Saturday, July 15, 2023

To Please the Doctor

By Marjorie Moore, ©1950
Also published as Borne on the Wind 

Dr. Duncan McRey was a most difficult person, thought Jill Fernley, and almost as bad was Brenda Malling, her staff nurse. Jill loved her work in St. Joseph’s Hospital, but hated the intrigues and friction of community life. Brenda was jealous of Jill’s success, but why, oh! why had Dr. McRey to be so unfriendly to nurses when he was so gentle with children? Was he like that to all women? This was a question which came to concern Jill more and more before at last she found the answer.


“As a sex, I’m sure he regards us nurses as a uniformed race, necessary components to the running of a hospital, and divided into two groups, the efficient and the fools.”

Nurse Jill Fenley has just left her post in a London hospital to take a promotion to the pediatrics ward head nurse in a rural seacoast village. She had been persuaded of the desirability of this location by her friend Dr. Harriet Laine, who had assured her that the hospital was awesome, it was a great job, and everyone there was super nice. Almost everything about that turned out to be true—except that last bit. The two people she interacts with most, her main staff nurse Brenda Malling and chief surgeon Dr. Duncan McRey, are spectacularly unimpressed by Jill, and this makes life a tad difficult, essentially because Brenda simply despises Jill and goes out of her way to sabotage her. Brenda, you see, had been made temporary ward chief, and had hoped that she herself would be appointed to fill the post—and it doesn’t help that the intern Brenda has her eye on, Dr. Philip Traven, is an old friend of Jill’s. Philip immediately starts dating Jill, though the pair are “just jolly good friends, and you know it perfectly well!” she laughs when he suggests that he “was always a bit goofy about you.” She’s lonely, and so is happy for the cheerful company, even if this does further dampen her relationship with Brenda.

Dr. McRey is naturally one of those men who is “a brilliant man. A bit tricky to work for perhaps—Duncan McRey is difficult. He hasn’t much time for the social graces—or women. I tell you he lives for his work,” Harriet explains, adding that she herself gets on marvelously with him, though initially he had been upset at the idea of working alongside a woman doctor. Jill and Duncan meet for the first time at Harriet’s house, when the town is enshrouded with a soupy fog too dangerous to drive in, leaving Harriet stuck at the hospital and the doctor takes refuge at Harriet’s house, which happened to be near when the fog rolled in. Jill knows who he is, but he does not recognize her name as that of the new hire, and he sees only a wealthy young woman—she is actually the stepdaughter of a knight who owns a large estate—and when Jill’s efforts to fix dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen go awry, he is convinced of her uselessness.

So when he meets her at the ward the next day, and Brenda has done nothing to prepare Jill for rounds or the ways of the ward or even where the band-aids are kept—not to mention jostling her arm at the wrong moment so Jill drops a glass container that shatters everywhere—he is completely convinced that she is hopeless. But despite his disdain for her, Jill can’t help noticing “the undeniable attraction this man possessed.” Harriet agrees, saying, “Underneath that hard exterior he is considerate, almost gentle, and I envy the girl he chooses to share his life.”

Through her difficult days and relationships, Jill is aided by her consistent demonstration of a backbone. “Average females, as you call them, are neither hysterical nor are they incapable,” she retorts when Duncan suggests the opposite. And when they end up on a walk by the sea on a windy day—Jill is refreshed by the battle with the elements—she tells him that she is acutely aware that as a nurse “she fell far short of his standards,” but she refuses to rat out Brenda, thinking that would not improve her case with either party. Duncan suggests that since she is rich and doesn’t need to work, she might resign, since “nursing is a serious profession and meant for serious people.” She snaps, “Do you imagine that I am just playing at a job because the uniform is becoming, that I believed nursing consisted of holding the patient’s hand and whispering words of sweet consolation to the sick? I took up nursing because I wanted to. I’m interested and I love it! Is there any reason why, just because I happen to have private means, that I should be denied the work I want to do?” But she adds, “I know that you have had every right to be disappointed in me,” and he clearly appreciates both her spunk and her honesty.

But depressed by Duncan’s disappointment and her endless failures to surmount Brenda’s antagonism or sabotage, she writes a letter of resignation, leaving it in her desk drawer while she thinks it over. Brenda finds the letter and turns it in, but surprisingly Jill refuses to clarify to the administration that the letter was a mistake, stating, “I can’t deny that I wrote the letter; the fact that I changed my mind before handing it in hardly matters. I would not humiliate myself my saying I wanted to change my mind now.” This point of view is utterly baffling, and since the entire plot depends on this twist, it’s particularly irritating that it is nonsensical. But now the hospital administration makes it clear that Brenda is not going to be promoted into Jill’s job, and Brenda makes a complete about-face. “I don’t dislike you, I never have. If I’m not going to get promotion then I’d rather you stayed than have someone new,” she cries, and now is working hard to make Jill look good and her job easier. Duncan is clearly aware of the dramatic improvement in Jill’s performance, but it’s too late …

The outcome of the book is quite clear from the first chapter, but it’s how you get there that counts. This book gently drifts toward the foregone conclusion, and it’s the interaction of the characters that make the journey pleasant; to quote author Marjorie Moore, “Don’t you realize that it’s the occupants who make the room?” Jill is a strong, independent, dedicated woman who regularly stands up for her beliefs and her integrity; Duncan is honorable and tough but not rigid, and his unbending toward Jill—as he has toward Harriet—is believable and makes him admirable; peripheral character Harriet is smart, stalwart and true. Even Brenda Malling is fun to watch, first as the evil saboteur and then as the newfound friend. The only real problems with this book are the unbelievable plot device that puts Jill out the door, and—the elephant must be addressed—the cover illustration, which makes it appear that the nurse has some randy ideas about how she might please the doctor. But these faults aside, this book is a gentle, pleasant companion for an afternoon, and it certainly pleased this reader.  

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