My introduction to Monica Dickens came from Barb's review of this over on Leaves & Pages earlier this year, which really piqued my interest. As I know I've mentioned before, I've loved stories about nursing schools for as long as I can remember. With my mother, two of my aunts, and several glamorous older cousins who were all nurses, I read every book I could find about student nurses while I waited my turn. I thought I knew all about the hard work on the wards and the even harder classroom studies, the dorm and ward pranks, the handsome doctors, the variety of patients and fellow students (always one know-it-all, one loner, one madcap life of the dorm). An account of nurse's training would have been enough for me, but add in the excitement of training near London in the early days of World War II, and I had found a copy on-line before I even finished Barb's post.
Because I have this need to read stories in order, though, I started with Dickens' first volume of memoirs, One Pair of Hands, and then went on to read her marvelous autobiography, An Open Book. So when I sat down with this one, finally, I already knew quite a bit about her nursing career, both before and after the book was published (she was blackballed from nursing for a year or so after it came out; when she finally found another hospital to accept her, she had to begin again as a probationer). Maybe that's why I liked it, rather than loved it - because it felt almost like re-reading? Perhaps it was also because it wasn't quite what I expected. Though the book opens with Dickens trying to decide among the many options that war work suddenly offered to women, once she settles into the Queen Adelaide Hospital [standing in for the King Edward VII], the war doesn't play much of a part in Dickens' story. It seems very much the background, with the soldiers at dances, the passing references to air raids in London and to rationing. But maybe that was deliberate on Dickens' part, to provide some distraction and a bit of comic relief.
In her autobiography, Dickens quotes a nurse who wrote that "either the book was fiction, and therefore lies, or the hospital should immediately be 'struck off the lists of approved hospital training centres.'" I don't know if it was the war conditions, or differences in training, or just the way that Dickens told her story, but I didn't see much actual training going on. She and her fellow probationers were sent on the wards their very first day, and they were put immediately to work doing the most menial tasks. None of the senior nurses seemed to have any time for them, and it's a wonder to me that the probationers, run off their feet, learned anything of nursing. Eventually they began taking classes, with an eye toward the exams they would have to pass, but these get barely a mention. Most of her story focuses on the wards, as the students are transferred around the hospital in rotation, in and out of night duty. Dickens turns those oh-so-observant eyes on her fellow students, the senior nurses and the Sisters who rule the wards, and the patients who occupy them. That's where her interests lie, those are the stories she tells, with wit and irony - and often with empathy. I didn't learn much about her training as a nurse, but I did come to know the people who made up the world of the hospital, down to the maids on the wards and the porters in the halls. And as with her account of life as a cook-general, Dickens doesn't hesitate to share her own screw-ups and failings. My favorite came from her very stressful turns in the operating room:
I personally was terrified of all surgeons and hated having to go near enough to do up their sterile gowns or to wipe sweat from their brows. Once or twice I had touched them and made them unsterile and I wished myself dead as I received their reaction at having to go through the whole scrubbing-up business again. My greatest shame, however, was when one of them suddenly shot at me through his mask: 'Fetch me the proctoscope!' and never having heard of the instrument before, I heard it as something else and came trotting faithfully back with the white coat of the night porter which I had dragged off his indignant back.
Dickens writes in her autobiography that, when she began her training, she thought that perhaps she was done with writing, that nursing would be her new profession - one she experienced almost as a vocation. In the end, it would of course be writing that she chose. I'm glad that I still have her third volume of work memoirs, My Turn to Make the Tea, as well as so many of her novels to look forward to.