Monday, November 22, 2021

Nurse Incognito

By Fay Chandos
(pseud. Irene Mossop Swatridge), ©1964 
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

When a love affair between a nurse and a doctor goes wrong, the unhappiness of the situation is naturally increased if they have to go on working in the same hospital. That was why Caroline was glad to get away from St. Keverne’s … and Brandon … to a temporary job in the lovely Bahamas. It was disconcerting, though, for her to find herself in the middle of a family feud. Her first loyalty was to the old lady who employed her, but she couldn’t help liking and trusting Roland Dayler and sympathizing with his refusal to give up his children; couldn’t help, either, liking (though she didn’t trust) that “wicked” younger brother whose bad reputation was enough to make any woman look twice at him.


“Men are children at heart. Given the opportunity, they all grab at the fairy on the Christmas tree. It’s a wise woman’s job to lead her man firmly in the other direction, not to let him stand under the tree, gawking up at the glitter.” 

“Sparks aren’t a fire, but they can start one.”

“At my age, one rarely cares for advice, however sound.”

“Wouldn’t you like to try your hand at civilizing me?”

“‘Tis better to have loved and lost’ than to be obliged to realize that one has been played for a sucker.”

Poor Nurse Caroline Whytham has pinned all her hopes on Dr. Brandon Hessare, who has been taking her out for years, and now that she is about to graduate from nursing school, they are going to announce their engagement! Unfortunately, “if she had to look out for herself, she always would be among those stranded at the bus stop. She lacked the assurance and initiative to fight her way on board.” So she misses the first car to the graduation party, which is held at the family mansion of her best friend, Clover Pontock-Pikey, and when she does arrive—could she have been more than 30 minutes behind Clover?—she discovers that Brandon and Clover have, in that narrow window, fallen in love and become engaged. 

The silver lining to her sudden freedom is that Clover’s grandmother decides to take her to the Bahamas with her, ostensibly to serve as her nurse—the battle axe has a heart condition—but also to help Mrs. P-P wrest her great-grandchildren, six-year-old twins Viola and Sebastian, away from their father, Roland Dayler, who owns a large estate. It’s kind of staggering that we’re asked to believe that the claims of a great-grandmother outweigh those of a father, even if he must be a man, but here we are, and we must make the best of it. Roland had been married to Mrs. P-P’s granddaughter Pearl, a beautiful but shallow flirt who had lost interest in her husband almost immediately after marrying him, but who had died in a water-skiing accident—while pregnant, no less, losing the baby as well. An odd detail we’re not quite sure what to do with, but there it is. Clearly the couple weren’t as estranged as all that.

Upon their arrival, sinister things begin to happen! The electricity in both Caroline and Mrs. P-P’s rooms fails, and the candles that are always stocked in the bedrooms vanish! Worse than that, someone lets a kitten loose in Mrs. P-P’s bedroom! Attention turns to the children’s nanny, Annette: “She wants to drive me away from this house. Anyone can see that,” Mrs. P-P concludes after her narrow escape from death. Though there are other possible suspects, including Roland’s brother Ruy (how do you pronounce that?), who with Annette is “allied against me,” Caroline concludes, not wanting to miss getting in on the paranoia.

Further nefarious adventures ensue: Mrs. P-P is drugged into a stupor by the children, who are obeying the orders of a mockingbird outside their window, who sounds like Annette. Caroline falls hard and fast for Roland: At their first meeting, “she was seized by an extraordinary sense of exultation—as though this was the moment she had been waiting for, half her life.” The rub is that she very much resembles Pearl—which is just creepy, though it’s not the first time we’ve encountered this trope. And Ruy, who has been in love with Annette for seven years, she herself chasing Roland, decides to complete the circle by kissing Caroline, who astonishingly decides to go for it without giving a single thought to Roland. “She couldn’t go on mourning over Brandon. That was futile and humiliating. If Ruy was trying to flirt with her, why not let him?” Because, um, Roland?

Here the book becomes part Gothic novel, part mystery, and almost not a nurse novel—as despite the fact that Mrs. P-P seems to be sinking further into a coma, Caroline cannot reveal she’s a nurse, and so leaves Ruy’s secretary Jessamy to babysit the apparently dying woman, and even when the two children also ingest the same poison and the remaining conscious adults “work on” the children all night to bring them around—Caroline, curiously, taking the less dangerously ill child—her occupation remains a secret until the last page.

It’s an odd book, with machinations and suspicions abounding, and the poisoning/attempted murder of four different people, the guilty party still roaming free on the last page, and no discussion of their being taken into custody. Author Irene Swatridge continues her affinity for alliterative names, but also unfortunately displays a tendency toward paragraphs made up entirely of questions: “Had Pearl found him a domestic tyrant? Was that why she had preferred the amenities and social life of Nassau to her home here? Or had she been bored by Roland’s pre-occupation with the estate and its crops? Had she been weighed down by him? Take away his good looks and his old-world courtesy, and what was left? Mightn’t he be singularly heavy and humorless as a husband?” Also I do wish Caroline were less of a wimp. “Roland seeks subconsciously for a gentle, loving wife who will be his complement, and content to be ruled by him. You are such a one, I think,” she is told—and even worse, she answers, “Thank you.” Not surprisingly, her nursing career seems likely as over as the book is on the last page. Still, this book is curiously compelling, as Swatridge’s books have proved to be so far (see Nurse Willow’s Ward and Jubilee Hospital). Also, there are beautiful ball gowns! And a fabulous, snidely witty grande dame in Mrs. P-P! So if it’s not Swatridge’s best, she’s still not done badly by us, her readers, at all. 

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