Friday 20 August 2010

No Time for Romance

Paradise Books in Daylesford is the kind of secondhand bookshop I love. I knew when I walked in the door that I would find a treasure – and I did.

I browsed the stacks for a while, looking through fiction, non-fiction, children’s books (does anyone remember Seven Little Australians? The lady who wrote it has dozens more to her name) and then wandered upstairs to look in biography, where I thought I might find a copy of Monica Dickens’ memoir One Pair of Feet, about being a nurse in the 1930s, long since on my list-to-look-out-for in bookshops. Funnily enough, the book that – literally – fell out at me, was about a nurse in the 1930s, but a different one.

I don’t know where I came across Lucilla Andrews, though I suspect one of her paperbacks was knocking around either in our house in Dublin or Granny’s house in Ballymena. It was, I’m sure, set in a hospital (all of her books were) and was a well-written romance, lighter on the romance and heavier on the medical detail. There was definitely something of the Mary Stewart about them in that the heroines (if mostly preoccupied by the heroes) are well-read and full of common sense.

I read a few more books by Lucilla Andrews from the library – and one, The Phoenix Syndrome, is an excellent insight into the struggles of a group of doctors and nurses immediately after the Second World War, all of them trying to get back some sense of normality. I knew Andrews must have drawn on her own experience to some degree as the blurb at the front of the book mentioned she had nursed in WWII and later returned to nursing owing to her husband’s illness.

And that would have been that, if it weren’t for Ian McEwan and Atonement. I read Atonement a few years ago, and liked it very much. The scenes of Briony as a wildly out of her depth VAD during the Blitz were well drawn – in fact (probably testament to my love of old school hospital romances) I wished there was more of them. I noted with interest that Ian McEwan listed Lucilla Andrews’ memoir No Time For Romance in the acknowledgements.

I’m not sure how many people have read the two authors (they don’t – didn’t – exactly move in the same circles) but there was a big hoo hah a few years ago when a D.Phil. student looking at the connection between Atonement and Andrews’ memoir found that Ian McEwan had relied very heavily on the latter – so much so that accusations of plagiarism started flying.

In his defence, McEwan says that he was always careful to acknowledge his debt to Lucilla Andrews and that, writing historical fiction, he wants to draw as much as possible on source material to make it as accurate and lifelike as possible. He points out that a lot of his father’s stories about WWII also made it into Atonement. Fair enough. But I think it does make a difference that Andrews was also a writer and had already put her stories to paper for publication.

Of course, at the time of the controversy, her memoir was long since out of print (though it was reissued in 2007 with a cover quote from the historical consultant to the film version of Atonement.)

Getting back to the book that landed on my head on Monday: it was, of course, Lucilla Andrews’ memoir, No Time For Romance. It is, with no exaggeration, one of the saddest books I’ve read. It recounts a loss of youth, innocence and joy. If you think the hospital scenes in Atonement are harrowing, they’re nothing by comparison with the reality the author faced. Lucilla Andrews began her hospital career as a VAD then decided to train as a nurse at St Thomas’s, in the heart of Blitz London. When she wasn’t consoling sailors who’d lost limbs, she was telling bombed-out parents that their children were dead. When she wasn’t working back-to-back shifts, she was sleeping under her bed to avoid being hit by plaster and debris when the bombs fell. And the scene in Atonement when Briony lifts the young man’s bandages to discover half his head missing? Yes, that happened too.

Andrews touches lightly on her own romance. We’re given to understand that she met and married a young doctor just after the war but by the end of the honeymoon (literally on the honeymoon) she realised he had a life-threatening illness. She was left to be the family breadwinner and raise their daughter alone. Reading this I guessed (there were lots of references to his smoking) lung cancer. I guessed wrong. I looked up Andrews’ obituary online before I wrote this and discovered that her husband had become a drug addict, using drugs he was able to access as a doctor. He was committed to hospital and died in 1954, the year Andrews had her first book published.

When I mentioned the bookshop in Monday’s post, Rattdl commented that ‘the problem with very good second hand bookshops is that you think they are good because you find books that you like AND HAVE ALREADY READ.’

But just occasionally you find a book by an author you already like and it makes you see her books (that you have already read) in a whole different light. I never would have guessed that writing those hospital romances was an act of real bravery. Now I – and you – do.

1 comment:

  1. ok i take it back maybe it's a feature of advancing years that one seems to have read all the best books. On the other hand i remember the shop in Morrow Bay had some treasures Perhaps it's the new country that makes them exciting