Cover illustration by Tom Miller
Louise—fourth-year medical student at New York’s Central General Hospital—serious, dedicated, most brilliant woman in her class, with a great future in medicine and an unswerving devotion to it—
Elsie—a classic “dumb blonde,” a vapid playgirl with an astonishing talent in bed, living for good times—
Worlds apart—except that both were the same woman!
“Do I detect an acquisitive female gleam in your eye in connection with this paragon of all manly virtues?”
“She still could not administer hypodermic infections of any sort with the casual indifference of her male colleagues. Her hands were as expert as theirs, but her native femininity was offended on each occasion. Then she came to realize that her instinctive reaction of fear and revulsion was probably deeply Freudian in its origin. As a woman she must find it unnatural and somehow horrible to be thrusting anything into another person. Hers should be the passively accepting role. Not the aggressively penetrating role.”
It’s a curious coincidence that I read this book immediately after Doctor by Day: Though Woman Doctor is a real nurse novel, being the story of medical student Louise Standish and how she manages her romantic and career adventures, its sex scenes make it a close cousin to that other lovely but more-sensual-than-your-average-VNRN masterpiece.
I don’t believe any of the nurse heroines I have encountered to date have enjoyed a sex life outside of marriage, so Louise is exceptional in that she has had not one but two boyfriends! Unfortunately, that along with the marginally lurid cover illustration and the frankly lurid back cover blurb make me think this is supposed to be a smut book. Oh, and there’s also a pair of lesbian lovers, so that may cinch the deal. But the sex in this book is oh-so-far from today’s contemporary romance novel, so the label feels less than adequate. Let’s call it a cross between smut and VNRN—and actually a smidge more the latter than the former—and get on with our review.
Poor Louise has some pretty spectacular sexism to contend with as a woman medical student. Of course, she’s internalized quite a bit of it, too, and when she hooks up with her first boyfriend, “gloried in being his prized possession, almost his slave. She eagerly accepted him as her master … This was a basic part of her femininity, she felt, and she strove to fulfill her duties and serve him.” She spends a lot of time trying to reconcile her two callings: one, the brilliant doctor she is clearly on the path to becoming, and the other, a subservient wife and mother. “Maybe she was only meant for love and babies and dependence,” Louise thinks at one point. “Maybe she should not attempt to take on the perpetual study and the terrible responsibilities of being a doctor. Was the strain too much for her? Was that why she was always irritable and restless lately?” The choice seems obvious to me, but I do have the luxury of living a quarter-century after Louise. Which isn’t really a whole lot of time, in the grand scheme of things, but what a difference it has made.
In an attempt to relieve the stress of her studies, Louise goes to a wedding reception and there meets a reporter. She decides to play a little game, and pretends to be a sublimely stupid blonde. “One thing that I always think is so nice about weddings,” she babbles to Don Bailey, “it’s always a man and a woman who get married. That keeps things sort of even, I always say.” Don is in raptures over the Yogi Berra–like inanities that drop from her lips—that and her “lovely face and gloriously nubile body”—and takes her to dinner, and from there to bed. Well, it was the sofa, actually, but no matter, it’s a place no VNRN heroine has dared to go before. And the next day, Louise can concentrate better, is so much more relaxed and sweet, and buckles down to her studies with new vigor. If the rest of the nurses knew what a miracle drug sex was, I’m sure they’d all be doing it!
Louise’s arch-nemesis is hospital chief Dr. Horace Wilmerding, who absolutely despises women doctors. Though Louise is in the running to be the top student in the class, he is going to refuse her the residency post she wants more than anything when she graduates in six months on those grounds alone. While most of the book is about Louise’s successes with patients and her growing relationship with Don, her battle with Dr. Wilmerding also mounts through the story, to the point where the bad doctor is going to deny her the post and possibly even refuse to allow her to graduate unless she becomes his mistress. Further complicating the plot is the fact that his daughter Helen, whom he has forced into marriage, has recently awoken to the fact that she is a lesbian and has entered into a relationship with Louise’s longtime roommate, Joan.
The lesbian relationship in this book is handled in a very two-faced fashion. On one hand, it’s called no end of horrible things: “a sickness,” “deviate tendencies,” an “aberration.” But at the same time, when Joan and Helen get together, it is a devoted relationship. “She, too, needed a sympathetic partner and mate with whom to seek comfort and release,” Joan decides, and Helen tells her, “What you and I have will be really beautiful. So gentle and loving.” When Helen asks why it’s wrong, Joan trots out the old saw that “love is meant to lead to babies and the continuation of the race.” Helen, however, concludes that her love for Joan is better than heterosexual love, because she is not just an “animal” intending to procreate, her love is “concerned with giving and receiving beauty.” Joan, though torn, in the end agrees to a relationship with Helen, thinking, “let the so-called normal people have their primitive instincts, but for now she would welcome the chance to enjoy sensuality on a higher and more stimulating plane,” and after the pair consummates their relationship, we are told that “a new and beautiful way of life had been inaugurated for both of them, no matter what else might intervene.” When Louise catches the two in flagrante delicto, however, she is so disgusted that she cannot look her former dear friend in the face. Clearly Louise, while avant garde in some important respects, is still disappointingly backward in others.
The book wraps up in a number of unusual ways. Louise’s problems with Dr. Wilmerding are unfortunately solved by Don, not Louise herself, when he confronts the doctor and discovers the man’s Achilles heel—a weakness that comes across, after his many evils, as completely unbelieveable. Some of Don’s negotiating strength comes from his belief that Louise doesn’t really need the internship or diploma, as he tells Dr. Wilmerding that he will be marrying Louise next week and she will be dropping out of medicine, but as a wedding gift of sorts he wants her to have those two notches in her belt before she takes it off forever and dons an apron instead. In the end, Louise does decline the residency, but for completely different reasons, and in the last chapter takes an unpredicted turn in her relationship with Don, which partially makes up for her earlier maundering about “the wonderful feminine pleasure of submitting herself, body and soul, to the man she loved.” It’s an only partially satisfying close, but in light of this book’s several unique qualities, it is nonetheless a milestone in nurse novels.