As a child, I was an enormous fan of ‘nurse books’: Sue Barton was my greatest heroine, and I could see myself in years to come, drifting through the wards, nobly administering sympathy to grateful patients (male, of course.)
Perhaps fortunately, this was not to be, and I hadn’t read a medical novel for at least twenty years until I started Donna Douglas’s ‘The Nightingale Girls’, the story of probationer nurses in the East End of the 1930s.
The first character we meet in this absorbing story is Dora Doyle, a girl from the Bethnal Green slums who wants more out of life than a job in the Gold’s Garments sweatshop. Dora wants to get away from home, and for more than one reason.
Against her expectations, she is taken on as a trainee by new Matron, Kathleen Fox, who is doing her best to shake up the old guard at the Nightingale Teaching Hospital. Dora is joined by Helen Tremayne, whose fearsome mother (a former nurse and a trustee of the hospital) rules her life, Millie Benedict, a girl from the landed aristocracy who has also decided to do something with her life - but still likes to party -, and Lucy Lane, who has been given everything by her indulgent father and wants everyone to know about it.
We follow the girls and their friends, together with the doctors, porters, and the patients as they live their lives, both at the hospital and outside it. Dora struggles with her lack of funds to buy books, and with a darker threat to her family at home; Millie’s training is threatened by her own joie de vivre, but later by much more serious events; Helen dares to challenge her mother’s authority -but will she have the strength to follow her heart?
‘The Nightingale Girls’ could have served up a set of stereotypes, but in Dora, Millie, Helen and their friends and co-workers Donna Douglas has managed to create excellent characters, all of whom come alive on the page. I felt that I really knew the girls, and could picture how they would look and speak, and I was so keen to find out what happened to each of them that I read the book in just a few days.
Life in an East End slum is conveyed very well - I could imagine the overcrowding, the neighbours always leaning out of their windows to see what Dora is up to, the claustrophobia - and the conviviality - of three generations living under one tiny roof. Douglas is far from sentimental about lives lived on the breadline - poverty, drink and abuse all feature - but through Lucy she also shows us that these problems are not necessarily confined to the poor. Even Millie, who has the happiest family life, is up against the expectations of her class, in which girls are expected to do very little until they marry, preferably at a young age and to a suitable husband.
The end of the book does not bring closure for every character, and I look forward to the next instalment in the lives of these interesting women.
Reviewed by Rosemary Kaye