Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Doctor Napier’s Nurse

By Pauline Ash, © 1967

Catherine Hewson—Midge to her friends—and her cousin Derry, another Catherine Hewson, were to start their nursing careers on the same day, but at different hospitals, and Derry had suggested, for some purpose of her own, that they change places. But Midge was not at all sure that it was such a good idea …


“Did you know there was a disgusting dummy that we pretend is a patient, and practice on it? It has all the lifelike etceteras, and I almost killed it with pneumonia yesterday by leaving it uncovered during a blanket bath.”

“Three other people sharing a secret, and it was a secret no longer.”

I’ve been a little crabby with VNRNs lately; it seems every book I pick up is another dull rehash of the usual threadbare plotlines (looking at you, New Surgeon at St. Lucien’s, Nell Shannon, R.N., Dr. Holland’s Nurse, Staff Nurse Sally). So it was with great dismay that I realized two pages into Doctor Napier’s Nurse that I had actually read this book before, but had failed to write a review—and remembering little of it now, would have to read it again to be able to tell you something about it. I should have noticed, however, that this book is by Pauline Ash, who also gave us With Love from Dr. Lucien, a lovely book that earned an A- and a fond place for the author in my heart—with that knowledge I would have groaned less loudly, thereby not startling my travelling companions on the subway. In the end this book does not come up to Dr. Lucien, but is definitely not groan-worthy, and possibly even worth a second read.

Here we have the 19-year-old Catherine Hewson, called Midge, and her cousin of same name and age, called Derry. They are also both orphans—they have a surprising amount in common, this pair—and have been raised by formidable aunts Eleanor and Sapphira, who have decided that the young ladies will be packed off to nursing school: Midge to Tapley’s under Eleanor’s friend Dr. Blair Napier, and Derry to St. Augustine’s with Sapphira’s acquaintance Dr. Paul Pinder. Derry is a wily gal with a fondness for the lads that got her booted from her boarding school, and her plan to buck the yoke imposed on the cousins involves switching places with Midge. The  problem with this is that Midge is just not at all the sort of person who would sign up for such an obviously bad idea. But for the sake of the plot, she does, and regrets it mightily on every page that follows.

Both doctor-mentors have been alerted as to the natures of the incoming nursing students, so Dr. Napier is puzzled by Midge, who frequently “forgot she was supposed to be rather dim and frivolous, and settled in to help anyone who required her.” Turns out that despite her upper-class upbringing, “she was liking the life and the work more and more every day,” and soon comes to regret the fact that her little escapade is likely to undo her future career as a nurse. Dr. Napier also happens to be 28, and before long, “Midge faced the fact that she liked Dr. Napier. Liked him more than was sensible for a little P.T.S. nurse who was probably a good ten years his junior.” But because her plot with Derry involves a lot of sneaking out to see Derry so as to deliver mail she would have received and to head off aunts coming to visit, Midge is perennially in hot water with Dr. Napier, who soon insists that he drive her everywhere when she sets foot out of the hospital and is always lurking in his car outside any shop or pub she ventures into, and then glaring at her and crooking his finger at her to pull her in for a ticking off. Frankly, it’s pretty darned creepy.

To her credit, Midge is not impressed with his behavior, either. When he objects that she won’t call him by Blair, his first name—which does suit him, because he is frequently blaring at her—she says, “I can’t. Every time I see you, you’re looking like thunder. You just have to keep picking on me for something. I just can’t please you, can I?” She proceeds to tell him off, shaking with anger. But he can figure out that something is amiss—the girl that Aunt Eleanor told him smokes like a chimney chokes on the one he forces on her, and her work is too good for a young lady who is alleged to have no mind or interest in work or school. “I find it more and more difficult to believe that you are that sort of person at all,” he says. “It’s as if your good aunt is talking about someone else, a stranger. I just can’t understand it!”

She also quickly comes to despise Derry, who, having talked Midge into the stunt in order to further her relationship with a film star she’d pursued in boarding school—a fact that she had not previously revealed to Midge—now shows no inclination to help Midge out with the various entanglements she’s in over it, and in general demonstrates that she is really a horrible person. “Had Derry ever felt anything more deeply than the two words ‘I want’ could conjure up? Had Derry ever felt remorse or compassion for the people she had twisted, in trying to get her own way?” The aunts finally disclose that the way they’d decided to bring Derry to heel is “to get her married off. Someone nice and stolid and long-suffering, with plenty of money and only male relatives.” So the switch turns out to be beneficial in that regard, as Derry’s MD mentor Paul Pinder is 45, and apparently foolish enough to accept the wild Derry—the mystery is why she decides to accept him, and the fact that he is 26 years older than she is means both of the young women’s beaux are not men the reader can be easy with.

Most of the book is one series of near-misses and escapades that can be a bit confusing to follow and eventually just exhausting, given the constant state of high anxiety that Midge is in. Of course everything is sorted in the end, but it does involve a train crash when both Catherines are on board, and most unfortunately, our independent, hard-working, intelligent heroine agrees in the end to give up too much: “From now on, I take the weights. I shoulder the burdens. Right?” Dr. Napier insists. “I take all the responsibility, and make life easy for you. Agreed?” For her part, she foolishly agrees. But the writing is quite good, with bits like, “all of her chins wobbling in her anxiety” to keep us amused, so if the plot gets a bit too much at times, we can feel for our heroine and enjoy the book overall.

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