Book review: A Nurse in Time by Evelyn Prentis

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The idea that Evelyn Prentis should be a nurse was entirely her mother’s.

In fact it came to her one Friday afternoon in 1934 as she was in the middle of making the bread at their Lincolnshire home; Evelyn would be paid for her training, food would be included and the job was suitably ‘ladylike.’

That young Evelyn might not really be cut out to be a nurse never entered her thinking - the girl’s future had been settled with what her mother regarded as a minimum of ‘fuss and bother’.

Evelyn Prentis was what we today term ‘a real character.’ She died in 2001 at the age of 85 but not before she left us a brilliant legacy – her warm and funny series of books about life as a nurse in the middle decades of the 20th century.

And the good news is that they are making a welcome return. First published in the 1970s, A Nurse in Time is the first of five books and takes us back to the dark days of the 1930s when life was tough and money was short.

For probationer nurses, it was a world of never-ending shifts, permanent hunger and disciplinarian Sisters alleviated only by a rare late-night pass, escapades in the sluice and a packet of Woodbines.

Once Evelyn’s future career had been decided, her mother threw herself into finding a hospital placement with the same zeal and cunning as a rich matron launching her debutante daughter.

Letters were steamed open and references doctored and before long 18-year-old Evelyn was given a contract at a Nottingham hospital for the princely sum of £18 a year.

After a bombshell revelation from her mother that changed the way Evelyn saw herself for the rest of her life and armed only with a beguiling innocence, an impervious sense of fun and a good grounding in unwavering obedience, she embarked on a vocational career to which she had never truly been called.

One of Evelyn’s nursing dilemmas was that she was not actually used to illness. Her mother didn’t believe in it. If you were firm enough with it or ignored it completely, like a naughty child, it would get better.

Even worse, Evelyn was not a ‘born nurse’ and she soon discovered that there was no room for error on busy wards where sisters expected undeviating devotion to duty, strict attention to detail, superhuman physical endurance and absolute obedience.

It was a tough call for a teenager who had been brought up with food aplenty on her parents’ smallholding and now had to work through long hours on meagre rations and little sleep.

As well as the rough end of nursing duties, Evelyn spent hours sweeping, buffing, cleaning floors and even polishing bed springs and scraping fluff off trolley wheels.

The only ‘recreation’ was standing in a room devoid of carpets, chairs and curtains to indulge in her new vice of smoking, and time off was a half-day a week and one day a month.

Juxtaposed against the harsh realities of 1930s nursing – the devastating effects of septicaemia, the life-and-death lottery involved in undergoing surgery and the shocking results of home abortions by desperate women – there were lighter moments like scrambling through windows into the nurses’ home late at night and moments of hair-raising hilarity with fellow trainees.

Fortunately for Evelyn, she turned out to be a survivor; a resilient, perceptive and adaptable realist who had both the brains and the bottle to make the best of a bad job.

With her dry humour, eye for life’s quirkiness and her charming and self-deprecating manner, Evelyn might not have been a ‘born nurse’ but she was certainly a born writer.

Don’t miss her entertaining and often moving story.

(Ebury, paperback, £6.99)