Monday, February 21, 2011

East of the Sun

By Hermina Black, ©1952

The oasis hospital of St. Anthony of the Desert was comparatively quiet until the arrival of dynamic young Dr. Allerby. And what was Venetia, the attractive young Matron, to do about Prince Amin-Ali, now that she knew where her heart lay?


“The shortage of red tape would have made an average hospital committee faint.”

“If that is Dr. Glennister Allerby it’s just wickedly wasteful of him to keep his mind on microbes.”

“Temper—temperament, and—much too good looking! Three things I detest in a doctor.”

“Heaven alone knows what orgies we’ll be up to, when you’re no longer here to control us, sir.”

“Other girls fell in love and got themselves kissed—but by what inadequate men, poor things!”

“Meggie moved away, looking really pretty with the help of the finest cosmetic any girl can have—happiness.”

“ ‘Kiss me!’ he commanded. ‘Homeopathic doses are all very well, but—I’ve never prescribed them—’ ”

British vintage nurse romance novels have a certain feeling about them. They’re calm, with a bit of a stiff upper lip; there’s lots of conversation and tea, and not much really happens. Even the back cover blurb, above, exemplifies their quiet and contained nature. As an American—or maybe that’s really my low-brow taste—I prefer the camp and crash of a fabulously silly book like Cover Girl Nurse, but now and again, I do enjoy a nice cup of hot and a British VNRN.

East of the Sun, we are told repeatedly, is a reference to the song, so now whenever I see the cover I hear Tony Bennett crooning his heart out. Venetia Corliss is the young Matron (for a glossary of British terms, see Silent Heart) of a hospital in the desert, drawn because, in true colonial fashion, “Every now and then certain Europeans are born into the world who are attracted by the Arab races—living among them they develop a love and understanding which is as strong as any racial tie.” Well, let’s not get too carried away.

The PMO, or principal medical officer, or chief of staff, is Dr. Hammond, her godfather, but he’s having a bit of a health crisis and is off to England for six months to unwind. In his stead comes Dr. Glennister Allerby, who is quite the hot tomato—though our cool Venetia is unmoved. “All the nurses will fall in love with him,” says Farina, a princess and one of Venetia’s patients. “What nonsense!” Venetia answers. “You read too many romances.” Indeed, Venetia and Dr. Allerby cross swords almost immediately—but we all know what that portends. “When you begin by hating a man you almost always fall in love with him,” predicts the wise Farina.

Someone else is vying for Venetia’s affections—Prince Amin-Ali, the prime minister and also cousin of the desert country’s ruler. He is, in fact, the reason Dr. Allerby initially dislikes Venetia, as he finds a card bearing a suggestive message in some flowers Amin-Ali has given her. Dr. Allerby is a bit more openly bigoted, even hesitating before he can bring himself to shake the prince’s hand on their first meeting: “Plenty of Western women found Eastern men attractive, though the type of women who did, had always raised his disgusted contempt. … If she must philander, couldn’t she find someone of her own color?” What Dr. Allerby doesn’t realize is that however suave the prince is—he drives a powder-blue Rolls Royce and hands out emerald bracelets like they were candy bars—his suit with Venetia is doomed, because, after all, he is a “darned wog.” So much for that “love and understanding.” He’s also married, but that doesn’t seem to occupy a prominent place in Venetia’s consideration of the man’s romantic possibilities.

We’re told that Venetia doesn’t care for him because “he was Eastern to the core as far as his opinion of the place women should occupy in the world went.” Farina tells Venetia, “He would keep us veiled forever, if he could … We are for play-time, and not to be taken seriously in a man’s world. … He may have studied at a French university, but he is still only one step outside the harem. And he keeps his foot against the door!” But there’s a bit of a double standard at work here. Once Venetia and Glen hook up (you knew that was coming), she puts the handcuffs on herself: “She would have resented being ordered to do anything, once—after all she was his property.” After they are married, Venetia thinks, to resume working will be “a big temptation … but she knew she must resist. Dear as her work was to her—difficult as it might be to choose between her two loves, being Glen’s wife was going to be a full time job.” So it seems Easterners aren’t the only ones who go in for harems; is it any better that the Western version is apparently self-imposed?

Glen and Venetia get over their bad start by mid-book, after which we are regularly treated to nauseating syrup such as “the real be-all and end-all of life was Glen,” “without him she could never be whole again,” “how had she ever lived without him,” can you take any more? But if we are to plump up the second half of the book, something must happen beyond swooning. So Dr. Glen wanders into the garden at a party, finds Amin-Ali trying to kiss Venetia against her will, and socks the prince on the jaw. (Of course, Glen later is angry at Venetia for allowing herself to be sexually assaulted, and she agrees that she was “wrong on every count.” Nice.) This is where the real drama—if we can use the word in such a mild book—begins, because, “In men of his race, hatred is a dangerous and destructive flame.” Amin-Ali will avenge the insult, so Venetia spends a lot of time sick with worry about Glen’s terrible peril. There is indeed an attempt on his life—will he survive? And how can we possibly find the evidence that Amin-Ali was behind it? Not to worry, everything comes to light, and the prince is mysteriously disappeared by the country’s ruler, though no one seems to be overly troubled by this lapse in the rule of law.

East of the Sun is a pleasant little book, racial bigotries notwithstanding. There are some interesting minor characters, including Frances, a trollop of a nurse who stirs up trouble for Glen and Venetia. The luxurious touches make the book more exotic, such as when “the Rolls stopped, and the blue and silver uniformed attendant sitting beside the chauffeur, got out, and opened the door with a deep bow. And out stepped Frances Elland. The car slid away, while Frances, looking cool, and very smart, in her grey silk suit and feathered hat, came slowly up the steps.” (
Some VNRN reviewers find these attentions to wardrobe patronizing, but I, for one, will shamelessly admit that I love them.) The settings are also alluring, as we spend a fair amount of time on shaded verandas with wooden slatted blinds or rooms with carved and gilded ceilings, walls of deep lapis lazuli flecked with silver, and deep chairs covered with blue morocco leather. It’s not quite as campy as some VNRNs, but it’s not meant to be, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable book in its own right.

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