Category: Fiction/WWII – Paperback: 221 pages – Publisher: Penguin Books – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1942
Another old orange Penguin book on my shelf, this is a book I shuffled closer to the top of my To Be Read pile last year thinking it might make an interesting addition to my century of books challenge…
When World War Two broke out Monica Dickens (who’d already published two books, including one about working in some odd jobs) signed up as a nurse and went to work in a hospital, this book is a non-fiction account of her experiences there. It’s mostly made up of descriptions of other nurses, the routines within the hospital and wards and humour about having to wear cuffs in the hallway and troublesome patients, terrible meals in the refectory, the steady supply of gossip and climbing in windows when out after curfew.
‘It was now that I first sensed the faint antagonism that all Day Sisters have for the night nurses on their ward. There is the suspicion that, behind their back, one will trifle with their beloved machine. Wherever possible, the blame for a mishap is pinned on the night nurses. It is they who have broken that syringe to which no one will confess; they who ate that jelly and stole Sister’s ginger biscuits…’
I actually rather liked it. Dickens has an eye for detail and is good at telling a tale about hiding a broken thermometer or trying to stay awake on night duty, but because she was in Windsor (she changes it’s name to Redwood in the book) not London or somewhere more affected by the war her experiences skate along on a very jolly, largely inconsequential level. There’s one night out that is interrupted by a sudden influx of severe burns cases that come from a factory accident and a couple of German pilots find their way to the ward but mostly she spends her days caring for geriatrics, new mothers and private patients.
Presumably that was exactly what the original audience wanted – the sense that England was going on in true English fashion with babies born every night and brave, funny nurses bending the rules occasionally but caring for their charges when it mattered – but it wasn’t what I was expecting and I was disappointed by it. Entirely my fault of course, I don’t read blurbs much and the combination of the opening page (debating what war work Dickens should sign up for and explaining why she chose nursing) and the publication date led me to assume the war would be a far more prominent feature of the book that it was.
If you’re going to pick this up yourself let it be for the amusement of either Dickens’ tales of getting in trouble or curiosity of what nursing was like in the 1930s and 1940s – her descriptions of making meals on the wards and trying to juggle a thousand and one tasks in the sluice room between patients ringing for help are interesting enough in their own right without any war specific tales. After all, the humour comes from someone as ill-suited to the strict discipline as Dickens clearly was being forced by the war to knuckle down and write short stories at 03:00 in between never-ending rounds.
I wouldn’t have picked this up without the misunderstanding about it being an account of nursing that happens to be from 1942 rather than about a hospital in wartime specifically (nursing tales really aren’t something I’d go for normally) but Dickens’ wry digs at those around her kept me reading and it’s proved to be an interesting introduction to Dickens’ style. She’s a bit of a snob, her snarking can sound a little whiny at times and there’s some casual racism that made me twitch… but on the whole I’m very curious to read more of her work. Perhaps I’ll try one of her novels next.