This was such a well-written book that I honestly did not expect to be giving it only three stars. Thursday Afternoons, set in 1939, explores the lifeThis was such a well-written book that I honestly did not expect to be giving it only three stars. Thursday Afternoons, set in 1939, explores the life of Dr. Steven Sheppard, a charismatic and successful doctor who now regrets both his choice of profession and his choice of wife. He never has any intention of divorcing his insecure wife, but drifts from one affair to another while trying to write a novel and hoping to get away from his demanding private patients by volunteering to serve at sea in the rapidly-approaching war.
Steven reminded me of Don Draper (Mad Men), a man who has it all but is never satisfied. Although he interested me, I didn't warm to him. My sympathy should have been with the betrayed wife, Ruth, but after a few pages of listening to her wittering on, I could understand all too well why she got on Steven's nerves. Stephanie, Steven's girlfriend, seemed like someone I could have been friends with...if she wasn't dating a married man. Another important character is the rather pitiful Nurse Audrey Lake, who works at Steven's Thursday afternoon clinic, adores him, and becomes increasingly obsessed with him as the book progresses. Then there's the house-parlourmaid Ethel Garrard, who needs Steven's help to escape her violent husband. But she is portrayed as so cold and self-centred that I couldn't warm to her either.
Not that the absence of sympathetic characters would bother me as a general rule, as long as they were convincingly drawn - which is certainly the case here. Monica Dickens brings to vivid life every character, however minor, and every setting - especially the hospital, where her experience as a nurse shines through, and the wardroom of a destroyer (she married a naval officer). I'll give two examples. First, the genteel Mrs Delacroix, one of Steven's patients:
But here was Mrs. Delacroix, in her tweed dress and jacket and pseudo-Austrian hat, putting on her private patient act, which was intended to show that she was more accustomed to visiting doctors in their consulting-rooms than in clinics. She was the widow of a bankrupt solicitor, and lived with her hulking, adolescent daughter in a bungalow which smelt of bread and butter and damp tea cloths. She could not afford to be a private patient, but was not going to let Dr. Sheppard or anyone else forget that she had once been one. She went through the necessary formalities at the registration office and the Lady Almoner's with a remote, disinterested air, receiving her folder in her fingertips with a slight laugh to show how absurd all this was. On the benches, she and her daughter sat immersed in books from the twopenny library, in which they kept the celluloid markers from the days when they had belonged to Boots'.
It was the detail of the celluloid bookmarks which pinned down Mrs. Delacroix for me, as well as anchoring the story firmly in its period. Boots' Booklovers Library was a private subscription library, patronised by the middle classes, as opposed to the cheaper working-class twopenny library. By clinging on to the Boots bookmarks, Mrs. Delacroix is clinging to her former way of life.
Nurse Lake, we learn later, also patronises the twopenny library: she is reading a novel called Romany Wildcat. This sounds like one of the popular bodice-rippers filmed by Gainsborough Pictures in the 1940s, and it adds a touch of humour, because no-one could be less like a wildcat of any ethnicity than Nurse Lake. However, it's also a deft touch in her characterisation, a hint that she dreams of being a much bolder, sexier, more adventurous woman.
So why the three stars? Well, unfortunately I felt the structure of the book let it down. There are numerous scenes and characters, excellent in themselves, which feel extraneous. Most of the plot strands don't go anywhere much. The book ends with a turn of events which I will call dramatic rather than melodramatic, as it's well prepared for - but it leaves the characters up in the air, unable to complete their arcs. The result is a rather baggy, unsatisfying novel, which frustrated me because I felt it could have been so much better. In fact I found myself trying to rewrite the plot, never a good sign:
(view spoiler)[I felt the book would have been better for dropping the entire sub-plot of Mrs Garrard and her husband. It's well-written, but only exists to sweep Steven off the stage in the last chapter. By contrast, Nurse Lake's obsession with Steven is so powerful and well-portrayed - why not make her the murderer? She seems sanguine about his leaving the hospital, but I could see her deciding that if she couldn't have him, nobody could. Or it could be she who deliberately tells Garrard where he is so that she can be a heroine and save the day, not realising she hasn't got it in her. (hide spoiler)]
Nevertheless I feel the book is worth reading, if only because it demonstrates that Monica Dickens inherited the talent of her famous forebear when it came to cross-sectioning, dissecting and analysing British society. It's just that as far as plot goes, this is more of a Pickwick Papers than a Bleak House. ...more
Exactly a hundred years ago, in the middle of World War One, Enid Bagnold was nursing wounded soldiers in a Victorian hospital near London. A Diary wiExactly a hundred years ago, in the middle of World War One, Enid Bagnold was nursing wounded soldiers in a Victorian hospital near London. A Diary without Dates is a short, first-person, present-tense account of her experiences from the autumn of 1916 to the summer of 1917.
The lives of nurses at this time were very strictly regulated. They had very little free time and might be sent anywhere at any moment, as might the patients. Bagnold described hospital life as "an everlasting dislocation of combinations" and commented that "Like nuns, one must learn to do with no nearer friend than God."
Yet she found freedom in institutional life. The repetitive activity of laying trays or sewing splints helped her achieve what we would now call "mindfulness." And astutely she observed:
So long as I conform absolutely, not a soul will glance at my thoughts - few at my face. I have only to be silent and conform, and I might be in so far a land that even the eye of God had lost me.
Certainly the hospital had no idea that she was writing this book, and dismissed her as soon as it was published. They did not appreciate the critical eye Bagnold brought to her workplace. Moving from an officers' ward to one for "Tommies" (private soldiers) she noticed how differently the lower-ranking men were treated:
The thing that upset me most on coming into a "Tommies'" ward was the fact that instead of twenty-six lemons twice a day for the making of lemonade I now squeeze two into an old jug and hope for the best about the sugar.
She also noted that "there isn't that mystery which used to surround the officers' illnesses" - in other words, lower social status meant less entitlement to confidentiality. In one respect, however, officers and men seem to have been treated alike: they got very little pain relief in the daytime, although they were given something to help them sleep at night. Bagnold was frequently distressed not to be able to do more for them.
At the hospital Bagnold could see soldiers training in a nearby camp, and sometimes heard the noise of the guns across the Channel:
Now a lull and now a bombardment; again a lull, and then batter, batter, and the windows tremble. Is the lull when they go over the top? I can only think of death tonight. I tried to think just now, "What is it, after all! Death comes anyway; this only hastens it." But that won't do; no philosophy helps the pain of death. It is pity, pity, pity, that I feel, and sometimes a sort of shame that I am here to write at all.
Bagnold's capacity to convey emotion and atmosphere with a few brilliantly chosen details reminds me of Sylvia Plath's journals. As the title suggests, the diary entries are undated, although her description of the aftermath of the Silvertown explosion of January 1917, and vignettes of the changing seasons, provide some landmarks. Her portrayal of hospital life is made up of a series of moments, vividly described and often centred round objects - the ladyfinger she slips off to eat in a dark corner during a long shift, the pillows which all have to be arranged the same way to impress visitors, the flag which covers a dead man being taken away on a stretcher.
She never mentions the name of the hospital, but Google revealed that it was the Royal Herbert Hospital, built in the 1860s in Woolwich and converted to flats in the 1990s. I found a plan of the hospital which helped explain her many references to "the long, the dim and lonely, corridor." This corridor was an important innovation in hospital design and was intended by Florence Nightingale, who helped plan the Royal Herbert, to provide air and light to the wards. In Bagnold's descriptions it takes on a Gothic, almost ghostly aspect, with its "blue gas-lamps hanging at intervals down the roof in a dwindling perspective." The lamps don't seem always to have been functioning, as she refers elsewhere to "the long walk down the corridor in almost total darkness, the vapour of the rain floating through every open door and window."
Despite all the gloom, there are moments of humour. Bagnold, who like many of the voluntary nurses had a well-to-do background, noted with amusement the role reversal when she went from drawing baths for patients to having one drawn for her by a maid: "It's like being turn and turn about maid and mistress." She captures the nurses discussing one particularly troublesome visitor:
We had a heated discussion today as to whether the old lady who leaves a tract beneath a single rose by each bedside could longer be tolerated. "She is a nuisance," said the Sister; "the men make more noise afterwards because they set her hymns to ragtime." "What good does it do them?" said the V.A.D., "...and I have to put the roses in water!" I rode the highest horse of all: "Her inquiries about their souls are an impertinence. Why should they be bothered?"
Meanwhile the old lady toddled home, no doubt feeling she had done a good day's work. I could go on quoting this book forever, so suffice it to say that I recommend it to anyone who would like to travel back in time a hundred years for an hour or two. ...more
From the very first page, Elizabeth St.John's powerful and evocative writing swept me into early seventeenth-century England along with her heroine anFrom the very first page, Elizabeth St.John's powerful and evocative writing swept me into early seventeenth-century England along with her heroine and ancestress, Lucy St.John. Lucy tells her own story, and we follow her from an unhappy childhood, through an encounter with an aristocratic love rat, to a marriage that makes her mistress of the Tower of London. I really empathised with Lucy - she deserved happiness and I was absorbed in her struggle to triumph over her difficult family, Court intrigues and the limitations imposed on women of her time. The other character who jumps off the page is Lucy's manipulative sister Barbara - I loved to hate Barbara and cheered every time she made one of her entrances! Comparatively few authors have written about this period and I especially enjoyed the descriptions of Whitehall in the corrupt reign of James I (he was the king who invented the title of baronet in order to sell it). Elizabeth St.John excels at painting pictures and creating atmosphere, and every setting is described in crystalline detail. This is the perfect book for a snowy winter evening, hot summer afternoon or anything in between. I would especially recommend it to fans of Anne O'Brien, Joanna Hickson, Gillian Bagwell or Susan Holloway Scott. Looking forward to the sequel!...more
Fortysomething Molly ("a little bit Audrey Hepburn if you don't look too close", according to her boss), is the only sane woman in a cast full of crazFortysomething Molly ("a little bit Audrey Hepburn if you don't look too close", according to her boss), is the only sane woman in a cast full of crazy. At the start of the story Molly feels more like Lucille Ball than Audrey Hepburn, trying to keep it together as she struggles with office politics, teenage kids, passive aggressive parents, a hostile coffee maker and a very elusive husband. Then, as the hot new young vampire on the TV show she writes for takes an interest in her, it seems her next role might be Mrs. Robinson...
Gradually Molly learns to take charge of her life and her world. As funny as her story is, her journey from zero to hero is told with insight and compassion. It reminded me of French bestseller The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol. Fans of Angels by Marian Keyes would also enjoy the Hollywood setting.
A fun, heartwarming read, highly recommended....more