Today’s letter is D, for Monica Dickens. She’s the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens, and she too was very prolific, publishing about 30 novels and memoirs, including the Follyfoot horse stories. I’m not very interested in horse novels, so I didn’t discover Monica Dickens until I found her on my mother’s bookshelf some time in my teens.
One Pair of Feet was published in 1942. It’s a novel-memoir, in that it’s fiction, but based on her experiences training as a nurse during the Second World War. Like all good funny books it draws its humour from the infinite variety of the human character. Like all good comedies, in the classical sense, it is not afraid to show the nasty side of people, and the terrible aspects of life. Working in a hospital puts you close to the edges of life, but you might think that writing about working in a hospital in wartime would tip the balance of humour and tragedy, and make this a pretty gloomy novel. But somehow, she manages to keep the war in the background. Air raids happen elsewhere, and bomb and burns victims are brought in, but so are motorbike accidents, and gastric cases, and common broken bones. Nurse Dickens’ ward had to be on standby for hours, expecting the dramatic arrival of wounded bomb victims during the Blitz, only to receive a flock of homeless old men ejected from their nursing home. Rationing is important, but not actually mentioned. Instead, there’s only one pot of jam left in Sister’s cupboard to last the ward for 2 weeks. Nurses scramble to eat leftovers on the plates, but this is because they are always hungry, and always tired, rather than because there’s a shortage of food. The hospital food appears to have been horrible, mostly stodge, but the exhausted nurse has no palate, only hunger.
I love the descriptions of nursing in the 1940s: they seem so archaic and domestic. Nurse Dickens sews splints onto broken limbs, but worries about her herringbone stitches not being approved by Sister rather than whether the splint will keep the bones in place. She is perpetually cooking small meals for special patients, and cutting up bread and butter for the patients’ teas, as well as scrubbing all the surfaces Sister can find. Occasionally she has to check a syringe, or struggle with a drip, but she makes beds more often than anything else. As Dickens says, nursing is much more about hard graft than wafting about saving lives by the power of a uniform. When she works in the private wards she is no more than a slave parlourmaid, with hardly any nursing knowledge required. All this compelling domestic detail leavens the medical details. She makes us laugh over her terror of working shifts in Theatre, where she gets things wrong almost all the time. But then we get told about the drama of perky Mr Siddons nearly choking to death on the anaesthetic, because the anaesthetist didn’t bother telling him what kind of gas he was going under; and then the exasperation of the surgeon who needed to get to a Caesarean in time. It’s the way Dickens contrasts her stories, since she can write in so many different kinds of humour.
Set against all the stories that make me laugh out loud spontaneously are the sudden, unstressed tragedies. The torture of Maisie’s broken legs in traction is made worse because Nurse Dickens can hear her sobbing in the night and can’t do anything to help the pain. Saving Granny Chisholm’s life by wrestling with her blood pressure all night, and persuading the junior night surgeon to give her an intravenous drip is uplifting and exhausting. Knowing that Irene Hicks won’t be able to have another baby after the abortionist killed her first one, is agonising. This is why we need the comedy. Dickens knew that if the book were filled with the edges of life, of deaths and babies and near misses, it would be pretty unbearable.
Each time I read this novel I am appalled, and fascinated, by the petty tyrannies of the hospital system, and the bizarre dictatorships on the wards, historical though they are now. How can so many nasty, petty human beings exist, and why are so many of them women? Reading the conditions under which the nurses work, it seems quite obvious that a constant lack of sleep and dreadful food, and being treated like schoolgirls, make them grumpy and snappy. Oddly, the many portraits of vile people are the bits I want to read again. My favourites are the patients who try to make themselves interesting by causing trouble for the nurses, and the monstrous ward sisters who either do nothing or everything, and complain about the nurses. Delphine Lorrimer is the world’s most selfish nurse, as well as the most glamorous, and (disgracefully) can’t hold her drink. In contrast, there are the darlings, the people who make nursing worth doing. I love the cheerful old roué in the private room who talks perpetually of wild goings on in his youth, and drops hints of planned seductions, but when an old girlfriend comes to see him for a special romantic tea, he can hardly make his wobbling legs walk to meet her.
Stepping back a bit, this novel is an unusual picture of women’s wartime living. It’s unusual because it’s about real hard work, and being in a treadmill system with almost no personal freedom, rather than the more common wartime story of dithering about in a country village, which has become a fashionable revival lately. So many of these ‘me and my war experience’ novels or memoirs are about the upper classes who essentially just have trouble with the servants and can’t find enough sherry for their dinner parties. This novel is about being a servant, a state servant, and is given a fascinating twist by Dickens being from a well-off background herself. One Pair of Feet is also satisfying because it isn’t centred on a single home or family: it’s about living in a community and having to live with them. It’s still about the recognisable details of ordinary life. Nurse Dickens bicycles everywhere, and seems to keep missing her last chance to get to the one teashop in town that does lemon curd tarts on a Saturday. She goes out with servicemen, falls out with drunken Nurse Lorrimer, and rips her stockings by tripping over her bike in the dark. But, even though she is a grown woman in charge of life and death, she still has to sneak into the nurses’ dormitories through an open bathroom window after the curfew. The rules that have to be obeyed, quite apart from wartime regulations, are breathtakingly backward. No nurse may run. No nurse may go without wearing stockings. Clean caps and aprons, and the correct way of making hospital corners on a bed are more important than getting hold of a doctor when the ward needs one.
Nurse Dickens’ highly unusual movement between the social layers is riveting. She goes for tea with a senior consultant and his wife, whom she happens to know through her family. Sister cannot understand this: ‘But you’re only a nurse.’ She is invited to lunch in a grand house by a strange woman who stops her in the street when she’s in uniform, but she is almost too sleepy to eat because she’s just come off night shift. She can’t quite understand the graciousness of her hostess, or the distant interest of the other guests, who treat her almost like a wild animal, until she realises that this is a charitable gesture, this is her hostess’s war work, feeding a nurse to show her how nice people still live. Nurse Dickens has a perfectly nice life of her own: she goes up to London on a rare weekend off, where she has decent food, goes out with her friends, and then descends again into what must have seemed like hell, back to the day job. She loves her job, but she also hates the petty tyrannies and stupid rules that make no sense. This dichotomy, a split between love and hate, is matched by the piercingly funny writing, and the pathos laid on lightly. It’s a marvellous book.