Thursday, July 9, 2020

Nurse Molly

By Marjorie Norrell, ©1964
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

After Molly Patterson was jilted, she was determined never to trust a man again. But she was a very attractive girl, and more than one man was anxious to make her change her mind. Was Molly going to be able to stick to her decision?


“It never pays to run away from anything, not really. It, whatever it is, has a dreadful habit of catching up with you sooner or later, and it usually turns out it wouldn’t have been one half so dreadful if you’d stopped and faced it out in the beginning.”

Molly Patterson introduces herself to us as a bit of a moron: She’s about to quit her career, less than a year old, to marry a man whom it does not take a reader experienced in VNRN tropes to recognize as an ass—but then, it’s seldom that these men aren’t obvious from the outset, though it’s not clear to me why it always needs to be so, and why the heroines aren’t as clear-eyed as us readers. Is this lazy writing? An author’s low opinion of her readers’ intelligence? But anyway, as the curtain rises, Guy Vale is not listening as Molly speaks, his “thin, too-clever face touched for a fleeting moment by a thin smile, then the previous scowl was back,” “his dark grey eyes wearing the cold expression she hated. ‘I don’t know what made me ask you to marry me,’” he tells her, right there on the first page. The only reason the ring doesn’t hit him in the eye is that he hasn’t given her one—oh, wait, that’s not how she feels at all! She offers to take this really fabulous job she’s seen advertised to help with expenses, but he explodes that she will not work! And besides, “anyone with a grain of common sense” would not want that job, which “sounds like something out of a story book—for five-year-olds,” he sneers.

Shockingly, Molly is completely devastated—she faints, actually—when Guy breaks off with her (by letter, the louse) less than two weeks before the wedding to chase a wealthy heiress, so Molly ends up taking the job after all. Also strangely, she is insulted when her new colleague nurse Annie Hart assumes that Molly “would forsake her career for the first bit of masculine attention which came her way.” To her credit, she instantly recognizes her own hypocrisy in that she was about to do exactly that for Guy, but goes no further in her introspection, merely stating that “I’m not interested in men. I’m over the love virus, once and for all time.” You bet, kid.

Enter Paul Thanet, barrister, and son in a very wealthy family that anchors the very small town she’s moved to for this new job in the north of England, far from her former life. He’s kind and solicitous, and very helpful when who should turn up but—brace yourself, don’t want you fainting like stalwart Nurse Molly—Guy Vale with his lady friend-employer Monica Blessingbourne, on an expedition to strip-mine a really beautiful, enchanted piece of the neighborhood that was sold after the son contracted polio and his prolonged illness and ensuing disability proved very costly (this book being written before the advent of the vaccine and the National Health Service).

Honestly, there’s not much more to the story than that—Paul sees Guy forcing a kiss on Molly, saying he loves her but not enough to give up his pursuit of Monica’s money, the romantic fool—and there’s a bit of frigidity to be overcome after that, figuratively and literally, after Molly falls through the ice at a skating party, just having rescued Monica from the same predicament, and as she wakes, Paul comes in the room and in his second sentence tells Molly she’s giving up her career again, a lousy way of proposing, we quickly find.

The characters, especially the Thanet family, are well-drawn and charming, and it’s a pleasure to spend a few hours with them, as is to be expected in a book by Marjorie Norrell, and in a rare treat she is giving us with Paul Thanet a love interest who actually deserves to be one. The problem with this book is that it wants Molly to be a strong, resourceful, confident go-getter quick to leap into action—yet she is even quicker to leap out of her career the instant a man darkens her doorstep. How can any reader with any common sense reconcile these polar opposites? Can we cut to the epilogue in which a defeated and joyless Molly is in the kitchen with a screaming infant on her hip, two toddlers pulling at her skirt, a mostly empty bottle of gin on the detritus-strewn breakfast table and a copy of The Feminine Mystique in her raw, work-worn hand? In the end, I feel like I’ve been reading propaganda intended to lull the female masses into a deluded trance, to lure them into becoming willing participants in their own oppression. If I’d had a say in it, I’d have named this book Throw off Your Shackles, Nurse Molly! in the hope that Molly might stop letting men decide her life for her. But somehow I don’t think Marjorie Norrell has that particular flavor of Kool-Aid in her refrigerator.

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