This man has every fault in the world. He’s got a temper, he’s a brawler and he bets his money at the races on top of everything else. When he’s not gambling. Well, when I say his money, I should say Madame’s dowry, mind you, that’s why he married her, the bugger. He sucks her dry, even puts her into debt. Ah, what a wonderful marriage, when you see Madame, who is so young, with that sinister old fox, what a waste. It’s easy to understand why her cousin didn’t want him. You have to have strong nerves to put up with that animal. He’s a real despot, everyone stands to attention in front of him, as stiff as soldiers, waiting for the orders to be issued, for things to snap if they don’t respect his commands and the strict timetables he imposes. A hurricane, a storm. Always bellowing or biting, bitter (that’s putting it mildly) and bad. Bad. Nobody does anything good, anything worthwhile. They’re all a bunch of losers, with the exception of His Honour the Captain and His Honour the horse trainer. None of his comrades, even those from the racecourse, last long; he always ends up arguing with them or they leave, worn to the bone. He becomes all the angrier for it. Angry with them, with everyone, with God and his creatures. When he feels like it, when he bumps into a chair and hurts his toe, when he finds his boots badly polished, the blood goes to his head above his moustache and then nothing stops him, except his own tiredness when the sack of malice is emptied and his victim lies inert. And Madame is regally calm and unflappable. As long as the house is ‘im-ma-culate’ and he lets her entertain all her friends in their beautiful dresses and cloche hats, she couldn’t care less. How do you expect her to deal with an animal like that anyway? You’ll say to me, with what I’m telling you, that his ears must be burning pretty badly right now, don’t you think? Ah, I say good enough for him, he earned it all.

You know, when I took up my job at Cannycourt House, I had no idea where I was going, what was happening in Ireland. You see, I was far more interested in George V ascending the throne than I was in their squabbling or in their potato stories. Of course, in London, I’d been told the story of the dimwit who’d blown himself up trying to blow up Westminster Bridge, and we’d had a good laugh about it, but that was all. Nor did I know anything about the English in Ireland who had settled in County Kildare, or on large estates where they bred their racehorses. When I arrived, I can still see the wife saying to me: ‘Miss Lightfoot, we are the enemy here.’ Oh, yes – Protestants, and English ones at that. The worst category of all. Houses looted, burnt down, including the stables with the horses in them. Everything up in smoke. And do you think the Sinn Féin boys mind? A trip to confession the following Sunday and it doesn’t seem to bother them any more. Ah, their God is accommodating. He doesn’t look too closely at the pedigree of his flock. At Cannycourt House, we’re like deer on the opening day of a hunt, we can’t cross a room without glancing from side to side. Her ladyship keeps saying to me: ‘Miss Lightfoot, never turn your back on the windows and, for pity’s sake, keep the curtains drawn.’ Talk about living in a castle. We live like sheep next to a slaughterhouse. Madame is even convinced that one of the servants in the house (Mr Moody, not to name any names) is a freedom fighter disguised as a butler and that it is down to him that we owe our survival (more precisely, down to his love for the women of the house). You can understand what it’s all about. In other words, you have to watch out for the neighbours.

When you leave the estate, it’s the same story: you can’t talk to anyone, so to speak, and you must be careful not to attract attention or to give out any compromising information. The Captain terrorizes the children with this, constantly talking about the rebels and saying to them, ‘If they come tonight, don’t tell them anything.’ As if the children were a threat, as if they were going to give him up, to make him pay for his wickedness, this torturer of a father. He adores making them cry. Nothing makes him happier than Francis’s tears and his laboured breathing in bed. When Francis is in a bog of sweat, choked with asthma and coughing uncontrollably, as white as a sheet, his father calls him a wimp. In truth, it’s his horses he’s worried about. His thoroughbreds. Ah, they count more than anything else, he wouldn’t risk having them whipped by those bloody grooms like his sons. That would cost him too much.

To get back to Ireland, there are some frightening things happening in the neighbourhood: Englishmen buried up to their necks in sand, waiting for the tide to finish the job, roads booby-trapped, potholes full of bombs. In the forests around us, the birch trees are festooned with Sinn Féin flags, green, white and gold, taunting us and threatening reprisals. One evening, Francis and his grandfather got caught in the Bog of Allen, in a pro-independence ambush. They got out of the car at the last minute and they heard the rebels’ voices in the distance, congratulating themselves on their capture and shouting the news to each other. ‘Englishmen caught!’ Beams of light pierced the darkness. Francis held tight onto Grandpa Supple, Granny’s new husband. The old man led him on a wild goose chase; they didn’t know how many rebels were after them. The asthmatic boy took to his heels, running as fast as his legs would carry him to escape the monsters with their yellow night-time eyes. The shadow of the hangman’s noose hovered over the countryside, and it seemed to him that the grass and trees were following him, that the hares, foxes and badgers were working for the terrorists, digging holes into which he was sure to fall. At last, a light in a window, the door they are pounding on with their fists is opened. They breathe a sigh of relief. But believe it or not, the owner is armed to the teeth. He questions them, warily, with his gun on the table, interrogating them about their background, testing their accents. Then, reassured by the fact that they are as English as he is – with their cut-glass accents – he ends up serving the grandfather a fine old whiskey and offering them a bed for the night. Things like that leave a lasting impression on a child, I can assure you. Decades later, when a light bulb blew in his London studio, Francis still thought it was the IRA.

Francis Bacon's Nanny is published by The Lilliput Press.

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