Josephine Elder (better known to most readers for her school stories) is anything but a literary writer when it comes to her adult fiction. She is completely matter-of-fact and no-nonsense in her approach—no fancy symbolism or gushing, poetic prose here—and her stories are basically socially-conscious melodramas. But if that sounds like the beginning of a negative review, think again, because she is also—as many readers of her school stories would attest—a stellar storyteller. It's terribly hard not to care about her characters and the often fascinating events of her novels, which offer wonderful slices of life and—particularly—insights into her characters' professional lives. That her books are not always entirely satisfying as novels ultimately takes a back seat—for me, at least—to how interesting they are in other ways.
I read my first adult novel by Elder, Lady of Letters (1949), more than a year ago, and I confess I was a bit lukewarm on it. I don't remember a lot about it, and may have to re-read it soon in light of how much I liked the second and third of her novels that I've read. Somehow I knew that her other novels were going to pay off more, and I quietly collected several of her other books for my TBR shelves. I've since read two of her girls' stories (including The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge (1926), which I reviewed here), and now I've read two more of her adult novels and enjoyed them very much indeed.
In my earlier post, I noted that one of my favorite things about Scholarship Girl was that it’s one of the only novels I know of in the early to mid-century years in which the main character is a young woman whose scholarly and career ambitions are consistently given validity over and beyond her potential for romance. When does that ever happen in middlebrow fiction? A heroine without a hero? Absurd! It might perhaps be a bit less of an anomaly in the context of a school story, where romance is more or less necessarily absent, but the heroine of Scholarship Girl is, after all, a college-aged young woman, so at the very least some fantasies of romance, even in lieu of a real live paramour, might have been expected.
|Blurb from back cover of Greyladies edition of Sister Anne Resigns|
In fact, I've been trying to think of other novels of the period in which a woman's career is given such a central focus. Dorothy Whipple's High Wages comes to mind, and perhaps one or two others, but in the enormous majority of novels I recall, the heroines may sometimes have friends—or enemies—who are very concerned with their work, but they are rarely ambitious professionals themselves. And in the presentation of such supporting characters, serious career concern in a woman—serious enough to put at risk one’s chances of marrying and living happily ever after—seems generally to be a subject for criticism or outright mockery.
If I recall correctly (it's been a while), this is true, for example, of E. M. Delafield's Faster, Faster, in which the main character pushes herself beyond her limits because (the novel seems to be saying) of her over-inflated and rather self-righteous sense of her own importance. That "type" even becomes a sort of stock character in humorous fiction of the time—the tireless campaigner determined to save the world but boring everyone around her senseless with her pontifications and, usually, her socially inept personality and self-absorption. When they're taken at all seriously, they're most often dismissed as trying to be like men, or having lost touch with the real meaning of life, or else as frumpy women destined for spinsterhood, rather than as women who are ambitious and talented and capable. And these are just the women writers—it's hardly necessary to note that male authors were very often even more critical and mocking of career women.
Alas, all of this is often enough still true today…
So I found this career focus in The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge to be an irresistible change of pace. And to some extent the same focus is at the heart of Sister Anne Resigns, published six years after Scholarship Girl, and of Doctor's Children, published more than two decades after that.
As you might expect from the titles, Sister Anne Resigns deals with a young nurse, while Doctor's Children traces the experiences of a middle-aged doctor and her family. As Elder (whose real name was Olive Potter) was herself a practicing doctor at a time when relatively few women occupied such a role, the details of both characters' professional lives are fascinating and clearly drawn vividly from real life.
I found both novels to be compulsively readable, but I particularly recommend Sister Anne Resigns for those interested in the medical angle. Specifically, its strength is its portrayal of the various kinds of women who become nursing sisters, and the effects that a gruelling, rigidly disciplined profession can have on them. Some are kind, some are cruel, some are practically demented with the petty powers they wield, and some are merely absorbed by their work at the expense of social interaction. All of them are interesting, though, and they ring so true that they must have been based on Elder's own experiences. And when, for example, I was reading about Anne trying desperately to save three children, each near death from different ailments and all arriving in the ward in a matter of hours, it would have been hard for anything short of a major earthquake to distract my attention (a minor one would surely have been a mere annoyance).
Doctor's Children, on the other hand, focuses on a heroine who takes up her largely abandoned medical career again when her husband abandons her and their children. It's a bit more concerned with family life and with the difficulties of the children and a bit less concerned with Barbara's work life. But what there is of her career is particularly interesting because she reactivates her career as a doctor just as the National Health Service is being implemented. Elder offers insight into the impacts of the NHS on various of the medical professionals in the novel, and the discussions about it (largely negative) are quite interesting. I found the sections focused on Barbara's children to be less entertaining, but even there, her son's involvement with an early version of a street gang offers some insight into the delinquency that became a major social concern after World War II.
I should certainly mention that in both of these novels Elder reveals some degree of anti-Semitism—both in stereotypical portrayals of Jewish characters and in her characters' condescending or contemptuous reactions to them. It's rather odd and puzzling, since, for example, in Sister Anne Resigns, Anne becomes friends with one Jewish character (who doesn't fit her stereotypical ideas) even while being scornful of some of the Jewish women she treats in the course of her work (who apparently do fit her stereotypes). This is not any kind of dominant or prevalent theme in either novel, and there is less of it in Doctor's Children than in the earlier work, but it's something you should be aware of before reading the novels. It rather took me by surprise, since Elder is in so many ways so ahead of her time and is generally such a sensitive author, but obviously racism (as well as other –isms) has been a blind spot for many writers.
|Blurb from back cover of Doctor's Children|
It's also a bit frustrating for me that in these novels, unlike the earlier Scholarship Girl at Cambridge, Elder seems unable to allow her characters to continue to prioritize their careers over romance. I wonder if she was pressured by her publisher to provide "happy endings," because in neither case does the romantic plot development ring completely true, as if Elder herself couldn't relate to it. How I would have loved for her to be able to produce a novel about an unmarried professional woman like herself without such developments! But at least Elder acknowledges the complications and conflicts in her characters' decisions, and perhaps, in view of the times in which these novels were published, the characters are already radical enough just by virtue of having careers.
All but one of Elder's adult novels have been reprinted by Greyladies, though only two remain in print at the moment. Sister Anne Resigns is one of those two, however, and the other, The Encircled Heart, also about a woman doctor, is on my TBR list as well.
If Elder's novels are not always completely satisfying, they're nevertheless some of the most fascinating records I've ever come across of one area of women's experiences in the first half of the 20th century, and an area that is woefully underrepresented in other fiction of the time.