Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Office Nurse

By Adelaide Humphries, ©1949

She was his nurse … and his office wife! That’s why Janice and Eric simply had to keep their love for each other a secret. But how long could such a secret be kept from Eric’s lovely, ruthless wife, Elissa—or from Ben Archer, the man who was determined to marry Janice? How long could Janice and Eric go on seeing each other every day, tortured by the few moments of intimacy they were able to steal? All that was bottled up had to rise to the surface and break through like a volcano erupting … it had to happen!


“He had never thought that this could happen to him. To other men, yes—but not to anyone with his feet so firmly on the ground, his brain so clear, his glands functioning so properly.”

“It’s not sensible to pass up anything that sets you on fire.”

Brought to you by the same author who gave us Nurse Landon’s Challenge, Office Nurse has some of the same spunk and style as its predecessor. It starts off with almost a swear! when our heroine Janice Hilary declares right on page one that a rich and spoiled patient “cannot come into this office and raise merry H.” Are you shocked? Well, that’s nothing, because things get a lot more scandalous than that!

Janice has been working for four years in the Manhattan office of Dr. Eric Holbrook when the book opens. Janice has an admirer in Ben Archer, who has just come home from the war. Janice loves Ben as an old friend, “but she was not in love with him. And therein lay a world of difference which she had never been able to make him comprehend.” So if she’s not in love with Ben, who is she in love with? Well, there’s always Dr. Holbrook. Her boss is about twice her age and married to a beautiful, wealthy woman who built him up into a successful doctor ministering to monied women. Now that she has achieved the pinnacle of his career, Elissa spends a lot of time traveling. The day she leaves on a trip to France, Dr. Holbrook is leaving the office late with Janice, and on the spur of the moment invites her to dinner with him. It’s his birthday, you see, and he’d hate to spend it at the club. She agrees, and after dinner they take a hansom cab ride through Central Park. “It seems,” he tells her after they are settled in it, “that this is the first time in years I’ve done the things I enjoy doing. It’s a wonderful feeling, Janice.” Then he takes her back to his empty Fifth Avenue house to listen to his favorite recordings …

“ ‘I didn’t mean that to happen, Janice—please believe me,’ Eric said as he released her.” And so it happens that our heroine is having an affair with a married man! It’s not long, however, before she seems to lose heart and decides to quit her job and take a vacation. For his part, Eric tells Elissa he wants a divorce, but she just says no. “Love isn’t everything, darling. What we have is just as important,” she tells him. “And no one can hold on to that first excitement after a few years of marriage. Even you and Janice would lose it. What would you have to take its place then, that I cannot give you?”

So Elissa decides to undertake a new project: “Now there was something, once again, that Elissa could do for Eric, as at first, when she had made success come so swiftly and easily. She could remake him into something besides a misunderstood husband; it would even be fun to make Eric imagine himself in love with her again. ‘You don’t seem to understand.’ That was all he could find to say. He was afraid Elissa understood too well—better, perhaps, than he did himself.” The next day at the office, Eric is frightened to tell Janice that he can’t marry her after all, but he’s saved from this confrontation when a disgruntled minor character shows up with a gun and merry H breaks loose. After that, it’s not too hard to see which way the nurse is going to blow, and her choice is disappointing and bewildering.

This is not the first VNRN that tries to have it both ways. On one hand, several characters express horror at the idea of an independent woman. At the beginning of the story, we are told that Janice is “the pillar of the family … drawing a larger salary” than her father. But it’s apparently not a good thing that she’s managed to keep the roof over her family’s heads; Janice’s mother worries that “her eldest daughter might become too strong, too self-sufficient. … She had seen that happen to girls, girls who earned as much—sometimes more—money than the young men they knew. As time went on they became more and more fastidious, expecting so much that often they got nothing in the end.” Ben also has his doubts about her: “Had Janice become that horror of every intelligent young man—a too efficient career woman? Heaven forbid!” He advises Janice’s younger sister, who is planning to work for a year before she gets married, “Don’t ever turn into a career girl—don’t ever let your work come before loving and living.” Is that ever a problem for the boys?

In one scene between another office worker and her elderly aunt, the older woman says, “No woman wanted to wear the pants; a man, whether he was in love or not, ought to show that he meant to be the one to wear them.” Her niece thinks, “But if a woman started giving in before she was married she had to go on doing it all the rest of her days. … It really ought to be fifty-fifty.” It might be worth mentioning that this niece strings her boyfriend along for too long until he decides on a whim to move to Pennsylvania and marry another woman who he had never previously been at all interested in. Is this meant to be a come-uppance for her outlandish ideas? Are we supposed to feel sorry for her for losing her fiancé, or for the idiot fiancé for throwing himself into what is sure to be a loveless relationship?

As far as love goes, the book’s ideal relationship is quite different from that of most other VNRNs. Janice’s younger sister tells Ben, “I’d much rather marry a man I loved … than marry one I was in love with. When you fall in, you’re bound to fall out, you know.” Her relationship with Eric makes Janice “look like that, all lighted up inside … as if time not spent with the person she was going to meet were time wasted.” But, as Janice’s sister predicts, it all quickly fades: “One got over being in love, too, it seemed. Without quite knowing how or why.” In the beginning of the book, Ben seems like an old friend whom Janice loves as a brother. But by its end, we are told that this is the very best sort of love for a marriage to be based on. When Janice meets Ben in the end, she tells him, “Love shouldn’t be something that makes you catch on fire and then blows cold at a few puffs of wind. It should be something that warms you and makes you feel good all the time. Marriage should be that way too … so steady and secure that it can weather any changes.” On the final page she thinks (spoiler!) “I love you and am in love with you, since now I know they are one and the same. Or at least … the difference was different from what she had thought it was.”

It’s hardly worth pointing out that, in fact, loving someone and being in love with someone are not the same things. And the idea that passion will “blow cold” in about ten minutes may be true in some cases, but I can’t accept that you should settle for a platonic marriage because failure of romantic love is a possibility. This is such a different point of view from any other VNRN I have read—certainly Nurse Landon’s Challenge, written by this same author just three years later, had no such philosophy—that I have to ask myself what this is all about. I was just reading
America’s Women (by Gail Collins, Harper Perennial, ©2004) last night, which says this about World War II:

Marriage rates jumped. “The pressure to marry a soldier was so great that after a while I didn’t question it,” said Dellie Hahne of Los Angeles, who wound up unhappily wed to a man in uniform. “That women married soldiers and sent them overseas happy was hammered at us.”

So I am wondering if this book is intended as propaganda of that sort; otherwise it’s more than a little bewildering.

Office Nurse is a good read overall, even if its ideas about love are somewhat peculiar. The fact that the main love story is an illicit relationship is certainly novel, as far as VNRNs go. And the cover!! Did you notice the woman’s hand on the door, with that huge red ring? The cover line, “They Thought Their Affair Was A Secret”—how impossibly great is that? Up until now, Nurse Landon’s Challenge held the honors for best cover, but Office Nurse has triumphed. And as far as the story goes, ultimately not much is driving it, but even if it goes in aimless circles, there is plenty here to make the drive worthwhile.

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