By Faith Baldwin, ©1932
Ellen Adams had good reason to distrust romantic love. Part of her job as a district nurse was to take care of girls who had been betrayed by men they had loved too deeply. She had seen things most girls never saw—marriages wrecked, love lost, and passion mocked by men. But Ellen was blond, blue-eyed and beautiful. Men fell in love with her easily. In spite of what she knew and what she saw, she dreamed of marriage. As a matter of fact she dreamed a good deal about Frank Bartlett, a young and very attractive lawyer. They were in love. Their future together was understood. Ellen’s love for Frank was a glorious dream until one day a girl named Gladys said two fatal words. Gladys, bewildered and tearful, had been betrayed by a man she loved. Ellen asked her to name the man. It was then that Gladys said the words that woke Ellen from a dangerous dream.
The great thing about the nurse romance novels written in the ’30s and ’40s is that they don’t know they’re supposed to be formulaic, and they end up being, first and foremost, a good story. Such is the case with District Nurse, which is a fantastic, very well-written novel with a couple of small mysteries to solve and a social(ist) message—oh, yeah, and there’s a romance in there, too.
It’s the Depression, back in the day when last names conferred an actual nationality. Ellen Adams is 24, her sister Nancy is 20. (So they’re English, about the only ones in the book.) Ellen is a nurse for the Visiting Nurses Association. As such, she knows everyone in the neighborhood: immigrant Ike, who sells fruit from a pushcart; Italian Joe, who fixes her shoes; German Herman, “the small round son of the man known to the neighborhood as Accordion Al.” Mrs. Lenz speaks German (“Gott behüte! Ganz verrückt!”) and Mrs. Lippinsky is Jewish (“I’m telling you, I vonder. Meshugge, that one…”). They may be of foreign origin, but the book never looks down on them for it; Ellen is frustrated with Mrs. Lenz for giving her son a bellyache with hotdogs and ice cream, but she’s never disgusted.
Ellen meets her true love while chatting with the neighborhood truant, eight-year-old Bill, about his new-found puppy. The dog escapes into the street and is almost run over by Frank Bartlett. “ ‘Why, God damn youse,’ Bill was shrieking at the top of his small leather lungs, ‘you lousy bastard—’ ” When a third-grader is using language I have yet to see in any other vintage nurse romance novel—and this only on page 17—you know you are in for a treat.
Vying for Ellen’s affections is Jim O’Connor, who has grown up with Ellen. Jim is up to something shady, but we are only given tiny, offhand hints (“a sedate traffic officer … saluted him, grinning, but … afterward looked after the car, its newness, and its expensive lines with a frown of speculation on his Irish brow”). It’s a pleasure to find a book that doesn’t beat you over the head with its plotting.
We’re tipped off to the socialist bent of the novel with its dedication: “Dedicated, in admiration, to the VNA and welfare nurses everywhere.” Ellen’s patients by a rule always live in squalid tenements: “Dim gas jets flickered on the dirty landing casting eerie shadows. In each hallway, as she passed, was the disgrace of an open toilet. … It was not astonishing that so many women connected with work of this type turned almost fiercely radical, seeing what they must see, realizing how little they could do, important though their work was.” And so we are frequently treated to Ellen’s feelings about the poor, how horrific their lives are, and how a little assistance goes a long way—but not so much that it becomes annoying.
This book is far more frank about the baser aspects of human life than books 30 years its junior, in which the protagonist does not even kiss her beloved until they are engaged (e.g. Society Nurse, for starters). On page 2, as we are being given a tour of the neighborhood, we pass a doctor’s practice. “What kind of a doctor is he? He has an uptown practice. They come here to him. A clever hideaway. All women, who come.” One minor figure in the book is kidnapped and raped, then forced to marry her abductor. Unmarried women sometimes get pregnant, and their moral character is an ongoing concern. At one point Ellen argues with doctor and old friend Pete after he implies that he is not a virgin: “ ‘A man,’ said Ellen, ‘can regard his chastity as something to be disposed of as quickly and as lightly as possible. A man can, of course, do as he pleases—deny himself nothing. Not, I suppose, a woman. A woman can—you call it sin in a woman, don’t you?—sin once, because she is foolish, because she is in love, because promises are made her—and that’s her finish, I suppose. It’s a swell world.’ ”
The writing is incredibly snappy; by page 6 I had such a long list of great quotes that I quit taking notes. (Just one example: “ ‘It’s Ellen Adams,’ she called; and then, the sesame that had opened so many closed doors ‘…the visiting nurse.’ ”) We live Ellen’s family’s daily life: their dates, their budgetary concerns, their neighborhood and its inhabitants. We really care about these people. Ellen’s rapprochement with Frank in the final pages actually means something, and the only letdown is that her engagement is understood to mean she will have to give up nursing. “ ‘When she puts me before the work, then I know she really loves me. And you have,’ he triumphed.” Frank may find it a victory, but I thought it was a tragedy. Nonetheless, this was the only letdown in the entire book, which is an overwhelmingly great read.