Saturday, January 26, 2013

Visiting Nurse

By Jeanne Judson, ©1957
Also published as A Doctor for the Nurse

Proud, lovely, ardently devoted to the great task of aiding the poor and helpless, Elizabeth Downer knew she had found her calling. But her passionate young heart was torn between two doctors, each arrogantly claiming her as his alone. Dr. Galland was darkly handsome. Sometimes she believed his youth and high spirits hid a deep understanding of human suffering. Dr. Denham, quite but strong, was intensely dedicated to medicine. His burning eyes were like the eyes of a priest. And one of these doctors had a secret—a secret which Elizabeth was forced to face. How this warmly courageous girl forged the life she desired is the theme of this moving and fascinating story.


“You’re not old enough to be a public health nurse and you’re much too pretty. You can’t expect sensible people to take you seriously.”

“All blind dates were either dull or obstreperous. Attractive men could find their own girls.”

“She was delighted to find that among his other and more obvious attractions, he must be a most accomplished, tactful, and spontaneous liar.”

“What fools men were. They pretended to think nothing of dress, but they really saw little else in a girl. Helen of Troy in a dusty uniform, wearing clumsy-looking shoes, wouldn’t attract a second glance from any of them.”

“Link never let anything as prosaic as statistics interfere with his exuberant optimism.”

Elizabeth Downer is a county nurse in Cornwall, PA. She’s working with two doctors: handsome Dr. Kit Galland, who is the nephew of Dr. Purvis, the town’s most senior MD, and is expected to step into his practice when the old man retires; and Dr. Frederic Denham, who has no connections and works tirelessly. But Dr. Denham is also a little creepy; when she first meets him, “She was trying to think what his eyes reminded her of—something disturbing. They were the eyes of a zealot, claiming a sacrifice of self that was beyond ordinary people. Dr. Denham’s eyes were as hard and bright as diamonds.” So right away we understand which of the two Elizabeth hankers for, and it isn’t too much longer before we figure out that he’s not the one who most wants her. (This makes the back cover blurb, above in italics, a complete fiction, one of my personal pet peeves.)

Soon it is revealed that Dr. Denham is to become the new chief of medicine at the local hospital—the very position that Dr. Purvis had been reserving for Dr. Galland. A wealthy foundation has approached the hospital, offering to finance a large new wing, but only on condition that Dr. Denham is made chief. Elizabeth tries to stay neutral in her opinion of Dr. Denham, but soon he’s asked her to dinner and is pressing her to help him in his new role. “You’re going to help me. We’re going to do this together,” he says, eagerly pressing her hand. Then he remembers he has patients waiting and abruptly ends the date, leaving her to get home from the restaurant on her own. After that Dr. Denham seems to pop up and invite himself to lunch a lot. Elizabeth’s friend Peggy warns her: “Whatever you do, don’t go and get yourself engaged to Frederic Denham. You couldn’t call your soul your own, married to a man like that. He’s the kind of man who would want to give you improving books.” Sure enough, he drops by with a “very heavy, much footnoted tome on geriatrics.”

Elizabeth is becoming increasingly disenchanted with Dr. Denham, changing her customary path home so she won’t pass by his office, but he finds her anyway and refuses her refusal of dinner with him. Unfortunately, she lacks the spine to insist. “Being with him was not a relaxation. It was more like a continuation of work,” she thinks—and then he tells her that he is a single man in want of a wife, and goes on to explain his plans for the future at length. “With a little training, a little guidance from me, you can learn to control your impulses,” says the romantic fool. She turns him down, saying she does not love him—and that he has not said the he loves her. “Oh, that—I forgot,” he says, and then kisses her so awkwardly that he is provoked to tell her, “I’ve never approved of the promiscuous familiarities.” He leaves, saying he’ll give her time to think it over, completely missing the fact that Elizabeth has already declined. “She realized that he believed she had refused him because she thought the honor or the responsibility too great.” (Shades of Jane Austen, anyone?) After this, Dr. Denham becomes increasingly irritating, and there’s “something disturbingly proprietary in his indulgent smiles which were more frequent than formerly.”

But she is also working with Dr. Galland on her rounds, and indeed becomes his patient when she falls and breaks her wrist (it’s a Colles fracture, if you’re curious). Dr. Galland is dropping by daily with flowers and mystery stories, while Dr. Denham stops in to lecture her on the virtues of constant study: “It is only by reading the conclusions of many different people that you attain the critical faculty to judge the value of a book for yourself,” he drones. He objects to Dr. Galland’s flowers and mysteries: “It’s high time we let him know that I’m going to marry you,” he says, still not hearing Elizabeth’s constant refusals: “You can’t marry me if I don’t say yes,” she tells him, and thinks, “He couldn’t—could he?”

Then Dr. Denham’s secret is revealed—he is actually very rich and the driving force behind the foundation that bought his own promotion in the hospital. His intention in his new position is to establish new medical techniques: “Cornwall is to be a sort of guinea-pig town,” Peggy tells Elizabeth. “When he has our hospital running as smoothly as a Russian slave labor camp, he’ll go on to some other place and do it all over again, until he’s made the entire country over the way he wants it.” This does not improve him in Elizabeth’s eyes—indeed, it sinks him: “One can’t feel sorry for a multimillionaire.” So now it’s just a matter of convincing him that Elizabeth isn’t going to marry him, and of convincing Dr. Galland that he should, which comes to pass in an enjoyable scene. The sweet ending is almost undone by an unexpected turn from one character on the penultimate page, but it’s a minor glitch.

This book is delightfully written, full of little gems like, “She rose quickly from the rocking chair, decanting three cats from her lap,” or “Peggy managed to get possession of the cakes and the absence of Mrs. Loftus by a combination of flattery and ruthlessness.” Peripheral characters are well-drawn and amusing, and the story itself is gentle and meandering. Most of the story is about Elizabeth’s patients and how she wrangles them and their problems, and frankly it’s difficult to remember much about the plot after the book is over, but it has a pleasant, sweet touch that lingers. It’s similar to the other Jeanne Judson book I’ve read, City Nurse, even down to the Austen-esque proposals. But that just means you have two delightful books to linger over, lucky you.

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