Verna’s career was going very well. At twenty-three she was the youngest Sister the Jubilee Hospital had ever had. But at home, too, she was the youngest sister, continually overshadowed by the brilliant, charming Daphne, and that fact brought a good many unwelcome complications into Verna’s life.
“Verna wondered if it was a sign of weakness in her that she did rather thrill to a man like Moray Morton-Alleyne. To be taken in hand by him, to be loved and cherished and possessed by such a forceful personality would be a marvelously exciting experience.”
“The yearning for power is very strong in most women.”
“Men don’t choose wives for their suitability.”
“The police are really most inconsiderate these days.”
“Very few patients have any sense.”
“I’ll try not to drive you to drink or drugs.”
Verna Ellesworth is the youngest of a trio of sisters that includes middle daughter Ellice and Daphne, the eldest. Verna is a wallflower at home, dubbed, unfortunately, “Baby,” though at work she is hard-working and smart enough to be made the head nurse of the pediatrics ward at age 23. Her sister Ellice has it a lot worse in the nickname department, though, as she’s called “Elephant” by their oh-so-charming sister Daphne. Daphne is a glamorous, beautiful, charismatic young woman who had enthralled or been engaged to half the men in town, moved on to Edinburg where she’d become engaged to a Scottish doctor she calls “MM,” then ditched him at the last minute and eloped with a wealthy Californian 20 years her senior, which is considered a terrible letdown by Daphne’s family. Now that she’s gone, Ellice and Verna are forging lives—love and otherwise—of their own. Ellice is in love with bounder Clay Derrilles, one of “Daphne’s Discards” and son of the town’s rich man. Clay, however, is never going to notice the “brainy” Ellice, an unsentimental, “uncompromisingly squarish,” “much less fun” straight shooter who is “too broad for feminine standards.” If Ellice is not always kind in her speaking, she is always honest, and her actions are extraordinarily caring. She’s decided that since Clay won’t have her, she’s going to pick up another Discard, Francis French, a journalist who is funny, smart, and steady, and as fate would have it, he likes her too. “Let’s face it!” Ellice snaps at Verna when she is reluctant to approve the match. “One can’t always have what one wants, if one doesn’t happen to be a Daphne, isn’t it as well to settle for what one can have, before it’s too late? Francis and I understood each other. We’re neither of us wildly romantic, but we like being together. We shall make a good team.” And they do, as we have ample opportunity to witness.
For her part, Verna feels she is doomed to be a forgotten waif. She is “nice and conscientious and endearing, but not in the least outstanding. It wasn’t often that Verna distinguished herself in any way.” But right out of the gate, she encounters Dr. Morton-Alleyne, and instantly “she felt as if she had just received a violent electric shock,” and suddenly she had “known with a wild, unshakable conviction that he was the fulfilment of her vague and childish dreams.” “She knew that this particular man was for her and she for him. It was equivalent to pairing gloves. There could be no uncertainty. A pair was a pair.” I know that sounds nauseating, but the portrait we are given of Verna as a very young innocent makes it somehow seem reasonable that she should feel this way. She’s so naïve, in fact, that she fails to figure out until very late in the book what the reader realized on about page 20: That Dr. Moray Morton-Allyne, who hails from – wait for it – Edinburg, is actually the Discard who had been engaged to and relieved from marrying Daphne when she ran off with the Californian.
Anyway, the plot—and there is one—involves the Habbitt family: mom Dora gives birth to quintuplets who are nursed into life and health by Dr. Morton and Verna. Husband Bill, driving recklessly to his wife’s side in Clay’s car (Bill works for Clay’s dad), gets into a wreck that gravely injures an old man, Clay included, and flees unseen from the scene, leaving Clay in the hospital holding the bag for a possible manslaughter rap should the pedestrian die. Peculiarly, Clay decides not to rat out Bill but instead pleads amnesia to such a degree that not only is he unable to remember the accident, he also thinks Verna is Daphne come home to marry him, and he insists she wear Daphne’s old engagement ring. Now we have one of those VNRN tropes, the one where the ill, usually paralyzed man must be allowed to think that he’s engaged to our heroine, who does not love him. Clay even has a slipped disc in his back, but his ability to ambulate is mercifully barely questioned. Furthermore, everyone thinks Clay is faking it, and he is soon forced to acknowledge the fact, but everyone is still pressing Verna to marry Clay, including Clay himself.
The wrench in the works for Clay is that eventually Moray takes Verna into his arms and tells her that he loves her. “She raised her lips to his in glad, frank surrender.” OK, that’s unfortunate, but again it is entirely within Verna’s character. Unfortunately, Daphne turns up shortly thereafter, having been divorced after a year of marriage to her Californian, with the intention of reclaiming M.M. Verna, who has idolized Daphne as a near goddess, instantly throws in the towel and breaks off her engagement with Moray, telling him he should have let her know he had been engaged to her sister (which he should have) and that she knows he’s still in love with Daphne.
Back in her own back yard, Daphne turns out to be quite horrid. She’s a self-centered, mean, overdressed (who wears diamonds and sapphires to the Nurse’s Ball?), shallow divorcée, and Verna and Ellice instantly recognize this. She drapes herself around Moray, who clearly is not enjoying it but astonishingly loses what until now has been an overly sturdy spine and is unable to tell her straight up that he has no interest in her. For her part, Verna is pathetically blind to Moray’s discomfort as well as his attempts to tell her that he loves only her. On the evening of Ellice’s engagement party, which Daphne plans to make as much about her as possible, the steadfast Ellice pulls off a stunt that plays on Daphne’s shallow character and causes her to publicly relinquish Moray and instead cast herself into Clay’s arms—the former cad now found new strength and character from his brush with death or incarceration and likely to be able to bring Daphne to heel. So Moray, having done nothing on his own to cast Daphne aside, is now free for Verna to accept again.
The hokiness of some of the plot threads made me want to not like this book, but it just couldn’t be helped. It’s an enjoyable story that sucks you into its characters, infuriating as they can be—how can Mr. Ellesworth be so enthralled with his most disagreeable daughter?—while giving you some really lovely people who make you look up with eagerness when they enter a room, Ellice and Francis in particular. Even Daphne, horrid is as she is, is still interesting to watch, catlike, as you wait for her inevitable downfall. Characters believably grow, and if Verna and Daphne are not any of those, the surrounding cast and the brisk plotting make this a very pleasant story. Only after I had finished it did I realize that the author also gave us Nurse Willow’s Ward, another absorbing story of a family of sisters with snappy dialogue (snappier than this book, it must be confessed). Author Irene Swatridge apparently wrote huge numbers of romance novels, so I look forward to meeting the nurses among them.