Sunday, July 9, 2023

Nurse Julie and the Knight

By Jeanne Judson, ©1965
Cover illustration by Edrien King 

Women’s Hospital had been founded by women and was staffed by women, and Julie Sheridan, who had wanted to be a doctor but was forced to give up the dream because she must educate her younger sister, found it infinitely satisfying to work there. Everyone in the hospital was talking about the beautiful and wealthy Alice Danver, who had just lost her baby. Mrs. Roger Danver had a grown son, and this baby had been looked forward to with joy by Alice and her second husband. Mrs. Danver was a VIP—not only was she a member of the board, but she was a granddaughter of one of the founders—and most of the nurses would have been delighted to be selected as the nurse to accompany Alice Danver home. Not so Julie, who was bent on learning all that she could about her chosen profession. The Danvers lived in a luxurious town house on New York’s fashionable East Side, but Julie soon found that the household was presided over by an evil genius in the person of the housekeeper, Hetty Brown, who dominated everyone there, including Alice and Roger Danver. Life in the Danver home would have been unbearable for Julie had it not been for Leo Cross, Alice’s son by a previous marriage. Leo Cross didn’t really look like a knight in shining armor, but in Julie’s eyes he was even more than that. Only Leo dared to stand up to the formidable Hetty. It was Leo who precipitated the storm that finally freed the Danvers of Hetty’s morbid dominance, and it was Leo who helped when Julie’s frivolous young sister presented a problem too big for Julie to handle alone.


“May changes her young men as often as she does her hairdo.” 

“So long as you don’t marry a doctor, you’ll be all right. Marrying a doctor is a fate worse than death. If he’s poor, a girl has to turn into an office nurse, and if he’s successful, she never knows where he is.”

“I don’t want her to marry an actor. Unless they’re very successful, it’s chickens today and feathers tomorrow.”

Nurse Julie Sheridan is another orphan who has been taken in by her kindly but impoverished Aunt Maud, and now is working to put her younger sister May through college. No good deed goes unpunished, as unfortunately May doesn’t seem like much of a student, and there’s the constant worry that May will get married and drop out of school. Julie doesn’t have any boyfriends, but no worries, she has a married nurse friend who is determined to marry her off, because “you need a knight in armor to protect you. I really mean it. They don’t come riding on white horses anymore. They come in expensive cars.” The one she wants to pair her off with, George Mitchell, drives a Lincoln-Continental, but he’s clearly no knight; he immediately starts acting the creepy stalker, telling her, “I always know what I want and then I go after it. You’re the girl I’m going to marry. You may not think so now, but I’ll make you see it.” 

The most interesting thing is that Julie “was almost afraid of him.” Clearly she is made of sterner stuff than me; I’d be racing to the police station to file a restraining order, and those remarks were just what he said at the start of their first date, never mind all the times he forces himself on her, even taking her to a club in the country where he gives a false name and suggests they spend the night there, saying “What difference would it have made, when we’re going to be married just as soon as you stop being stubborn?” (She is ready to walk in the rain until she finds a cab, so he drives her home and then grabs her and kisses her while she squirms and tries to decide if she should kick him in the shins.)

At work, she is caring for Alice Danver, who has just lost a baby after a C-section, and is sent home to the woman’s house on East 76th Street in Manhattan to care for her. There she encounters Hetty the housekeeper, who is the one who should be named Danver, so close is she to the evil, scheming Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Hetty has created a shrine in the empty nursery, complete with burning candles, and encourages Alice to go in multiple times daily and mourn. This is meant to be seen as morbid and creepy, as everyone else thinks Alice should just pretend nothing has happened, but Hetty commits other sins, such as feeding Alice “pep pills” and insisting, “You can always depend on me to protect you. You don’t need a nurse. All the care you need I can give you. There’s no one loves you like I do.” So if the grieving aspect is not so egregious by today’s standards, Hetty does actually cross some legitimate lines.

Julie tells Alice’s husband Roger about the nursery, but Roger is disinclined to stand up to Hetty, so Julie turns to Alice’s 24-year-old son by her first marriage, who is an important historian and university professor (presumably at NYU, since he lives in the East Village). Leo does demonstrate more of a backbone, arranging to have the room cleared out without discussing it with his mother or stepfather. He even steps up to help when May drops out of college and runs off with a beatnik poet, tracking them down at a loft on Vesey Street. There’s a little hiccup in their too-easy stroll to the altar when Julie fears that Leo has lost interest after Hetty snarls a nasty lie about Julie’s relationship with George within Leo’s hearing. So when Julie leaves the finally recovered Alice to head back to the hospital and May (now safely betrothed to a man without facial hair and no longer in need of financial support), Julie plans a solitary life for herself in which she will be useful, decides to pursue her early dream of becoming a doctor, and “went to sleep full of ambition and noble resolutions.” There’s a nice little twist that puts a sweet bow on a small problem at the hospital, and then she’s free to find Leo waiting for her at the foot of the hospital steps, with another very agreeable surprise at the end.

This book is classic charming Jeanne Judson, with quiet humor evidenced in lines like, “‘I think sometimes he cooks his own meals.’ She said this as if it were the last word in deprivation.” Julie as a heroine, though, is a bit flat, mostly because she does not really have much to do outside of firmly resisting Hetty’s efforts to feed Alice dumplings and gravy. Julie worries more about offending the friend that set her up with the psychopath George—and even George himself—than standing up for her right not to be assaulted. The other characters in the book are not especially memorable, either, except for the kindly Aunt Maud and of course the dragon Hetty, who gets her comeuppance in the end, though to my mind not enough of one. But overall it remains a calm, sweet book, enjoyable and pleasant, and worthy of standing on the shelf alongside Jeanne Judson’s best works.

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