Saturday, January 19, 2019

Nurse Hilary’s Holiday Task

By Jan Haye, ©1964
Cover illustration by JH (Jack Harman?)

Nurse Hilary Hope, just recovered from an attack of pneumonia, took the job of accompanying Lady Vesper to Auvergne, in France, as her nurse. There she met her ladyship’s doctor, Raoul de la Rue, to whom she was attracted despite herself, for theirs was by no means an amicable relationship.


“She wasn’t in love with any of the doctors or students at the hospital, as many of her fellows were, and none of the boys in her home village interested her more than as friends and occasional companions She sometimes wondered if she was abnormal in this respect; perhaps she was undersexed.”

“I’ve had better kisses from my Labrador.”

“That red-headed nurse on Maternity was suspended on being caught in the linen-cupboard with a doctor, who shall remain nameless. Remember, kiddo, it’s the woman who always pays in our profession. Never look at a doctor unless he’s proposed to you in front of witnesses. They’re a dangerous breed, and so darned attractive.”

“No young woman cares to be fully understood by a member of the opposite sex. Like an iceberg she shows only an eighth of herself above the surface.”

“‘I thought being in love would be a wonderful experience,’ she half groaned. ‘It’s going to be awful.’”

“I knew there was something sadly wrong with her, and as she’s had all her injections it could only  be love.”

The title of this book confused me—if she’s on holiday, why does she have a task?—so if you are also in need of clarification, let me explain: Nurse Hilary Hope, having just gotten over pneumonia and being told that if she goes back to work in the hospital she will likely get it a second time and become so debilitated that she will never be able to work again, has taken an easy private-duty gig that passes as a vacation. So her “holiday task” is really a reference to her less-than-demanding job that brings her to the French countryside, sort of a working vacation.

Lady Caroline Vesper likes to surround herself with people with alliterative names, such as her son, Verian Vesper, and her doctor, the gloriously named Raoul de la Rue. So our steadfast heroine, Hilary Hope, is a clear choice to accompany her to her manor in Auvergne, where Lady V will recover after a heart attack caused by overdoing it in the setting of unspecified congenital heart defect. Lady Vesper is a catty snob, and makes it a practice to “annihilate nurses as some people annihilate bugs.” Well, we’ll see about that! Because Hilary may not be in perfect health herself, but she is completely sound of mind and spine, and very admirably acquits herself as one who will not be pushed around. She forcefully but gently gets the upper hand on Lady Vesper—talcum-powder massages go a long way toward that end—and indeed on everyone in the household.

Lady Vesper has decided to push Hilary on her son Verian, who has fallen in love with an unsuitable village girl, in the hope that such an affair will make Verian forget this wench, just as she understands that Hilary’s lowly station in life will keep Verian from marrying Hilary. They’re snobs, remember? Indeed, Verian tells Hilary, “Don’t misunderstand me, I like girls of your class. I really do. They’re intelligent and useful.” So her early crush on the man is instantly, well, crushed. However she is big enough that she continues to be friends with him, unfortunately in that weird VNRN way in which women who have no interest in a man allow him to kiss her from time to time—usually just as Raoul de la Rue is walking in the door.

Raoul is handsome, of course, patrician and, unfortunately, 12 years her senior. When they first work together to deliver a local baby, she spars smartly with him, calling him out on his sexist assumption that the baby will be a boy, using the pronoun “she” at every reference to the baby. It turns out to be a boy after all, but she doesn’t give in: “It’s a lovely baby,” she says, “and that’s really all any mother wants. Sex is unimportant except to certain mediaeval-minded males.” Raoul appreciates her repartee, and tells her, “When I feel like a fight I will send for you again, eh?”

And so the book meanders down the wide country lane that you know it will, as Hilary finds that she’s in love with Raoul, initially thinking him indifferent to her—but on the night of Verian’s 21st birthday party they have their rapprochement, and The Kiss, which just for laughs I will report dutifully for you: “He bent and took her lips, softly as thistledown and as firm as steel, and as they kissed and merged and drew apart and sighed there were bells and heavenly strings sighing in a celestial symphony that drowned all the normal sounds of the night and the artificial music that mere men created for less blessed beings’ cavortings.” What an odd coincidence—this is exactly what happens when I greet my husband after a long day at work!

Anyway, we’re still 40 pages from the end of the book so there’s a little misunderstanding in which Hilary is accused of stealing Lady Vesper’s jewels—I am pleased to tell you that at least some of the characters who have known Hilary best devoutly insist that she is innocent—but as suspect number one she is not allowed to leave the house, make phone calls, or tell Raoul what is going on, as Lady Vesper has sworn everyone to secrecy so as to avoid bad publicity. This means that when Raoul makes his visit to the house she must be formally professional in front of her patient and cannot walk him to his car, which makes him think she’s changed her mind …

Not to worry, duckies, it all comes to rights in the end, just as you knew it would. So despite this little blip and a profoundly hideous cover illustration (with all the money Harlequin made, why were they so cheap not to shell out for better cover artists? Instead of assembling a collection of what is hands-down the worst covers ever? Well, second-worst, after Valentine—ugh!), this turns out to be a quietly delightful book. The writing is sturdy and clean, frequently giving us comic exchanges that made me laugh out loud—particularly when the author introduces a pair of young American men and teases them mercilessly, giving them dialogue such as, “Hiya, honey!” and “You betcha!” There are lovely descriptions of the house, countryside, food, and wardrobe (I am not too proud to enjoy a yellow linen sleeveless dress with white box pleats). The characters are well-drawn, including the glorious sassy nursing school roommate, who appears seldom but makes a splash when she does. Hilary is an ideal heroine, intelligent and mostly sensible, not afraid to tell people off when they have it coming, someone who makes mistakes but learns from them. In short, while not a glamorous vamp, this book is an easy, soothing story, a cool, mint-sprigged gin and tonic on a sunny afternoon.

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