Saturday, October 2, 2010

Private Duty

By Faith Baldwin, ©1935

Pretty Carolyn Cutler generall knew her own mind. She had learned to during three long years of training at Updale, earning the right to sign herself, Registered Nurse. But now that she was successfully out on her own, she faced a problem which her nursing training alone couldn’t solve. Three men wanted to marry her. And they all knew their own minds.
First there was Dr. Livingston. Carolyn had idolized him while she was in training; they had, in fact, considered themselves engaged. Now she wasn’t sure whether she really loved the man or the surgeon. Then there was her employer, Derek Williams, whose household she was running now that his wife had died. She knew she didn’t love him, but she pitied him and she adored his difficult young son. And last there was an impetuous, red-headed scamp named Bill Hamilton whose chief claim to fame was the number of breach of promise suits in which he had been involved. That is the involved situation of one of Miss Baldwin’s fastest, most appealing romances. It is a novel of hospital life, of the trials and problems of a nurse on private duty, and, above all, the story of a grand young girl for whom the world grew so complicated that it finally took a bloody factory strike to provide the solution.


“She looked at him and marveled silently at the utter stupidity of men. … She supposed the fault was common to the sex. It was amusing in a way. People were always talking about how brilliant they were—there wasn’t a surgeon in the state more highly esteemed than Richard Long, nor a manufacturer any better known than Andrew Hamilton. But in matters which were far more important than surgery or underwear these great men were certainly half-witted.”

“The Boston paper was restrained and brief, as befitted a Boston paper …”

“You look like a million dollars in government bonds, that is to say, expensive, hard to acquire, extremely valuable but not exhibiting much interest.”

Faith Baldwin has done it again with this crackerjack novel. Maybe not quite as good as District Nurse, its sister, Private Duty is nonetheless unceasingly funny with well-drawn characters, sparkling writing, and a modern sensibility that far outweighs that of some vintage nurse romance novels written decades later. I begin to greatly regret that Faith Baldwin only wrote one or two other books that might fall into this category (He Married a Doctor, and possibly The Lonely Doctor), and I may well dub her the Jane Austen of the vintage nurse romance novel.

Carolyn Cutler has just graduated from nursing school and has moved in with her best friend from nursing school, Sally Austin. Sally is a spunky gal with a penchant for saying things like, “Run along to the boy friend and if he starts beating you up or anything, scream. I still pack a wallop.” They have a third roommate, Marie, who is hopelessly in love with a married doctor who does not know she is alive, so she has dedicated her life to working in his shadow just to be near him. The women all do private duty, which means they are hired to care for private patients either at the patient’s home or in the hospital, on 12- or 24-hour shifts. Sometimes they have work, sometimes not.

When they don’t, they go out. When the book opens, Carolyn is engaged to Dr. Bob Livingston, but we quickly see this isn’t going to work out. He wants to put off marriage until he is well-established as a (what else?) surgeon: “ ‘Wait for me, Caro, I promise you I’ll be able to give you everything you deserve in a few years.’ She wondered, lying there, if really she wanted to be given everything. … It seemed so flat, somehow, the waiting. No sharing. No excitement of struggle and work and helping in an office. … ‘When we’re married I’ll keep you out of my office, away from the whole sorry business.’ … Did she want that? Of course, she wanted it. But she didn’t want to wait for it alone. She wanted to wait for it with him.”

Cue Bill Hamilton. (It was a minor difficulty for me keeping Bob Livingston and Bill Hamilton straight in my mind; I wish their names had been a little less two of a kind.) She meets him in stereotypical fashion, by literally running into him, but at least it was uniquely described: “On the way out she collided violently with a tall young man who was barging joyfully through the revolving door. For a brief moment she saw a hundred doors all whirling the wrong way and a thousand stars which have never been charted by astronomers.” Bill’s father owns an underwear manufacturing business, and Bill is intent on “modernizing” the factory, much to the dismay of his father, who is concerned that Bill is a “Red.” Bill isn’t serious about much, and has already had to settle two breach of contact suits with women he had proposed to and then later run away from. After Carolyn nurses him back from a ruptured appendix, he falls for her and proposes marriage: “With me, I could promise you continuous excitement, fights, laughs, never a dull moment.” (The book earns points for acknowledging that marriage will contain the occasional spat, a big departure from the ordinary vintage nurse romance novel.) She realizes he isn’t serious, and so puts him off, though she continues to date him when he’s in town and not busy with his socialist agenda.

But Carolyn and Sally’s boyfriends take a back seat to their work and their lives together. It’s a homey world, of ugly but comfortable bathrobes, where washing your hair is a major event, where the girls’ next meeting, if their schedules don’t coincide, seems more important to them than when they will see their beaux. It isn’t until Marie moves to Boston and Sally goes home to nurse her mother, who has broken her hip, that Carolyn’s love life takes a more prominent role in the story—but even then, it’s still second fiddle to the Williams family, whom she has moved in with after months of nursing the mother, who dies of cancer.

Carolyn is an independent woman. She can take care of herself, and everyone else. She smokes an occasional cigarette, and she drives Bill’s car when they go out together. She is extremely competent at her work—“as a nurse she was near perfection,” the chief surgeon thinks of her—and she doesn’t take kindly to being patronized. “I can’t tell you how it irritates me to have this pretty nurse business flung in my face … it’s a sort of—subtitle. Nurse. Pretty. It goes with pretty stenographer. It gives me … a vast pain in the neck,” she tells Bill. She is a pleasure to watch.

The book’s plot doesn’t really have a lot of places to go, and her situation with the Williams family seems a little gratuitous, created to push Carolyn to her eventual and inevitable marriage. The climactic scene, at a meeting of striking workers that turns violent, is especially forced, and it’s so rushed that it’s not possible to effortlessly follow the action as we have up to now. But the book is so well-written that it’s a joy to follow the characters even into these contrived situations. I greatly look forward to reading Faith Baldwin’s He Married a Doctor—while at the same time dreading it, as I realize that after that’s done, there will be no more Faith Baldwin books to look forward to.

One paperback edition sports
a cover illustration by 
Sam Bates


  1. Great recommendation! Your review is spot on. Though it is dated, I loved every minute of it. (Reminded me of a TCM movie.) Carolyn and Sally would fit right in with the women's movement today. I, too, felt the end was rushed (even though it spanned 256 pages), but there was so much substance in the rest of the book that I would have to rate it 5 stars.

  2. Oops! Your review isn't dated--just the book!