Nurse Novels by Bill Casey

Southwest Review 1964; 49(4):332-341
Nurse Novels
by Bill Casey

I hope I will not be accused of an attempt to overstimulate when I announce that I have discovered a new literary genre. It is the Nurse Novel, and if sheer numbers mean anything, it is moving right up there with the Western and the Mystery as a type. The day I discovered it, I bought two dozen titles in a single magazine shop, at a total cost of $9.95. I have tried to keep any resentment out of the report that follows.
                Nurse Novels are published in paperback as reprints and originals, by Ace, Avon, Bantam, Berkeley, Dell, Lancer, Macfadden,  and possibly other houses, and are recognizable by the fact that the titles include the word “nurse” and the cover illustrations show a nurse wearing the cherished cap, usually in the presence of a doctor. The most common form of title is the word “nurse” preceded by a single adjective which suggests the setting or the plot: Society Nurse, Big City Nurse (there have been two of these), Settlement Nurse, County Nurse, Piney Woods Nurse, Psychiatric Nurse, Second-Chance Nurse. Books about nurses but with titles radically different from this norm (e.g. Limbo Tower, White Witch Doctor) are not really Nurse Novels. Nurse Novels aren’t really novels either, if you wish to press it, but the alliteration is attractive.
                The cover illustrations show a doctor looking at a nurse, but he is never ogling her or giving her a “dangerous” look. Neither is there anything remotely resembling the classic man-woman illustration of the paperbacks—a woman in the foreground impatiently smoking a cigarette while a man in the background sits on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. The illustrations show no tension of any kind. The doctor looks amiable and the nurse looks thoughtful, but perhaps that is a forced distinction. “Blank” may be the word I want.
                The basic situation of the Nurse Novel places the nurse heroine in a new and exciting environment (usually she is also just beginning her nursing career) and confronts her with a choice of two suitors, one of whom is frequently a doctor.  In three of the books I read, the action takes place on a pleasure cruise, and in one the nurse heroine takes a trip to Spain. Whatever the setting, however, the excitement is purely nominal. For example, Faye Ramsey (Flight Nurse) is said to be thrilled at going to Spain, and various prospects are said to be exciting or “indeed a thrill,” but that’s about all it amounts to. I have recently noted a spate of Waikiki, Las Vegas, and Hollywood Nurses, also a Hootenanny Nurse, but in the books I read, the new environment was likely to be a slum or small town as someplace glamorous. It didn’t seem to make much difference.
                The nurse’s choice of suitors takes many turns. If a doctor is one of the contenders, he has a slight edge over his rival, but he is not invariably the winner. If he loses, it may well be because he is too ambitious in his profession and not enough concerned with helping humanity. But the linguistically trained reader can soon predict the outcome without reference to character. If the suitor has a monosyllabic  Christian name and a bisyllabic surname, he is going to win. Scott Raiford, pitted against a man named Aleck, is a winner; so is Scott Camden; so is Scott Westbrook; and so are Craig Garrett, Russ Campbell, Chris Harmon, Chad Barlow. The real tension comes when the choice is between two three-syllable men, as when Andrea Drake (Settlement Nurse) has a choice between slum doctor Steve Jordan and youth worker Brad Hutchens. The potential for suspense is somewhat lessened when Holly Warren (Psychiatric Nurse) must choose between Mike Barrish and Brad Andrews, since the former is a psychiatrist and the latter a lunatic. Still, I wasn’t sure for a while.
                A more carnal criterion for picking winners is the Kiss. There may be—though in fact there probably are not—several kisses in the course of the narrative; but there is only one Kiss, and it tells the story. For example, when Scott Raiford kisses Genie Hayes (Island Nurse) she feels the ground beneath her “shake and heave as though in the grip of an earthquake.” Meredith Warrener, second lead in County Nurse, describes her Kiss as being “like walking on clouds and bumping your head against the stars. Like hearing music so beautiful you knew it couldn’t be real, hundreds of tiny golden bells all in perfect tune and chiming together.” If this seems excessive, it should be remembered that the Kiss does not involve the tongue or teeth; it leads to nothing; and it is virtually the only emotional phenomenon in the entire narrative, Nurse Novels operating as they do on about the same emotional frequency as an ad for women’s raincoats. As for sensuality, there simply isn’t any, unless you want to count dizziness.
                The trouble with the Kiss as a criterion for predicting the outcome is that it usually comes toward the end of the book. If, however, early in the narrative a nurse kisses a character with boyish appeal, then closes her eyes “waiting for the world to spin around her” and nothing happens (Emergency Nurse), you know he is a loser. However, in the example given, the boyish character is named Johnny Foster and his rival is Dr. Scott Camden, so the test becomes redundant.
                The basic situation leaves room for a wide variety of plots and subplots. A fairly common source of conflict is the possessive mother, a character now as common in the slicks, in confession magazines, and in Nurse Novels, as she once was in more serious literature. In Piney Woods Nurse, for example, Jill Barclay takes special duty on a Georgia estate nursing “Miss” Kate Harmon, a domestic tyrant who is keeping to her bed in order to retain control of her two grown sons. While Miss Kate alternately rages and weeps with frustration, Jill sees to it that son Tim marries a gypsy girl not highly thought of in that area of Georgia, picks off son Chris for herself, and plans the tactics whereby Miss Kate’s objections will be overcome. By the end of the book, Jill’s romance has taken on the aspects of an exchange of goods. “…It won’t be easy for you,” Jill warns her fiancé. “You’ll feel you’re living on a battlefield, halfway between your wife and Miss Kate. But your wife will win out eventually; that is, if you’ll always be sure to back her up and not take sides against her.” “I never would, Jill,” says Chris solemnly.
                In Psychiatric Nurse, Brad Andrews’ psychosis turns out to involve a possessive mother; and in Cruise Nurse, Sheila Dorrance helps a young girl break free of her mother’s domination, at least long enough to get engaged. A subplot in Ship’s Nurse involves a reconciliation between a couple whose marriage had been ruined by the man’s tyrannical and snobbish mother. Resolutions of such conflicts may involve a token interior change on the part of the dominated child, a show of independence, but the conflict is really viewed as a power struggle between women.
                The nurse heroine herself never has a possessive mother. For all practical purposes, she has no parents at all. In one novel I read, the nurse’s father, a small-town doctor, shows up in the first chapter, but after that he plays no part; and in the presence of even one parent in one chapter is exceptional. In the books I read, one nurse’s father is a farmer, one a storekeeper; two nurses had doctors as fathers. The father of one nurse is said to have “plenty of money,” and the parents of another are “if not wealthy, extremely well-fixed”; but there is no other identification of the parents. Still another nurse is an orphan, an heiress who tries to keep her fortune a secret. In the other books, no reference at all is made to the parents of the heroine, though she is always quite young and, of course, still unmarried. She does not write letters to her parents or receive letters from them, she never phones them, and she never consults their known opinions or biases in making a decision. She is incredibly unrooted and unencumbered, a self-made, self-sufficient blank. Nothing in the past has any reality except her nurse’s training, and it was through her own hard work and determination that she succeeded in that, as she herself will point out if bullied or snubbed. If there is a sense of humor in the book, it will belong to the heroine’s less conscientious roommate, who may speak boldly of attractive men, use slang (though always in quotation marks), and indulge herself by sleeping late or eating what she shouldn’t. The heroine does none of these things. She is a good nurse, she is frequently praised as such, and she takes herself seriously. She is likely to say things like, “I don’t care for the position you’ve put me in” (Nurse Craig), or if she is redecorating an apartment with a girl friend, “Nancy and I are creating something out of our own hard work and imagination” (Society Nurse). She may even tell her superior, as Nurse Marian does, “…I shall fulfil the requirements of my position to the best of my ability and also adjust to the environment. I would not have accepted the position, Dr. Blount, if I had not thought I would be quite satisfied to live here, away from the hustle and bustle—what I consider the hectic life—of a large city.”
                When heroines talk like this, it comes as something of a shock to discover that the most common villain, after the possessive mother, is the pompous doctor. His transgressions may range from treason to something like (though not quite) malpractice, but he is loathed not so much for his wickedness as for his pomposity. He is hated and feared by his nursing staff; he is a social climber; and he talks, all of the time, the way nurse heroines talk most of the time.
                In the long run, however, it is not the solemnity of the nurse heroines that impresses one deeply, but their blankness. Unfettered by any previous life, they move in the world of line drawings without shadow or substance. Names of people, titles of movies, books, or TV shows, are for the most part absent. Descriptions of restaurants or nightclubs where the heroines go on dates are extraordinarily thin. A typical passage comes from Nurse Craig:

It was a cold November night and they were returning from a rather exceptional play. Toni talked excitedly about the author’s fine characterizations and the marvelous performance that a newcomer had given. It was not only after she had run on for about five minutes that she noticed Chad was not contributing to the discussion.
                “Am I boring you?” she asked.
                “Not at all, Toni.”

                “Not contributing to the discussion” instead of “not saying anything” is typically pretentious. But even more characteristic is the substitution of abstraction for detail: “a rather exceptional play,” “fine characterizations,” “a newcomer.” A succession of such scenes finally creates an effect of wide open spaces, geographically and psychically. If a character in a Nurse Novel reads a book, and one did, it is a “brightly jacketed novel about politics.” Names are also dispensed with for anyone who does not appear on the scene. “I’ve been doing a little research as assistant to a great man in the field,” a doctor tells a heroine. Incredibly, she doesn’t ask who and he doesn’t tell her, though he wishes to devote his life to research and she expects to marry him. It all sounds not like fiction but like an inept lie.
                The style of the Nurse Novel is characterized by a world of trouble with diction and a firm grasp of certain mistaken rules of syntax and punctuation. Sometimes the authors merely fail to get the right word, as when Peggy Gaddis uses “disinterested” for “uninterested” or “theoretical” for “figurative” (“I have a hung you spat in his eye—oh, only theoretically, of course”). Sometimes the trouble is more complicated, as when one of Miss Gaddis’ characters winds up with a misplaced mouth (“his white teeth a brilliant flash beneath his small, close-cropped moustache and his crisp well-trimmed beard”). Occasionally we encounter what used to be called a bull, said to have been characteristic of the Irish. “It didn’t seem possible,” one of these goes, “but remembering the change, for the worse, in the patient called John, Holly realized that it was truly as she had been given to understand, that in psychiatry, anything was possible, though nothing was probable, when it came to miracles.” Another nurse is said to respond to a kiss “reluctantly, and with abandon.”
                Even in moments of crisis—sometimes it has seemed to me, especially in moments of crisis—characters in a Nurse Novel are mindful of case and of the fanciful rule against ending a clause with a preposition. “Who gave whom the paper?” Nurse Craig demands, breaking into a narrative which implicates her fiancé as a Communist spy. And Chad Barlow, locked in an abandoned warehouse with Toni Craig, mutters: “If I can find something with which to pry loose a few boards …” The same sense of correctness leads Nurse Novel authors to put quotation marks around anything they regard as nonstandard English. Even the characters do it, by means of single marks. “If he thinks I’m going to pine away because he’s not around, he’s got another ‘think’ coming,” says Nurse Craig.
                When I first encountered Nurse Novels, I guessed that they must be a specialized variation of the woman’s story, perhaps a variation which would meet some female cravings analogous to the masculine appetites fed by the Western. This proved to be a mistake. For the very thing that distinguishes Nurse Novels from conventional women’s fiction is their astonishingly low fantasy content. At least so it seems at first glance.
                The basic formula of women’s fiction can be set down fairly briefly: an intelligent and attractive woman (1) finds success in a man’s world, frequently moving from a lower to a higher social class, (2) suffers from the gossip and intrigues of spiteful females, who are finally exposed to public shame, (3) wins the love of one or more good men, whom she patronizes, (4) falls under the spell of a dangerous, self-willed, thrilling rascal whose basic impulses are nihilistic, and (5) performs some public service which gains her much respect and affection. These are the typical incidents of the story, but of much more importance is the emotional atmosphere in which they occur. The women’s story must trade in emotion. The heroine suffers, languishes, plumbs the depths of despair and climbs the heights of forbidden exaltations, savors a triumph over her catty enemies, melts with pity for the distresses of others, tingles to the delicious abuse of the Byronic hero, radiates a gentle benignity over some local poor people (usually a minority group) who call her an angel, etc., etc.
                Except for the Kiss, which bears a certain resemblance to concussion of the brain, the nurse heroine doesn’t feel much of anything. She is too self-sufficient to be very excited about new experiences, she is morally irreproachable and thus cannot feel guilt or remorse, she is not the victim of gossip, she seems to have little interest in food or clothes, (nurses of twenty often remark that they’ve forgotten all they ever learned about cooking). As for affairs of the heart, they hardly seem real enough to cause any discomfort. Five sentences after Faye Ramsey has decided to give up her boyfriend because he is a traitor to his country, she “supposes” that in time she will get over the loss. Nothing seems to matter very much.
                Yet as one reads these books he gradually begins to sense that the Nurse Novel is not simply a bad imitation of the standard romantic fantasy. (Indeed, as such, it is so bad that it could hardly survive.) It does not attempt to provide a vicarious workout of the emotions, but rather the reverse. It is a fantasy of dominance over the emotions, of training over instinct, of occupational prestige. “Don’t get emotionally involved,” is a recurring refrain, and on the whole it is heeded. The ideal is coolness and professional detachment.
                The heroine is, after all, not primarily a woman, but a nurse. She may do nothing more complex than serve warm milk and open the blinds, but her identity as a nurse is insisted upon: indeed it is her only real identity. She is trained, and the word “training” seldom appears without its twin riders, “long” and “arduous.” Girls who have recently completed their three years’ stint to become Registered Nurses are always glancing at the reflection of their caps to remind themselves that they really made it. The physical grind and the terrible hours are mentioned, but “arduous” seems to refer mainly to the mental work. Yet only rarely (for example in Big City Nurse by Jane Highmore) is there any indication of what a girl has to learn to become a nurse. Most Nurse Novels seem to be actively avoiding any details of training, as if the authors were afraid of scaring somebody.
                Nursing is always referred to as a profession, and though Nurse Novels lack enough life to be called melodramas, there is in many of them a scene somewhat analogous to the moment when the Western gunfighter reveals his identity to a group of pugnacious barflies. (“They call me Ringo.” Sound of glasses dropping.) Nurse heroines announce their identity with predictably less interesting results, but nevertheless with an energy that does not often appear in these stories. When “Miss” Kate Harmon tells Jill Barclay, “You will stay as long as I want you to,” Jill replies, “Mrs. Harmon, I am a nurse, not a maid. … I worked very hard to get my degree and to be allowed to work in my chosen profession, and I will not permit myself to be ordered around as though I were a maid or a domestic servant.” The final step into occupational fantasy occurs in Emergency Nurse when the grandstands collapse at a stock car race and Lorri Patton follows Dr. Scott Camden as he crawls under fallen electric wires toward a crying child. A policeman tries to stop her, but she shoves him away and shouts, “Get an ambulance! I’m a nurse and I’m ordering you.”
                When nursing is viewed in such a light, it is not surprising to find that doctors are mentioned with awe. Or more precisely, the nurse heroine reveres the doctor’s knowledge, skill, and “devotion” (a favorite word). As a man he is likely to be naïve and rather easily manipulated.
                In most Nurse Novels there are strong implications concerning the near-equal professional status of doctors and nurses, and sometimes a hint of resentment that this equality is not more generally recognized. One of Peggy Gaddis’ nurses reflects that it is good to slip into the operating-room routine, “to become a doctor’s extra pair of hands, his extra brain if necessary, though it was almost blasphemy to think that!” In another of Miss Gaddis’ tales the heroine is a nurse who has been blacklisted by a pompous society doctor after she correctly diagnosed an apparent coronary occlusion (that’s what he thought) as shingles (herpes zoster). The story is full of sarcastic remarks about “that august being, a doctor,” and nurse Andrea Drake’s superior diagnostic skills are once again demonstrated at the climax of the tale. Young Dr. Steve Jordan receives an emergency call while attending a party at Andrea’s flat but because of her dubious professional status refuses to allow her to accompany him. When he comes back and announces that the patient was a victim of a coronary, Andrea asks, “Are you sure?” (It could be herpes zoster.) Jordan flies into a rage and as he is spluttering, “Why—why—you,” Andrea closes the door in his face “with an ostentatious gentleness.” A few days later he is back to announce that herpes zoster it was, and to curse himself for a bumbling fool. He is greatly relieved to discover that Andrea, true to professional standards, has kept his blunder a secret.
                If professional differences between nurses an doctors are minimize, social differences are simply not recognized. Doctors (unless they are pompous villains) act and talk very much like uneducated young boys with a knack for, say, taking radios apart: nothing in their background, taste, intellect, or biases would act as an obstacle to marrying a nurse. Yet one does not feel that the authors are deliberately falsifying social realities for the purpose of fantasy. The explanation is rather that at the galactic distance from which the whole medical milieu is viewed, it is impossible to distinguish between anything so subtle as social classes.
                This leads to the question of who reads Nurse Novels. If fantasy goes by opposites, one might guess that these books appeal not to nurses or to girls who seriously consider becoming nurses,  but to uneducated young women, already married perhaps but essentially still girls, who for one reason or another have given up hope of gaining any kind of emotional or financial independence, whose life is primarily the life of the home, the life of the emotions—the impossibly wearing, inconclusive emotions of every day. To such a girl, burdened by a too-early motherhood, by financial insecurity, by altogether too many ties to her own and her husband’s family, the blank, cool self-sufficiency of the nurse heroine might well seem refreshing.
                Viewed in this light, the distinguishing characteristics of the Nurse Novel—the abstract locales, the perfunctory treatment of emotional crises, the heroines absence of personal ties, the extraordinary admiration for the immaculate crisp uniform, the awed references to three years’ training, the solemnity of the heroine’s self-respect, the priggish correctness of her speech—all these purse-lipped qualities, offensive in themselves, take on a new and altogether more coherent identity. We are so familiar with the modern theme of estrangement—of the individual’s attempt to break out of his emotional isolation and learn to submerge  himself in uncritical experience—that we may be inclined to overlook hungers just as basic and a lot less literary: the desire to be independent, to be competent at something (“I am a nurse and not a maid or domestic servant”), not to be the slave of family, emotions, and circumstance.
                Anyone who lives in or near a modern suburb knows a number of housewives who are quite simply going out of their minds from the feeling that their lives lack meaning or direction. (If we needed documentation, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique has provided it in plenty.) If Nurse Novels are any indication, the problem is not limited to the women of an affluent and educated middle class, and there is no reason why we should expect it to be.
                “I work for my living, my money’s my own / And them that don’t like me can leave me alone.” Nurse Novels never state it with that noble clarity; they are befuzzed and vitiated by a thousand vulgar presentions, and forced into a conventional romantic mold which is obviously alien to their genius. But viewed in the mass and from a certain distance, their function is clear enough. That is why the final effect of these books is not ridiculous, but depressing. It is a somber thought that desires so simple, and bottom so decent, should for many women be the stuff of fantasy.

Big City Nurse by Jane Highmore
Big City Nurse by Peggy Gaddis
County Nurse by Peggy Dern
Cruise Nurse by Joan Sargent
Emergency Nurse by Suzanne Roberts
Flight Nurse by Kathleen Harris
Hootenanny Nurse by Suzanne Roberts
Island Nurse by Peggy Gaddis, also published as The Courtship of Nurse Genie Hayes
Nurse Craig by Isabel Cabot
Piney Woods Nurse by Georgia Craig
Psychiatric Nurse by Mary Mann Fletcher
Second-Chance Nurse by Jane Converse
Settlement Nurse by Peggy Gaddis, also published as Heiress Nurse
Ship’s Nurse by Rosie M. Banks
Society Nurse by Georgia Craig

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