Monday musings on Australian literature: Nurses in Australian fiction

As some of you may know, last Tuesday, 12 March, was International Nurses Day, the date chosen because it was Florence Nightingale’s birthday. The day’s aim  is, in Wikipedia’s words, “to mark the contributions that nurses make to society”. Each year, apparently, has a theme. This year’s – presumably chosen long before COVID-19 – seems quite prescient: “Nurses: A Voice to Lead – Nursing the World to Health”. One of the ways the day is marked in Australia is to recognise nurses through a raft of awards, including naming a Nurse of the year. This year’s winner was Monash Health nurse Tania Green, who was chosen for her “championing of patients with cleft and craniofacial conditions”.

Oh, and to put a bit of icing on the cake, 2020 happens to also be the World Health Organisation’s International Year of the Nurse & Midwife!

Now, you may have noticed that my reading and blogging are currently slow and sporadic – something that will continue for some time yet, I expect. The reason is some significant family care needs which have, coincidentally, resulted in my getting to know many wonderful carers and nurses.

Why not then, I thought, check out some novels which feature nurses. I should warn you, though, that while my experience of nurses and carers over the last little while has been very positive, writers explore the dramatic possibilities of nurses in ways that are not always the most laudatory. Remember Nurse Rached?

(Very) select list of nurses in Australian fiction

What follows here is a highly serendipitous list plucked pretty much out of the air (and my blog). I’m sure there are many romance novels featuring nurses, but as I don’t read romance, you won’t find those here. There are crime novels featuring nurses, but as I don’t – well, you get the drift. Instead, what you’ll find here is an arbitrary list of books, mostly at the more literary end of the spectrum, in which nurses are either the protagonist or, at least, a significant, character. I’m listing them in chronological order.

Mollie Skinner’s “The hand” (1924) (my review): a short story with a hint of the occult, about a young nurse’s enlightenment.

Book coverElizabeth Jolley’s My father’s moon (1989) (my review): a semi-autobiographical novel about a young, lonely and alienated woman, Vera, who also happens to be a nurse. She’s not the most sympathetic character, shocking us at times, but Jolley gets to the heart of being an outsider.

Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules of scientific living (2005): historical fiction inspired by Victoria’s Better Farming Train which travelled through rural Victoria educating communities about domestic skills and agricultural practices. One of the characters is a nurse, Sister Crook, though the main characters are sewing teacher Jean and agricultural scientist Robert. (I loved this book when I read it, a few years before blogging.)

Thomas Keneally’s The daughters of Mars (2012) (Lisa’s review): historical fiction about two sisters and their experiences working as nurses during World War 1, in the Dardanelles and France.

Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest (2013) (my review): I’m throwing McFarlane’s book in here because, while one of the main characters is not a nurse, she appears as a government care worker to live with the main character, an ageing woman who may be starting to lose her mind, or is she? Who is Frida, the care worker, and what about that tiger who prowls around the house? A clever, disturbing book about the vulnerability that accompanies growing old.

Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (2015) (my review): historical fiction based on the true story of young woman jailed for manslaughter in 1909 due to a botched abortion she performed, having learnt the trade from her mother-in-law Nurse Sinclair. This is a deeply humane book about poverty, women and their choices.

Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (2015) (my review): the rather grotesque “nurse” Nancy is not one of the main women characters in Charlotte Wood’s novel, but she becomes a significant character, offering another perspective on women’s agency, or lack thereof.

So, folks, this is my off-the-top-of-the-head tribute to nurses and carers. A weird tribute, I agree, given many of the nurses identified do not meet your traditional stereotype, but every character here has an interesting story and contributes to our understanding, in one way or another, of the caring professions.

Do you have any favourite fictional nurses, or novels featuring nurses?


34 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Nurses in Australian fiction

  1. How appropriate given the current pressure on nursing staff that this is “their” year. The only one of these Ive read is Daughters oif Mars which I was lukewarm about in my review.

    I hope your family health issues become less stressful for you soon Sue.

    • It is, Isn’t it Karen! I didn’t know you’d read the Keneally, Lisa was like-warm too.

      Thanks re the family Karen. I hope so too, for their sakes as much as mine.

  2. I don’t – in fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book about a nurse. Tsk !
    Can’t resist saying that it’s a pity about Nightingale’s birthday being the date: I mean, now that we know how appalling were her nursing results .. I wish there were some other nurse who didn’t kill off her patients to whom we could turn as a real representative .. Why not Edith Cavell ?

  3. Hi Sue, I think you covered it well, novels about nurses. Of course, My Father’s Moon is my favourite. Two other novels which I recall and are completely different, are Misery by Stephen King and The English Patient by Michael Onddatje.

  4. This sent me searching through my posts to see what I could find…
    Not quite nurses, but the mother in Water Under the Bridge by Sumner Locke Eliot goes to nurse her husband and they both die of the Spanish Flu; and there’s a man who nurses his mate back to health in D’Arcy Niland’s Dead Man Running. I think these are important instances because they speak to the role of family members in nursing in years gone by.
    Career nurses feature in Meg Mundell’s new novel The Trespassers, in Tracy Crisp’s Surrogate, and (if I remember correctly) in Angela Savage’s Mother of pearl, though she’s not a main character. There’s a male nurse in Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out, and Noonah trains as an Indigenous nurse in The Fringe Dwellers.
    And I know this MM is about fiction but I’ll take the opportunity to remind readers about Janet Butler’s brilliant Kitty’s War, revealing what nursing what really like in WW1.

    • Thanks Lisa … I like your point about family members doing nursing roles. I accept that under this banner.

      I nearly mentioned Kitty’s War as a non-fiction book, but decided to keep it short and focused, so I’m glad you did.

  5. One brilliant novel based on her real life experiences is Cynthia Nolan’s A Bride for St Thomas. Cynthia Nolan (wife of Sir Sidney Nolan) trained as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital in London just prior to WWII. Her novel is based on her experiences as a student nurse there and a wonderful read for any former nurses such as myself! She is a superb writer btw. I think this book is still available if you search for it. Can’t recommend it highly enough. As an outspoken Australian her character does not sit well with the more conservative types at St Thomas’ at the time!

  6. New here and not sure if my comment came through so trying again – I’d highly recommend Cynthia Nolan’s (wife of Sir Sidney Nolan) autobiographical novel A Bride for St Thomas. Cynthia Nolan trained as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, just prior to WWII. It’s a marvellous read for any former nurses such as myself, and Nolan is a superb writer. As an outspoken Australian her character in the novel does not sit well at such a conservative and prestigious training hospital! A wonderful insight into what it was like to train as a nurse, still very similar in my time here. I think the book is still available if you search around. There’s a copy signed by her to her surgeon friend Charles (who features in the novel) for sale on Abebooks now and I’d love it – the one copy I have is treasured.

  7. Sorry, I seem to have repeated myself! I’ve come across from Lisa Hill’s blog but have been following your blog for some time!

    • Hi Sue, welcome and thanks. I’m really glad you’ve introduced yourself. What happens is that the first time a person comments they go into “moderation” and have to wait until the blogger approves them. Once you’ve been approved all future comments from your email address will appear straight away. (Most bloggers do this, though some don’t or some moderate every comment. It’s all about cutting out spammers.

      I could delete your second comment, but you added info about Abe Books so I’ll leave it there, if that’s ok? If you’d like it deleted let me know.

      • That’s fine Whisperinggums! Nolan’s book is worth a bit because of the connection to artist Sidney Nolan – which is what makes her nursing book more fascinating too – knowing that she eventually committed suicide in a hotel room in London – there are echoes of that depression in her novel.
        Nice to finally “meet up” with you!

        • Nice to meet you too Sue, and since we have now met, please call me Sue!!

          I feel I’ve read a bit doubt Cynthia – perhaps in an art gallery exhibition – though I can’t quite recollect where.

  8. Finally I get to my ‘real’ computer and hopefully my reply won’t be rejected. As I recall, I wrote that Mollie Skinner’s autobiography was something like Memoirs of a VAD – a VAD being an nurse or nursing aide during WWI. Miles Franklin was a volunteer hospital orderly (in Serbia) during WWI but whatever she wrote about it is not in her published writings. Joley was a nurse too (in WWII? I’m not sure) but in The George’s Wife she is a nurse who becomes a doctor. The only other nurse book I can think of is Come Hither Nurse which is in the same vein as Doctor in the House etc and was my favourite of mum’s books.

    Lisa’s brain obviously works better than mine, so she takes the points for The Fringe Dwellers,

    • Oops sorry Bill, I saw this in my notifications and then got distracted before I replied. I knew of course about Mollie Skinner and Elizabeth Jolley, but hadn’t known or remembered about Miles Franklin.

      And yes, good on Lisa for The fringe dwellers. I didn’t remember that either.

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