Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Fifth Day of Christmas

By Betty Neels,  ©1971

It hadn’t taken Julia long to fall in love with Ivo van den Werff—but she had better fall out of love equally quickly, she decided, when she met Marcia Jason and realized just how much stronger a claim the other girl had on Ivo’s affection.


“That’s what you’re for—to see that I don’t die in a coma.”

“I, being a man of leisure, am the obvious one to sacrifice on the altar of frostbite and exposure.”

This is the first book I have read written by romance queen Betty Neels, who published more than 130 romance novels starting in 1969 when she was 60 and chugged along into her 90s (you go, girl!). Ms. Neels worked as a nurse most of her life and served in France during World War II, writing quite a few nurse novels on the way. The problem with her oeuvre is that it largely lies beyond the scope of my “vintage” lens, which I feel limits me to about 1975—certainly not outside the 1970s (and my regular readers well know how painful I have found the quality of books in that decade, which makes me reconsider the wisdom of including the 1970s in my circle for reasons other than timing). So though I was very pleased with this introduction to the prolific Ms. Neels, I also have mixed feelings about whether I should regret or not the fact that I will not be reading many of her books—we’ll let the caliber of her work that we encounter in the future help tip the balance of my regret or relief.

And with that editorial over with, let’s move on to a discussion of this really sweet and delightful book. Julia Pennyfeather is a 22-year-old nurse accompanying a brat of a patient to her home in England just before Christmas, arriving at that remote manor house in the gales of a severe snowstorm that strands her there with only a few members of the staff—and Dr. Ivo van den Werff, who is blown to the door entirely by chance shortly after her own arrival, as he is seeking shelter from the blizzard. She flings open the door to him in the middle of the night, and he chides her for letting in a stranger—but helps care for her patient who has come down with pneumonia. They spend a few days walking in the snow and cooking bread and soup out of the scraps in the cupboards until the roads are cleared, and then Ivo invites her to Holland to care for Marcia Jason, who is living at his fancy family home while that young lady recovers from polio.

Marcia has been “recovering” for about nine months, and Julia—who dislikes the condescending and self-absorbed woman at first site—suspects that the woman is actually much better than she pretends, that her inability to walk is a pretense to allow her to stay on at the house and trap Ivo into a pity-based marriage. So Julia forcefully hauls the young woman up and down stairs—noting that how much help Marcia requires depends on who is watching—and endures comments about how “robust” and “sturdy” she is (Marcia sees her emaciated frame as the height of sophistication). Julia also puts up with a lot of intellectual snobbery, as Marcia is always reading dense tomes by authors we likely have not read (Bacon) much less heard of (Vondel, anyone?) and making snotty comments about what she is convinced is a plebian sensibility, remarking, “You are, I imagine, an impetuous young woman, lacking intellectual powers.” In fact, Julia fabulously turns out to be a quiet brain, and only when she is on a tour of a museum with Ivo, completely flustered by his nearness, does she deliver “quite a dissertation on Rembrandt, rivalling her patient in both length and dullness.” She also often offers thoughtful solutions to actual problems in daily life and in medicine that cause Ivo and me to look at her admiringly. I was also impressed by her limitless ability to bite her tongue when Marcia makes yet another rude remark, instead offering with “a politeness which was quite awe-inspiring” enthusiastic exhortations for Marcia to continue working on her exercises or have another go at the staircase for practice that they both know she doesn’t need: “Why not come into the garden with me tomorrow morning? We needn’t go far and the worst that can happen is for you to fall over, when I shall pick you up again.”

Julia has a young man back at home “who was waiting with the smug certainty of a man with no imagination for her to say Yes.” She’s not going to marry him because he’s an ass, which puts her way ahead of a sadly large number of VNRN heroines, but that gives Ivo something to tease her about from time to time. But since Julia is convinced that Ivo is promised to Marcia—if not definitely, then doomed to be so because of his guilt about her illness—she can only drink him in when he is near and cry in secret.

The humor in this book is constant and reliable, such as when Julia hears a hoarse croak coming from the room of her patient. “She was out of bed, thrusting her feet into slippers as the list of postoperative complications liable to follow an appendicectomy on a diabetic patient unfolded itself in her still tired mind. Carbuncles, gangrene, bronchopneumonia … the croak came again which effectively ruled out the first two.” The characters in the book are delightfully drawn, including Ivo’s lovely father, and the villain Marcia is terrifically awful. Even the love interest, frequently a dull individual with no inspiring qualities in many nurse novels, here has humor, steadiness and appreciation for the gem that Julia is. The book’s only real drawback is that once the party arrives in Holland about halfway through the book, there’s not much to do except watch varieties of the same scenes play out again and again—Ivo and Julia on a pleasant outing, Marcia being nasty, Julia pining for Ivo and planning her departure for England as soon as she can reasonably get away from what she is stubbornly convinced is her impending heartbreak; even if the scenes are well-written and enjoyable, they still become a bit repetitious as the plot spins its wheels for another 80 pages. But even the fact that Ms. Neels can crank out multiple versions of the same scene, all laden with emotion and wit, demonstrates her powers. I look forward to more of her works—it just remains to be seen how far into the 1970s I’m willing to be drawn into, even with as prodigious a talent as Ms. Neels’.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Nurse Atholl Returns

By Jane Arbor, ©1952 

When Lyn Atholl’s fiancĂ© abruptly broke their engagement only a month before the day fixed for their wedding, she felt that the shock had disrupted her whole life. She could not bear the thought of resuming her dearly loved profession of nursing—still less going back to Broadfields Hospital, which she had so recently left in happy expectancy among the good wishes of all her friends. A chance meeting with the famous surgeon, Mr. Warner Belmont, convinced her that she was wrong, and she decided to return to Broadfields. But—would she be able to go through with it?


“Lyn thought wryly that to dance with a battleship could not give a girl more confidence than to dance with Tom in a crowd, where it was always the other couples who got out of his way.” 

Lyn Atholl is leaving her beloved job to get married to a man she hasn’t seen in over a year. And that works out about as well as you expect it will. Turns out her beloved, Capt. Perry Garston, found himself a wife when he was stationed in Austria—and told her as much about Lyn as he told Lyn about Gerda, so you see what a narrow escape Lyn has had. She’s horribly embarrassed about her turn of fortune—much more than anyone in the current age would be, so it’s a little difficult to follow why she’s ready to chuck nursing altogether, not only the hospital she has just left—but soon imperious surgeon Dr. Warner Belmont is wagging a finger in her face, asking her, “Do you mean that your efficiency in your work depends solely upon the smooth running of your personal affairs? Isn’t that taking the importance of the individual and of self-pity too far?” 

Ultimately she decides that he’s right and goes back to Broadfields, but soon she’s “wondering about him as a man—the books he read, the games he played, the people he liked,” but of course that last question is easy: He doesn’t like anyone. Well, except Eve Adler, a petulant, beautiful, very talented singer whom he squires about town. We are frequently reminded that “he needs neither advice nor help, nor companionship nor anything at all from any other human being,” and that “he gets on splendidly with other men and he’s a kind of hero to boys. Yet when it comes to women—to you nurses particularly—he treats you as if he had only to put a penny in the slot to make you tick over like machines. No wonder you resent it.” But Lyn, inexplicably, does not resent it at all, and soon decides “her feeling for the man at her side transcended anything she had ever known before. And she had thought that, after Perry, she would never love again!” Now we only have to wade through 130 more pages of misunderstandings, scenes of Werner being cold and snippy and Lyn being dignified and admirable. Ultimately there’s a train crash and a flu epidemic, and suddenly he’s declaring his undying love for her.

It's not a dull book, though not outstanding, and the plot device of having the heroine fall for an ass who remains one until the final three pages is particularly maddening. Some of the characters are fun to watch—the rotten women especially, it must be confessed—and Lyn is a quiet, competent type, even if she is ready at the drop of a ring to walk away from her profession, though she admits that “all she had learnt in nursing would be wasted” after she marries. Overall you might do worse than to see Nurse Atholl return—even if she’s just going away again at the end.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Alex Rayner, Dental Nurse

By Marjorie Lewty, ©1965 

When Alex first started working for Dr. Gerard Trent she wasn’t at all sure that she approved of him; then, as she got to know him better, she began to like him very much indeed. But what was the use of that, when he was so firmly engaged to the glamorous Marilyn Lattimer?


“Jobs can be important to girls, too, you know. We’re not all just hanging about waiting until some man comes along to marry us.” 

“She wouldn’t again be so ready to rely on masculine promises made in the moonlight. They would be more convincing, she thought, if made in the broad light of day—preferably when the girl concerned was drying her hair in curlers or had a bad cold in her head.”

“It’s always better to admit you don’t know than to make a mess of it.”

“I remember reading somewhere once that everybody has some special lesson to learn in life and that it’s presented over and over again, in different circumstances, until we learn it or are beaten by it.”

“For the first time she felt she understood one of the basic differences in outlook between men and women: women could bring babies into the world. They had that fulfillment that a man could never have. Was that why men so badly needed ambition, a self-justification that they were important and successful?”

I have to declare at the outset that this book does not really qualify as a nurse novel. Heroine Alex Rayner works in a dentist’s office—not that there’s anything wrong with that; the other two Marjorie Lewty books I’ve read had similar settings—but Alex has not had any formal training, so I can’t by any stretch call her a nurse. But she is a smart, charming and enterprising woman of 22 who has been working for six months in Birmingham, England, chiefly alongside dentist Douglas Crenshaw, a decent but nervous sort; her best friend Jean’s husband Brian Ferguson is another of the office dentists. As we open Chapter 1, we find that the senior dentist, Mr. Trent (we are never given his first name), has had a heart attack, and his son Gerald has come back from Toronto to step in while Mr. Trent is recovering. “Dr. Gerard was the most brilliant dental surgeon ever released from the Eastman Hospital to a grateful world,” according the office battle-axe spinster, Clarice, who has always worked with Dr. Trent, and now hopes to butter up the younger man at the expense of her colleagues.

When Gerard shows up, though, he feels the office is not operating at its most efficient. He immediately moves Clarice to the position of front-desk secretary, which he attempts to sell as a linchpin-type position to preserve her starched dignity—though he actually feels she is not capable of more taxing work in oral surgery—and moves Alex out of Douglas’s office to work alongside him. This makes her a target for Clarice’s venom, though she tries her best to be civil, as difficult as that might be at times, and she is known to imagine “how wonderfully satisfying it would be to push Clarice over backwards.” Even at her worst, Alex is not all that mean. 

From the beginning Alex is a bit swoony over the confident, handsome young man: “For a second everything rocked and then steadied and took on the clarity and vividness of a dream” when she meets him for the first time. He is tough on the outside but easy to work with, not expecting much of Alex but challenging her to watch what he does, ask lots of questions and try to learn what he would need next for a certain procedure and offer the appropriate instrument before she is asked for it.

Of course, there is office drama: Douglas is falling for Alex and asking her out on dates that she enjoys, but then worries that she’s getting herself into a sticky situation with an office romance. Brian now has a foxy new assistant, since the staff has been shifted around, and is now spending late nights out while his wife and young daughter wait at home for him. Alex, who is best friends with Brian’s wife, is put into the awkward position of covering for Brian’s absence with a lie he has included her in. This lands her in more hot water, as she has told Gerard another story about her whereabouts for the night in question, so he is aware that she is lying and suspects that it is she who is seeing Brian on the side. How is she going to win him now??

In her efforts to straighten out all the misunderstandings and eventually set the various male characters on the right paths, Alex demonstrates intelligence, strength and honesty—and it’s that last  characteristic combined with a spot of luck that in the end sets her straight with Mr. Right. In the interim we have the pleasure of watching Alex maneuver through her various difficulties with sense and humor; when she hears while she is down with a cold that Gerard is engaged to another woman, she wonders “if perhaps if she had pneumonia after all and would have a reasonable chance of dying quietly.” If this book doesn’t carry the same heft as Lewty’s legitimate nurse novels (Dental Nurse at Denley’s and Town Country—Country Nurse) or even as much witty humor, Lewty’s “worst” of the trio is still substantially better than most. So even if it’s not an actual nurse novel, you have my permission to make room on your reading list for this easy beauty.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Nurse at Shadow Manor

By Sharon Heath
(pseud. Norah Mary Bradley), ©1966

To forget the pain of a tragic romance, Nurse Frances Kimpton journeyed to Shadow Manor to act as companion to its elderly mistress. In that quiet countryside she would try to achieve peace of mind. But the peace she sought turned out to be a will-o’-the-wisp as Frances found when she learned the secret of the manor’s other woman—the young and willful niece of her employer. That secret meant danger and trouble. Frances turned to the attractive Dr. Ralph Grant for help. It was well that she did so. For, together, they were able to thwart a plot that could have ended in murder.


“I was expecting a she-dragon in a starched uniform who would glare at me. But this one’s well disguised, apparently!” 

To have a bad heart fifty years ago seems to have meant to be confined to a virtual prison. Poor Miss Caroline Eldridge, wealthy and only in her 70s, isn’t allowed to do much for herself and spends most of the day knitting, and everyone sneaks their life around behind her back, because “any sudden shock—mental, not physical—could be fatal.” Unfortunately, there’s a very elaborate network of lies and scheming occurring all around her, and it’s up to Nurse Frances Kimpton to protect the poor woman, even as she participates in and even furthers the intrigue.

The story starts implausibly enough when Frances is dragged in off the street to witness a wedding between a pretty, spoiled-looking woman and a weaselly looking man with a thin moustache. She’s en route to her job at an isolated mansion called Shadow Manor to look after Miss Eldridge, a sweet lady who has taken in an ungrateful niece, Eve Garner. You will not be at all surprised to learn that the mystery bride turns out to be none other than Eve, who has left her honeymoon and groom to return to Miss Eldridge’s mansion with nary a word of her recent nuptials. Eve is mean to everyone and seldom home, never saying where she’s going or when she’ll be back, but Miss Eldridge obtains sweet revenge when she decides to rewrite her will, saying that Eve will not get any inheritance until she turns 30 if she marries a man of whom Miss Eldridge does not approve. Fireworks ensue when Eve hears the news!

For her part, Frances, recovering from a heart broken after her fiancĂ© was killed, is clearly over that lad and now has her wily eye on Miss Eldridge’s doctor, Ralph Grant, who is casually friendly. Then Frances happens to be on hand when Eve meets up with her new husband, Leon Josephs, in a whispered but brief sidewalk conversation—super secret! That night, when Frances offers to set out in the dark rainy night to search for the cat, she stumbles and scrapes her hands. She takes the opportunity of her minor mishap to invite herself to Ralph’s cozy cottage to tell him of her suspicions: that she had tripped over a wire slung across the walk put there intentionally to frighten her, and bless his heart, Ralph takes this statement entirely seriously. And now “the memory of this intimate, tranquil time was something she knew she would always treasure,” the little vixen. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if Frances turned out to be a psychotic manufacturing drama to lure in a man she has a yen for? When “no trace of string or wire had been found on or near the drive,” my hopes leapt!

I hate to disappoint you, dear reader, but alas, it was not the case, as author Sharon Heath has chucked that delicious opportunity for something much more implausible: that Leon for some insane reason is out to murder Frances by the most bizarre methods that turn out to be remarkably deadly. For Leon’s next act, he walks brazenly into the house, identifying himself to Miss Eldridge as a window cleaner, and cuts almost through the cord on the sash of a window in Frances’ bedroom. The very next day, Frances opens the window and decides to stick her arm out of it just as the cord breaks and the window comes slamming down! “Which might have been fatal, she thought, had she been leaning out the window!” Leon must be psychic as well as homicidal!

Next Mike Dering, an old boyfriend of Eve’s who had been too poor at the time to propose, turns up, now gainfully employed, and after spending an hour with the young man, Miss Eldrige invites him to stay at the house and tells Frances she hopes Eve will marry him. Ooops! Even if Eve were single she might not have the chance, because the brakes on her car fail and she drives straight into the river, saved by Mike, who happens to be loitering at the bottom of the hill (is Mike psychic too?). Suddenly Eve is a new person, confessing that she’s been changed all along, that she’d “got really fond” of Miss Eldridge, though she’d never bothered to show her anything of the sort. Furthermore, with just one word from Mike, “headstrong, self-willed Eve subsided at once.” Oy.

Frances, seeing another opportunity to flirt with Ralph, tells him he must come to the house that night but that Miss Eldridge must not know it, and Ralph again proves to be either the greatest sport ever or completely daft. After he sneaks into the house; frantic antics unfold! “I just told Miss Eldrige it was a friend of Mike’s who wanted to see him urgently. Miss Eldridge suggested you should have your talk in the morning room, but, if I leave you there and go to fetch Mike, she may take it into her head to come and have a look at this ‘friend.’ Perhaps you’d better come out with me, instead. Only I hope she won’t look out of the drawing room window just as we pass!” How complicated can these shenanigans get!

While they are tiptoeing through the shrubbery, Ralph tells Frances that he is going to hire a private detective to look into Leon’s past. A week later the detective turns up a game-changing fact, but when Frances races to tell Ralph, who is arriving at the manor, he chastens her: “‘I came here to see my patient,’ he reminded her, and she had to admit he was right.” It turns out that Leon was already married, and his wife is as psychic as she is, having determined Leon’s plans for Eve, found him in England, learned he was blackmailing Eve (though nobody knew except Eve), and gotten a job at the garage where Eve was dropping her car for repairs. She’s also an excellent (if nefarious) mechanic! And the pair is lucky too—ultimately Ralph and Frances decide that if they go to the police with this amazing story, the shock (of finding out her healthcare team is bonkers?) would kill Miss Eldridge.

Author Sharon Heath has given us several other gentle, sweet if not stellar books with A Vacation for Nurse Dean and The Sunshine Nurse, but this book is more of an unwitting and dopey comedy. The characters and their motivations are inexplicable: Ralph is not especially attractive, Frances comes across as a loopy dingbat, and why would Leon want to injure, of all people, the nurse? Wouldn’t it be better to off the wealthy matriarch first, and then his second wife to win the fortune, since murdering Eve first would put him out of the running permanently? But it doesn’t pay to examine stupidity closely, so all I can suggest is that you leave Nurse at Shadow Manor on the shelf and move onto something—anything—else.