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?


M.L. (Mollie) Skinner, The hand (#Review)

ML Skinner, The fifth sparrow

ML Skinner, The fifth sparrow: An autobiography

Pam of Travellin’ Penguin blog read ML Skinner’s short story “The hand” for a challenge she was doing, and, when I expressed interest in it, very kindly sent me a copy. “The hand” is a mysterious little story – and by little, I mean, little in that it takes up less than 7 pages of the anthology, Australian short stories, that she found it in.

Now, the story is a bit tricky, and I think is best understood within the context of Skinner’s biography. She was born in Perth in 1876, but the family moved to England and Ireland in 1878. Mollie was a keen student and reader but had to abandon formal education in 1887 because of an ulcerated cornea, which resulted in her spending much of the next five years in a darkened room with bandaged eyes. After cauterisation partially restored her sight, she started to write poems and stories. Presumably this was around 1892 (ie 5 years after 1887?) when she was about 16 years old. Later she trained as a nurse, which gave her her main living. And then, the ADB biography (linked to above) says something interesting in terms of our reading of this story:  “she recognized within herself an intuitive power, or sixth sense.” A little later in the biography, we are also told that “Mollie believed that God’s hand on her shoulder guided her life. She dabbled in the occult”. She returned to Australia in 1900, though returned to England later to study. She also travelled to India, and served there and Burma during World War 1.

So to the story, which was first published in 1924. It is set in a “mining hospital back there in the west.” As there was “little doing” and the light too dim to read by, the Matron is encouraged to tell a story which she is “good at” doing. They – presumably the off-duty staff – ask her about her life in “those posts way back in the interior”. Was she ever frightened, they ask?

‘Of what?’
‘Well–the loneliness. And bad white men, and bad blacks. Of patients in delirium. Or some awful maternity case you couldn’t handle.’
‘I didn’t think about it. I did what I could. I was frightened once, though: and that, really, by a nurse screaming. A nurse shouldn’t scream.’

Interesting, the “bad white men, and bad blacks”, but I’ll just take that as another of those ways in which contemporary stories provide us insight into the times, and move on with the story. She then tells the story of the scream. She describes the small outback post, the sense of community they had, and the little L-shaped hospital which was open to the bush on one side, and the road and railroad on the other. There were two other nurses besides herself, one being Nurse Hammer “a regular town girl, very attractive, but unstable, untried.” On the night of the scream, our Matron story-teller was doing accounts while the two nurses were chatting with the patients. Our Matron’s mind kept wandering she says. She’s

very practical, really, and then liable to feel things in the air, things that other people don’t seem aware of. My father called it “unwarranted interference”; and told me to taboo it. But it gets hold of me sometimes: and this evening I was uneasy, aware of “something”. There seemed to be a sound.

But, she can’t identify anything, so continues to try to work. She hears Nurse Hammer go to bed, and then – the scream. The rest of the story concerns locating the scream – it was Nurse Hammer – and working out the cause of it – a hand has grabbed Hammer’s leg.

In the end, there’s a practical explanation for “the hand” but along the way there’s a sense of an awakening or at least, a growing up, for Nurse Hammer. Initially, the Matron is

conscious, not only of Hammer’s terrible fear, but of a deeper source, dark and secret within herself. I remembered how lovely she was. How men in the wards watched with furtive eyes as she walked past. I remembered the way she walked–how she avoided those eyes. I knew then that the girl had herself been tempted, that she was powerless, now, in this dark room, because in her own life she was passing through crisis.

The Matron finds herself praying that “whatever we found in this room would not be evil.”

Skinner builds up the suspense well, the darkness, the lantern going out, until eventually the cause of the scream is determined. Before it is fully explained though, Nurse Hammer has a little more to endure, but, says Matron,

I glanced at Hammer. The Nightingale light was flooding her face …

And the Matron goes on to use words that imply a biblical aspect to Hammer’s enlightenment – but if I say more, I’ll give away the story which I’m not sure I want to do (though unfortunately the story does not seem to be available online).

Interestingly, Skinner attracted the attention of DH Lawrence … but I think I might make this the subject of tomorrow’s Monday Musings! Meanwhile, I think the story is to be understood in the sense of a divine intervention intended to test and try Nurse Hammer, from which she emerges, in a sense, reborn and now a real nurse, like Florence Nightingale. (But, I could be wrong.)

AWW Badge 2018ML (Mollie) Skinner
“The hand” (1924)
in Australian short stories (1951)
ed. by Walter Murdoch and Henrietta-Drake Brockman
(pp. 148-154)