Sometimes it is worth taking time to look carefully at the shelf of books in the darkest corner of the second hand bookshop. You know the one I mean, the shelves of old 1940’s and 50’s hardbacks with no dustjacket and faded spines, the lettering on which can be hard to read. I love these shelves (and not all second hand shops have them) because for me it is here I am likely to find real unexpected gems. A few months ago on a day out to a National Trust property (I forget which one) I was looking around the second hand bookshop. There to the left of the doorway in a cramped little space with stone floor and little light – was my kind of bookcase. At first I didn’t think there was anything of interest – and then I pulled out Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton. I recognised the name of the author, her 1933 novel Bricks and Mortar is published by Persephone, I read it in August last year and really enjoyed it.
“It was a dumb dark winter’s morning, cold as death and quiet as the grave, with a fog rising from the river to choke the streets of Wilchester town. The young policeman on his beat could scarcely see across the Beastmarket. As he went past St. Blazey’s church he heard six o’clock strike, but he could not make out the face of the clock, or even see the top of the tower; only the gravestones looked white between the trunks of leafless dripping beech trees. When he crossed the road and peered through the railings of Yeoman’s Hospital, the central block with its pillared portico was invisible across the courtyard. There was no light in there except the red tail-lamp of an ambulance parked by the steps and a faint glow through the blind of the porter’s lodge, not bright enough for him to report.”
I seem to remember that Bricks and Mortar is a little slow to start, but that once it did I loved it. Yeoman’s Hospital is similarly slow to start, although I enjoyed the atmospheric first paragraph. For about forty pages or so I thought I was going to be severely disappointed in the novel, I feared it might turn out to be rather dull. The only rating of it on Goodreads I could find was a rather dispiriting 1 star rating – which I am very glad I ignored – maybe they only read the beginning. Soon enough I found myself caught up in the lives of the men, women and patients of Yeoman’s Hospital, Ashton faithfully recreates this world, so that its sights, sounds, smells and voices resonate still, even for the modern reader. In the end I rather loved it.
Yeoman’s Hospital is set in the fictional town of Wilchester (I couldn’t help but think of it as Winchester) at the old hospital of the title during one twenty four hour period in December 1943. As the day starts, a new probationer nurse; eighteen year old Joan Shepherd is beginning her nursing career. Over the course of the day, Joan will face much that terrifies her; there will be moments when the day feels like it will never end. The world of the hospital is endlessly confusing; everyone bustles busily with great purpose, while poor Joan is sometimes too frightened to speak. Around Joan, are staff nurses, sisters and matrons who are sometimes kind, but often sharp, harrying and impatient, there is so much to learn, so many things to remember, and the day is so very long.
There are a host of hospital staff who we meet along the way, and this old 1944 edition comes with a handy who’s who in the front. Dr Shoesmith senior physician has been at Yeoman’s his whole career; he is a thorough committed doctor, who has a difficult professional relationship with surgeon Richard Groom. The resident surgical officer is a Czech refugee doctor, whose name is deemed as unpronounceable and who no one seems to like much. Miss Sophia Dean is the house surgeon, an ambitious talented young woman, who is in the running for the Czech doctor’s job when he leaves shortly, her main competition Dick Groom, the son of Richard Groom snr. Dick Groom is a thoughtless young man, newly engaged to the daughter of a leading figure in the town; Dick’s ambitions appear more social than medical. Squirreled away in the pathology lab on the top floor is Neil Marriner, nephew to Dr Shoesmith, a famously brilliant and irascible young man, with whom Sophia has been having a secret relationship. Neil is ill; suffering from an ulcer he has so far refused to be treated for, Neil prefers the silence and isolation of his laboratory, working long hours in pain, so he can carry out his own research outside of his hospital duties.
On the wards of Yeoman’s Hospital on this particular day me meet, Burgess with his face swathed in bandages, a young boy with a broken leg, and a girl whose initial misdiagnosis results in a dramatic emergency. A shepherd; Mr Pedlar has stomach problems, the weight has been dropping off him and he can’t face his food. Mr Pedlar is waiting for Mr Groom to operate on him, and watches the clock anxiously, asking tremulously whether he can’t just go home. Later his terrified little wife of forty years comes to sit with him following the operation.
“She was like the sheep she had seen in the market place, utterly bewildered and terrified, taken away from the soft fields they knew and driven along unfamiliar roads, with blows and shouting, into a strange cold building which smelt of death. She twisted her bony hands together to stop them shaking, and a tear rolled out of each eye.”
At the end of the day, the day nurses trudge wearily back to the nurses’ home, as the night staff – survival kits of knitting, novels and chocolate stuffed into their bags – take over. Despite the length of their day already the third year nurses must yet sit through a lecture from Dr Shoesmith on pain, while their older more experienced colleagues don dressing gowns, share cups of tea and gossip. As day gives over to the dark and cold of a wartime, winter’s night, the night porter watches a young mid-wife on her way to a delivery, before being called to take a deceased patient to the mortuary. There’s a sense of time moving forward, day after day.
“There was no fog tonight to sting eyelids and noses, but it was a hard frost; the night sky was powdered with innumerable shuddering stars and there was ice on the puddle by the side door, where a leaky pipe had dripped all day on the asphalt. Somebody broke the ice with a delighted scrunch, another cried, ‘oh! Do look at that shooting star. Wish, everybody,’ and they all laughed like a pack of children.”
Helen Ashton tells the story of 24 hours in a 1940’s provincial hospital. There are patients to be cared for, medicine to be carried out, but among the staff there are love affairs, petty squabbles, ambitions and disappointments. Ultimately I found this extremely readable, several small story strands weave together to create the story of one hospital, and the people inside it.