Saturday, June 15, 2013

Nurse Tennant

By Elizabeth Hoy, ©1959
Cover illustration by Jack Harman

Nurse Sally Tennant entered the Matron’s cosy sitting-room in St. Winifred’s Nurses’ Home. She was sitting at her neat writing desk, one business-like ear pressed into the telephone. “Yes, Yes,” she was saying. “A good sailor: Yes, of course that would be essential. Naturally I will send someone capable of assuming entire responsibility. Passport? Yes, I’ll see that her passport is in order. Anything else? You’d like her to be along tomorrow afternoon. Yes, I have a most excellent nurse free at the moment.” Miss Hines hung up the receiver and peered at Sally’s interested face over her spectacles. “Did you want me, Matron?” Sally asked breathlessly. Good sailor, she was thinking wildly. Passport … boat sailing the day after tomorrow! It couldn’t be true that words like these could have anything to do with a case of nursing! But it was true. The steamship “Morning Glory” was setting out on a southern sunshine cruise and their nursing sister had fallen ill at the last moment. Thus Sally found herself with the most interesting nursing assignment she could have imagined. And much to her surprise the Assistant Surgeon turned out to be an old acquaintance, Dr. Jimmy Dykell …


“She wished frantically that she were back in some nice safe operating theatre where the worst thing that ever happened at tables was that people died on them.”

“It was a lonely thing when lovely things happened to you like this sea trip to have no one special you could tell about it.”

“She’d pictured the Americans as rather noisy and loud, given to exclaiming ‘Gee!’ and ‘Gosh!’ and “Swell’ in an extremely nasal manner.”

“The real man, the he-man, is always clumsy and hurtful and a bit cruel. That’s what makes him so adorable. Preserve me from the type of male who ‘understands’ women. They’re the world’s bores, believe me. I’ve men some and I know.”

“Thank goodness I’ve always been well enough to keep clear of hospitals and their tortures.”

“Most girls are so boring that the sooner you can shut their mouths with a kiss the more bearable they are.”

“He won’t be talking to her about diaphragms and arteries, she thought with sudden acrid bitterness.”

“I can’t jilt Sally very well before marriage. It seems to me so much less insulting to do it afterwards. Divorce is simple, and alimony usually comforts women quite a lot.”

What a relief to find a good VNRN! After a long string of lousy books, Nurse Tennant has restored my devotion to the genre—and, with Town Nurse—Country Nurse, in the Harlequin imprint, which so far this year has not been kind to me.

Sally Tennant is a private nurse suffering another drab English summer and an endless string of gouty old men patients. But then she’s given a position on a cruise ship about to depart for the Mediterranean: “The nursing sister of the Morning Glory had fallen ill at the eleventh hour. Kind, considerate nursing sister!” When she boards the ship, however, she finds that the resident doctor is none other than Jimmy Dykell, a young doctor whom she had dated two years ago, hoping to marry, until Jimmy’s mother took her aside and told her that if he were to marry, it would distract him from his burgeoning sure-to-be-brilliant career, and Sally wouldn’t want to be responsible for Jimmy’s failure, would she? No, she wouldn’t, so she’d started seeing other men, leaving Jimmy to wonder, broken-hearted. Now, reunited professionally, at least, Jimmy is looking at her with cold eyes, and her great stroke of luck has turned to torture.

Part of her job is to dine with a table of passengers, and she lands a group of Americans traveling together: Dulcie Manners, age 19, and her mother; and the Seldens and their son, Derek. The two youngsters are supposed to marry, but Dulcie has instead gotten herself secretly engaged to Jimmy, whom she met a couple of months ago on holiday in Scotland. Dulcie is spoiled and shallow, with a tendency to say things like, “I think your uniform is the cutest thing!” and, “Aren’t men just too stupid for words?” But she’s also likable, and so with mixed feelings, Sally befriends with Dulcie, promising to help Dulcie convince her mother that becoming Mrs. Dykell would be the best thing to ever happen to the teenager. Mrs. Manners, however, has a rapidly shrinking bank account, so she is eying the Seldens’ fortune with admiration and is not inclined to be impressed by a new MD with nothing but prospects to keep him warm.

Though Jimmy is usually cold and aloof with Sally on duty, from time to time he does find her charms irresistible, such as when she’s about to go blundering off a cliff in Monte Carlo and he feels compelled to pull her into his arms and kiss her, so relieved is he that he’s saved her from the fatal plunge. He also clearly appreciates her (naturally) superior nursing skills, and is forever encouraging her to raise her sights beyond being a visiting nurse. He has a very strong faith in the excellence of her character, and as time passes and they warm up a bit to each other, he presses her on occasion to explain why she left him. Though she still loves him and yearns for him tragically, she can’t break her promise to Dulcie and feels her own chance with Jimmy has passed, so she can’t bring herself to tell him the truth. “It is nothing to him that my hair is piled up in the very newest of little curls on my forehead, that I’ve opened my best bottle of Chanel, or that this dress suits me better than most,” she despairs at one point. Their relationship feels genuine, and genuinely painful, and I believed it.

With Dulcie set to marry Jimmy, Derek is left out in the cold, but not to worry—he soon discovers Sally’s attractions. “Listen, darling!” he tells her. “I’m rich and I’m not altogether of a villainous disposition. I could give you a rattling good time. Wouldn’t it be better to marry me than go back to this dull job of yours?” Sally, seeing an easy way to deter Jimmy once and for all—since his own engagement hasn’t stopped him from displaying his affection for her on occasion—agrees to this unique proposal. It’s better to be in a loveless marriage than alone, she reasons: “Miss Tennant, spinster, she thought with a shudder, a gaunt, gray-haired creature with a  gallant smile nailed to her haggish, thin-lipped countenance, a smile that grew more and more gallant and apologetic as the years went by. That was probably what happened to you if you wasted your whole heart over one fruitless unhappy love affair and neglected to find yourself a nice sensible husband!”

Sally also takes up with aging and wealthy Mrs. de Frene, who has a fatal heart condition and is expecting to die on this cruise. But she doesn’t mind, really, because then she’ll be with her beloved husband in heaven. It’s a common device, the aged wealthy widow who you can tell from the minute you clap eyes on her is going to end up leaving our heroine with a bundle of money, but Frene is a sweetly drawn character, and I didn’t mind at all the otherwise trite plot device.

This is a top-notch book, livelier than most, entertaining, and sincere. For starters, I loved Elizabeth Hoy’s writing from the second sentence: “From the double row of sturdy plane trees the leaves blew down, torn and brown and finished.” Throughout the book, little gems like this sparkle. Sally is not the ordinary VNRN heroine, but has spunk and intelligence and humor. Other characters also are not simplistic; while it would be easy to make Dulcie into an undeserving, spoiled snippet, she is in the end sympathetic, even if she is admittedly vapid. Scenes when Sally and Jimmy are together, and Sally is feeling both drawn to him and the impossibleness of having him, feel real, even a painful. The ending is one of the nicer I’ve read, sweet without being nauseating, and including the smartly self-aware sentence, “There isn’t much more of importance to add to the history of Sally and Jimmy.” And so it was with complete satisfaction that I closed Nurse Tennant, and it is with eagerness I look forward to Elizabeth Hoy’s three other nurse novels. 

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