Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Challenge to Nurse Honor

By Pauline Ash, ©1965

A lot of people though Jeziah Selby had been unfair to his four daughters when he left them his fortune only on condition that they first worked for two years in the hospital that had meant  so much to him. Only the eldest girl, Honor, was happy to do as he wished—but were the others necessarily selfish to rebel?


“She scuttled away, remembered she wasn’t supposed to run unless it was fire or haemorrhage, and waited till she got round a corner before she smartened her pace.”

This Harlequin romance about four sisters named, I am reluctant to tell you, Faith, Hope, Charity and Honor Selby, seemed similar to other Harlequin books I’ve read, including Nurse Willow’s Ward, also about four sisters, and Reluctant Nurse, about a woman who is forced into nursing by a domineering father. Here we follow Honor, who is the one daughter who actually wanted to be a nurse, and her three sisters, who with far less enthusiasm do office work around the hospital. The other three all had budding careers as a musician, model and actress, but had been forced to put them aside when dear old dad died and stipulated that if any of his children were to inherit, all of them had to work for two years in the hospital. If any one of them should cut and run, no one will inherit. You may not be shocked to hear that the non-nurse sisters are not very happy about this. “I just can’t begin to understand what possessed Daddy to make that horrible will,” Charity moans to Honor. Bizarrely, Honor is the only one of the set who does not seem to feel that her father has done anything horrible. “You know very well what Daddy wanted—a son, to carry on the family tradition,” she answers Charity, as if this is going to either excuse Dad’s behavior or make Charity feel that Dad actually did care about her. “He thought the theater was a useless way to spend your life,” she adds, twisting the knife while she has the chance. She should have been a surgeon instead of a nurse.

She persists in torturing her other sisters as well; when Faith says that when the two years are up she is going to resume her music training in Vienna or Milan, Honor tells her, “Daddy didn’t want that sort of life for you.” Again and again we witness Honor’s cruel inability to empathize with her sisters or acknowledge that her father had not treated her sisters well. “He was being very wise,” she decides. “My sisters knew very well how he felt about their chosen careers. He was only enforcing by death what he hadn’t had time to enforce in life. Daddy was fair, he never asked too much of anybody.”

When she’s not acting “all stiff and starchy like the older staff,” Honor is fighting with her boyfriend Lucien Lorimer, a rich cad with whom she has little in common, but who proposes nonetheless. It won’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Lucien actually had a thing with Honor’s sister Faith at one point, and the pair are still fond of each other, but Honor is as dumb about them as she is about her father. For her part, she is nursing a crush on surgeon Elliott “Jake” Falkland, who clearly is fond of her, too. Honor, naturally, is unable to see his affection for her; even after Jake tells her that he’s not interested in other nurses’ troubles, only hers, she decides that he “had given no great indication that he wanted to be specially friendly with her.” So the pair stumbles through much of the book with stupid misunderstandings because neither can see the obvious, much less speak it. The problem with this device is that it becomes increasingly maddening as the book goes on. “The fact that he had taken her in his arms and kissed her didn’t really mean that he loved her,” we hear two-thirds of the way through, and we’re ready to take a number behind all of Honor’s sisters and give her a good smack.

Eventually the tragedy that Charity foretold—“No good will come of keeping any of us here. One day something awful will happen, because we’re honestly no good at the job, and then you’ll be sorry, Honor!”—comes to pass. Faith and Lucien, out for a boat ride with a few drinks on board, crash, and Faith hits her head and lapses into the inevitable coma. The accident brings almost everyone’s feelings out into the open—Lucien and Faith’s, and Hope and the passenger Alan Froy, who happens to be a music talent scout and whom Hope had met a year earlier. It also cracks the ice encasing Honor’s heart, at least as far as her sisters are concerned, and she goes to the attorneys to see if there is a way out of the will—but the attorney hints that dad had yet another trick up his sleeve. But before she can get the whole story from the attorney, she witnesses a man being stabbed in an alley, is conked on the head by the perps, and lapses into a coma of her own. Waking from it, she’s back to her old ways, needling Hope when Hope reveals that she’s leaving the hospital to go to Italy to nurse Alan back to health and, incidentally, marry him. “It will keep, won’t it?” Honor says, suggesting her sister postpone her wedding. “There’s only another twelve months to carry out Daddy’s wishes, and you did say you’d stay the course.” Honor really, truly, has no right to her name.

While she lies listlessly in the hospital thinking that her relationship with Jake is over while all her sisters have chucked the traces at long last and run off with their various beaux, the attorney shows up and tells her that if the sisters can’t last two years, then they get half their share of the inheritance instead of none, but Honor, who has stuck to it, can keep her full share. Not likely to promote sisterly affection, but half an inheritance is better than none. She rouses with this news to read a letter from Jake saying that he thinks she does not love him so he will leave the hospital, and so she manages to stagger out of her hospital room and scream his name before passing out again at the top of the stairs, but the doctor is nearby and hears her, and she hadn’t actually plummeted down the stairs after all, and everything is quickly put to rights between her and Jake.

Overall this story is fairly sweet and well written, but the problem is that Honor as a heroine is just awful. She is selfish, cold, and unfeeling toward her sisters, blind and stupid about the men in her life, and in the end exhibits little character growth except that she’s finally able to make a (ridiculous) attempt to keep Jake from leaving; surely a phone call would have sufficed? It’s very hard to spend so much time with someone you cannot bring yourself to like, so the challenge here is not for Nurse Honor but for us, the reader, to manage to stand her long enough to finish the book.

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