Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Hospital Corridors

By Mary Burchell
(pseud. Ida Cook), ©1955
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik 

Madeline felt that she was on the brink of a completely new life when she left England to do a year’s nursing in a great Montreal hospital. But she found that, after all, she would not be totally among strangers, for she had already met on board ship—though he was said to be so unapproachable—Dr. Lanyon, a distinguished member of the staff; and one of the patients would be the beautiful (but very difficult) Mrs. Sanders whom she had nursed before, with her good-looking and attentive son among the visitors. Still, everything else—except her familiar, well-loved work—would be excitingly new, and she might even have occasion to work for Dr. Lanyon …


“The not-really-ill patient is usually the one who gives all the trouble.” 

“I never supposed he thought of anything but cutting people up in the neatest and most miraculous way possible.”

“There is no logical answer to a jealous woman. If you do have trouble, don’t try to argue. Silence is safer—and simply maddening for the other person.”

“‘Did someone die?’ enquired Madame Loncini cheerfully, for, like many aggressively healthy people, she always liked to have an opportunity of pitying those who were less fortunate.”

“Happiness is a state of mind, and almost entirely independent of outside things. But, if it is to have any permanency and—and inner radiance, it must be founded on belief. In oneself, in others and in the ultimate rightness of things.”

“A man of such romantic temperament that he can make love among the white enamel fittings of a hospital kitchen is not to be lightly dismissed."

“Few people want advice, and almost none take it.”

“If one always thought about jealous mammas, think how much fun one would miss!”

“Nothing is worse for the patients’ morale than a red-eyed nurse.”

“I wouldn’t thank anyone who reduced me to terms of solid worthiness and nothing else.”

“All men are show-offs.”

I feel a little lucky that I found this book, given that its title includes neither Nurse nor Doctor, which are nearly ubiquitous in VNRNs—because to have missed it would have been a great loss, as it is the best book I’ve read all year, and only the third to rate an A+ rating. But two other books written by Ida Cook (both under the pen name Mary Burchell) that I have reviewed (Surgeon of Distinction and The Strange Quest of Nurse Anne) have both earned A- grades, so clearly one would do well to hunt down everything she’s written just to be sure they don’t miss any gems.

The plot starts off with the tried-and-true trope of meeting the hero and being swept off her feet without knowing who he is. In this case, our heroine Madeline Gill is enlisted by her half-sister Clarissa to join a trip to Montreal from their home in England, where Clarissa will be travelling with her new husband to live, once they get married, as he is a surgeon there. Madeline dutifully finds a one-year stint for her final year of nursing school in a hospital there and has everything arranged to head over on the boat when Clarissa suddenly marries someone else. It’s too late to change her plans now, so Madeline goes through with it—and Clarissa lines up a nursing gig for Madeline, caring for the mother of her suave employer, successful novelist Morton Sanders.

Morton’s mum is not the easiest of dowagers, made worse by her paranoiac jealousy of any woman Morton looks at—and he looks at quite a few, including Madeline. But she keeps her head down until she is safely in Canada, only to learn that Mrs. Sanders is going to be a patient at her new hospital, and Morton declares he intends to see a lot more of Madeline. Her life is complicated by the fact that on the voyage over, she had run into Dr. Nat Lanyon and danced with him one evening—without, of course, learning his name. Imagine her surprise when she finds that he is the demanding but brilliant hospital surgeon—and even worse, the subject of a passionate crush by Florence Ardingley, the homely and imperious head of the ward she is to work on, the same ward where Mrs. Sanders is also ensconced, of course!

Morton keeps his promise to date Madeline, and she does find herself swooning a bit for the cad. He proves his worth by landing her in hot water on several occasions—but always Dr. Lanyon is available to scoop Madeline back to safety. It’s not hard to see why Morton is not the man for her, but it is author Ida Cook’s talent that she is able to make it clear why Madeline is attracted to him, and why he is attracted to her. Unfortunately their mutual interest does not escape Mrs. Sanders’ notice, and she sets up a trap to blacken Madeline’s reputation that to be honest I saw coming a mile away. Again, Dr. Lanyon to the rescue! But finally the dark secret that she is Clarissa’s sister comes to light—and the light in Dr. Lanyon’s eyes when he looks at Madeline is snuffed out. “Dr Lanyon, who in some curious way had been her friend and protector in no small way during her first weeks at the Dominion, had suddenly become a remote, almost ill-wishing stranger.”

But another calamity strikes requiring Nat’s intervention: When Morton bows out as her date to the hospital ball at the very last minute, he rescues Madeline again by offering to take her himself, when he has never attended the ball in the history of the world. More anxiety ensues when Clarissa is having troubles with her new husband and decides she wants Dr. Lanyon back, arriving in Montreal with the express purpose of reclaiming his love, and Madeline is required to act as chaperone as he shows Clarissa all over the hospital, the city, and half the province of Quebec—and the sting of being relegated to the level of “a not very useful car gadget” causes her to fling him out of her life forever and rush off to an important meeting with Morton, who “has something particular he wants to say to me before he goes” back to London.

The outcome is pretty clear from the outset, but the story in its unfolding is sweet and slow and believable. Madeline is strong, passionate about her work and good at it, and willing to stand up for herself and fight when necessary. Nat Lanyon has an actual personality, humorous and honest and feeling—not one of the straw heroes we are told to love but can see not one single reason to. The book has a number of charming supporting characters in Madeline’s fellow nursing students, not to mention Morton, and humor sparkles on almost every page. In short, this is a sweet, simple, but strong book—an Ida Cook staple, it seems—without serious flaws to detract. If this book does not head the list at the VNRN Awards in January 2024, I will be very impressed indeed with the writer who can surpass this treasure.

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