Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When Doctors Marry

By Elizabeth Seifert,©1960
Cover illustration by Tom Miller

When Dr. Cannon Penrod read about the appointment of Dr. Corliss Walker as resident surgeon to the Memorial Hospital staff—the first woman ever to receive such an appointment—he could not believe that a woman exposed to so much pain and suffering could have feelings of her own—womanly feelings. A freak accident was to bring the two doctors together, and Dr. Penrod would learn that Dr. Corliss Walker was truly a woman—a woman almost too pretty to be a doctor, a woman who wanted to love a man, who wanted to have her own baby, even to know her own sorrow and hurt for someone she loved and who belonged to her. Dr. Walker was a woman who wanted to love a man, but not just any man …


“A woman able to be a good doctor might not have the time to get into mischief, as a lot of women do.”

“The men liked her, most of the men. But they would have liked her better in her proper place, as a pretty woman, decently established before her own cookstove, beside her own baby’s crib, or tremulous and welcoming at her own home’s front door.”

“She was slender, and it would not take much to make her too thin to do surgery.”

“I’d purely love to have someone care enough for me to want to boss me around.”

A couple of chapters into this book, I had to flip to the title page to check the copyright date. This sweet, gentle, meandering book reads much like a Lucy Agnes Hancock or Faith Baldwin novel from the 1940s, so I was surprised to find it was published in 1960. Its attitudes toward a woman doctor are slightly more updated, but in the end, for all the teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling about the conflict of being both a woman and a doctor, the heroine never really arrives at any personal resolution to the issue.

Our hen medic, Corliss Walker, is a 30-year-old surgical resident when the book opens, the first woman surgical resident at University Hospital in St. Louis. Cannon Penrod is ten years older and chief of staff at Melrose County Hospital  when he reads of her appointment in the local paper. He is not impressed. “A woman’s not strong enough for surgery,” he says. “Physically, and probably emotionally. I’d certainly now a woman like that for a wife!” So when Corliss, en route to her new job, becomes very ill with a bowel obstruction, stumbles into Cannon’s clinic, and passes out, he’s smitten. No one knows who she is, because she left her handbag by the side of the road when she’d stopped to vomit earlier. Curiously, no one bothers to ask. So it isn’t until several weeks in the hospital, after Cannon has taken Corliss to surgery and saved her life, that Cannon, only by overhearing her telephone conversation with her employers to let them know that she’s going to be a little late, discovers her true name and identity. Naturally, he’s furious, contending that she lied to them all by omission. I struggle to see how this could be so, particularly since I feel that her doctors—not to mention the billing department!—have an obligation to at least attempt to learn this basic information about their patients.

By the time these weeks have elapsed, however, Corliss has decided that she wants to marry Cannon, and that she really loves this little town, because everyone there is so nice to her, and for no reason whatsoever; it’s just how they are. After years of struggling against the prejudice of her fellow (male) med school students and doctors, she enjoys being treated respectfully. But eventually she’s well enough to leave the hospital, and she goes off to her residency in St. Louis. Months later, Cannon turns up on her doorstep. His partner is leaving the hospital, and he wants her to take his place. So when her year is up in St. Louis, she’s back at Melrose County, this time as Cannon’s partner.

Her two closest friends in town are somewhat dubious characters. Luther Dennison is a smooth-talking, vaguely irritating (by Corliss’ own admission) wealthy ne’er-do-well who lives with his momma and constantly attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince Corliss to marry him. Lane Harper is a professional pianist who had a relationship ten years ago with another doctor in the hospital, but left town to pursue her career. He’s married now, to a solid but ugly former nurse, and has two daughters, but that’s not stopping Lane from putting the moves on him, because now that she’s eaten her cake, she wants to have it, too. Cannon approves of neither individual, and to be truthful, it seems like Corliss isn’t entirely in raptures about them, either; she appears to be more lazy than fond in her friendships. And stubborn, as if Cannon’s disapproval is what keeps her hanging with them.

Midway through the book, Corliss convinces Cannon to marry her. She, of course, loves him, but he’s a bit harder to read. He’d been married 12 years ago, but his wife was a floozy and they were divorced. Now he has a difficult time trusting women, and Corliss’ relationship with Luther—particularly since the man’s objectives are well-known—isn’t helping matters. So half of this almost 300-page book chronicles the ups and downs of the Drs. Penrod. Which is pleasant enough, but it’s round and round on the same issues. Does Cannon love Corliss? Can she “be a woman,” whatever that means, and a doctor, too? Lane, who gave up the man for the job and now seems to regret it, tells Corliss that she shouldn’t try to be just one or the other. “A career alone isn’t enough. You can have a career, and very little else. No home, some clothes, perhaps a hotel suite—It’s a lopsided, flat way to live. And a one-sided life is never enough, Corliss. Whatever that side might be. Home and family only—or a career only.” But Corliss doesn’t find it so easy. “Often it is hard, this being a doctor at this side in the hospital, and a little woman here at home, too,” she tells a friend. “Often I don’t know why he married me. I mean, whether he married me as a woman, or as a doctor.” Even Cannon, who deeply respects Corliss’ medical abilities and has no problem whatsoever with her working, occasionally wrinkles his brow on these topics: “Corliss had gained a firm place in a man’s world, and perhaps it was folly to expect her to remain all woman. Though Cannon wished she could be more woman than she was. He supposed his trouble was that he wanted things both ways, and it began to seem that he couldn’t have them.”

Of course, no one ever debates the question of whether Cannon can be a doctor and a husband, and in the final pages the now-peaceful couple agrees that neither of them could give up their careers or their family, and that neither of them should have to choose. So that question, at least, has been settled. But there’s still the question of their marriage: of Cannon’s inability to trust, or be open with, his wife, and Corliss’ inability to respect her husband enough to stop flirting with Luther. This is temporarily bridged, in the end, by a fire in the hospital that threatens one of them, but in the end I have to ask how long this is going to last.

This book has a lot in common with He Married a Doctor. Here, too, some of the driving force of the plot is removed when the couple marries halfway through, and the main theme becomes whether or not they will stay married. The fact that they’re married allows the author to hint—delicately, of course—at their sex life, and this adds a couple of grains of cayenne to the soup. The writing, as I have already said, is calm and soothing, occasionally even quite humorous. If the central questions of the book are not answered, it’s still a pleasant trip, and one worth making.

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