I took this one off the print TBR shelves to try to make a dent in them before starting 20 Books of Summer, and as I finished it on 2 June, I’m happy with that choice (I have one of its sequels in the 20 Books pile, “The Half-Crown House”). Another gift from Ali, this time when she drew me in the LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa in 2020 (I’m glad to say this is one of my last books dating from 2020!).

Helen Ashton – “Yeoman’s Hospital

(25 December 2020, from Ali)

Stretching in time over 24 hours in 1943, this book gives a vivid impression of a hospital just pre the launch of the NHS, so run and paid for by charity and subscription not national insurance, with various staff thinking well or poorly of the rumours of the new system to come (in this it reminded me of one of Francis Brett Young’s novels, although not one I think I’ve reviewed on here). Published in 1944, it has that slight pathos and tug of a book written when the outcome of the war wasn’t known, which always gets me.

Even though we only have a full day and night at the hospital, we get very engaged with all the characters. Wilchester, the town we’re in, is beautifully drawn and realistic, and the back stories of the main characters are of course drawn in so there’s depth behind the bones of the story. We encounter senior and junior staff, from elderly surgeons to a brand new trainee nurse, and patients from boys with injuries to maternity cases to an elderly shepherd and his fretting wife, all beautifully done, too. There’s politics in the running of the hospital and between those pushing for promotion, and a couple of romances, gossip, personality clashes and, beneath it all, the suet pudding for the nurses and lack of nutrition for the townspeople and the general worn-outness of being several years into a war.

The effect of the war is felt on the infrastructure of the town, too – the description of what has happened to the old Duke’s house is a paragraph that summarises what happened to so many other great estates, the lake drained so as not to show up to aircraft, the corridors full of stored museum pieces and the son of the house lost and his widow already remarried – very poignantly done in only a couple of hundred words.

A lot is so different – patients wondering how to pay for treatment, a hospital almoner sorting it all out – them some things are so familiar – a laparotomoy being done because “That’s what they calls it when they don’t know what they’ll find and won’t say what they’re looking for” (p. 49) – change that to a laparoscopy and it’s not much different today! It’s probably the same for a new nurse now as it was then, and we sympathise with Joan as she’s batted around her new ward but calmed by the competent and motherly Sister Abbott.

A lovely book, some gruesome bits, but a totally absorbing world. I have one more Wilchester book to read and will certainly look out for copies of the others, or hope that Dean Street Press might reissue them!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 7/41 – 34 to go.