Monday, December 15, 2014

Nurse Nancy

By Jane Scott
(pseud. Adeline McElfresh), ©1959

Special-duty Nurse Nancy Davies thought her case with Angela Crayton, the famous actress, would be a dream. She lived with the beautiful star in her summer home where Angela kept open house for all her Hollywood and Broadway friends. But Nancy soon learned that these men and women had a code of easy morality which said, “live for today, forget tomorrow.” Beautiful, young Nurse Nancy faced the sternest test of her professional career—could she be true to her own standards as a nurse—and a woman—in this glittering world?


“She’s so sure she’s going to die on the table, I wouldn’t be surprised if she does.”

“Everyone knew that Lee Saltonsbie was counting the days until he would go into private practice and ‘get started on my first hundred thousand.’ ”

“Clay’s future in politics had nothing whatever to do with their growing apart. If they had, she thought. No, it was her career—her dedication to it—that was causing the trouble.”

“Angela was improving. Or seemed to be. Sometimes, with these mental things, you couldn’t tell.”

Nurse Nancy Davies is one of those sad VNRN heroines engaged to a man who not only is unfortunately named Clay Randall but who is not the man she thought he was when they met in Maine last summer “on a glorious vacation of sunswept days and moon-drenched nights. They were a bronzed god and a laughing nymph alone in the enchantment of their love,” if you must know. Unfortunately, however, these deities were obliged to go back to work, and now she’s desperately trying to convince herself that her fiancé doesn’t have feet of Clay—and there’s only so much of this a reader can take before you’re ready to pummel Nurse Nancy right upside the head. “She didn’t hate Clay; she couldn’t do that. But did she love him? She had at first—of course she had! she told herself sternly. Surely that surge of happiness, the wonderful, exciting, different happiness, had been love! She wasn’t the type of girl to fall lightly in love and then out … and yet …”

See what I mean?

Clay, it turns out, is ambitious for a career in politics, and so Nancy must quit her job when they are married. “Why couldn’t he understand that the hospital and her work there were such an important part of her that without them she wouldn’t be the Nancy Davies he had fallen in love with? It didn’t matter that as Mrs. Clay Randall she wouldn’t have to work for financial reasons. She wanted to do more with her life than head committees and have lunch and play golf at the country club.” Why would anyone continue to entertain the idea of marrying this man through 100 pages, even when from page two “Clay’s kisses had become just kisses” and the man is clearly making her miserable—and would only make her more so if she actually went through with it? Have I mentioned that I find this plot device patronizing, idiotic, and lazy?

Anyway, the central plot is also somewhat patronizing, at least to faded theater star Angela Crayton, who once was the queen of Broadway but after three successive flops about a decade ago has holed herself up on the shores of Birch Lake, Indiana, and is showing depressive—bordering on suicidal—tendencies. Dr. Bartlett Howard, her physician, needs a nurse to pose as a secretary for Miss Crayton. “If Angela Crayton finds out that her doctor thinks she’s borderline mental the fat might be in the fire,” explains Dr. Paulson, the chief of surgery at Nancy’s hospital, when he urges her to take the position. It’s not evident that Nancy is the right person for the job; as Dr. Howard is filling her in on the details of the case, “Angela Crayton didn’t need a secretary or a nurse, Nancy thought. She needed a keeper.” Psychiatry, when viewed through the myopic lens of a 1950s-era VNRN, is horrifically stunted and frequently sexist. Angela “was being driven, something over which she had no control was lashing her into a frenzy of despondency,” we’re told—and Nancy’s next thought is, “Poor thing. Lonely, and getting old, hating the crow’s feet and wrinkles—” It’s a wonder all women don’t kill themselves at 45.

So the book is mostly a tennis match between Nancy’s distaste for her fiancé and her work as a typist and spy, noting every despondent look and midnight drive of Angela’s, and doing absolutely nothing about it. Eventually Dr. Howard strikes on the idea of having the local theater group stage the play that was Angela’s greatest triumph and asking her to reprise her starring “rôle”—and have a Hollywood director offer her the leading part in a movie. Just the thing to shake off the crow’s-feet blahs!

As Angela naturally improves under this thoughtful treatment, she eventually fires Nancy, telling her that she’s known all along that Nancy is really a nurse—her shorthand was terrible! Angela suggests that Nancy continue to stay on at her house, though, and take a job at the little hospital nearby, working for Dr. Howard. Now we have another trite device: A tornado whips through town, and Nancy is busy patching up victims—and breaking up with Clay, who shows up during the crisis to drag her by the hair back to his cave while she’s giving Mary Claudion another cooling bath and alcohol rub. Curiously, Clay is on his way out of town—empty-handed, of course—at 90 mph when he wraps his car around a tree, so now he’s back at the hospital, this time as a guest under Nancy’s care. Ordinarily this leads to some sort of epiphany or understanding between the couple, even if it’s just to agree they’re not right for each other and part as friends. But in this book, Clay is admitted, Nancy pours him a glass of ice water, and then three pages later she’s dropping him off at his law office and he’s stomping angrily up the walk on his crutches.

Back in Birch Lake, where Nancy has decided to stay permanently, everything is neatly wrapped up. Guess what happens with Angela? Guess who kisses Nancy next? You probably won’t actually guess there’ll be yet another calamity to attend to, with Nancy fervently urging, “Oh, Bart, hurry!” or that the final page will include the death of a minor character for Nancy and her new beau to smooch over—one of the more unusual endings I’ve come across—but these small surprises give not pleasure, only bewilderment.

This is a pedestrian, automatic, stupid book. It’s not badly written, and its most irritating aspects—its views on psychiatry, and Nancy’s reluctance to give up a man she doesn’t like and a future she will despise—can in part be chalked up to the archaic attitudes of the times. But the book is lazy, and the heroine who cannot acknowledge the dichotomy between adherence to sexist attitudes and the complete abandonment of logic and reason that these positions require is not worthy of our time. No one—especially not nurses, who are by definition strong, independent, smart, and capable—should be a willing victim. While I’ve certainly read nurse novels that are far worse than Nurse Nancy, I find after a couple hundred VNRNs under my belt I am becoming increasingly intolerant of stupid heroines, and so I cannot suggest that you stop and visit with Nurse Nancy.

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