Cover illustration by Victor Kalin
When lovely young Shirley Davidson ran away from her tyrannical father, fate (and the kindness of Matron Anna Marsden) fulfilled her lifelong dream—she became a student nurse. Then, as if she weren’t already bursting with happiness, she fell in love. But there were complications (and heartbreak) ahead. For handsome Dr. Gerald Trent, though irresistibly drawn to Shirley, was already engage to Anna Marsden. And Shirley would rather die than do anything to hurt the woman she worshiped, who had given her her first chance for a decent life.
“I’ve an idea that the only sensible thing is to be crazy.”
“One needs to have one’s heart in one’s job, otherwise it’s impossible to make a real success of it.”
“Luckily one’s best beloved never saw one at the hairdresser’s. At least, not if one had any sense.”
“In all lives there are times when one has just to sit tight and wait until one feels better.”
Anna Marsden is the 35-year-old matron of the Gresham Nursing Home, one of London’s most prestigious hospitals. She’s had this job for two years—won it after a lengthy battle within the hospital board, in which trustee Howard Bleston prevailed—and feels a great deal of dedication to her job and to Howard for awarding it to her. Her fiance, though, Dr. Gerald Trent, hates her job and wants her to chuck it and marry him. She knows that “she needed some form of self-expression other than running a house and ordering meals and being decorative at her husband’s dinner table. She too wanted a career and the knowledge that she was doing something useful in the world. Gerald had said lightly and a little reproachfully that looking after him was something useful.” Why she continues to see him is a bit of a mystery.
He’s to leave for a prestigious fellowship in New York, and has asked her to quit her job and come with him as his bride. She’s all set to do it when Howard’s wife, the horrible Hilary Bleston, arrives to recover, again, from drug addiction, which will take at least three months. Given her loyalty to the husband, Anna feels she must see the wife through this crisis, and tells Dr. Trent that she can’t go with him. His ardor noticeably cools.
Enter Shirley Davidson, at 17 about half Dr. Trent’s age. She has arrived at the hospital by jumping into Anna’s car at a traffic light and urging her to drive on, because she’s running away from a life of crime forced upon her by her ogre of a father. Anna takes Shirley in and gives her a job as a nursing student, and Shirley is hopelessly star-struck with her devotion to Anna for her kindness. But upon clapping eyes on Dr. Gerald Trent, she’s hopelessly star-struck with her infatuation with the man. Since his engagement to Anna is a secret—and Gerald helpfully never mentions it to Shirley—she gratefully accepts his dates and kisses. It’s just a matter of time, however, before she finds out that Gerald belongs to Anna, and then she calls it off in an utter panic. It’s just a matter of more time, then, until Anna finds out that Shirley is in love with Gerald. Shirley quits the hospital and disappears into London’s seedy underbelly so as to clear the field for Anna, but that great lady decides—after some indecision that leaves the reader a little nervous for a second—that she’s through with Gerald.
Everything ends well for everyone, of course, and in a wholly predictable way, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially not here, because the writing is very fine. The characters and their motivations and anguish are drawn quite beautifully, in a way that is particularly unique to VNRNs from the 1940s, as this one is. If Shirley’s character is given to flightiness and exaggeration of emotion, she is, after all, only 17, and can reasonably be expected to be both. Hilary Bleston, a nasty shrew, is fun to watch, especially as she overhears her friends gossiping about her at the beauty shop. Student Nurse is a slow book, perhaps overly so at 223 pages, and this really is its biggest flaw, but it’s not a fatal one. As long as you’re not in a hurry, this book will be a pleasant diversion.