Book review: A Nurse’s Courage by Maggie Holt

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The gritty realities of inner city nursing featured in Maggie Holt’s absorbing wartime drama are not just the products of her imagination but are based on her own experiences on the wards of a Manchester hospital.

Born in 1931, Holt’s work as a nurse and midwife inspired a string of novels, some written under the name Maggie Bennett, and their re-publication means a new generation of readers can enjoy her moving, down-to-earth and romantic sagas.

A Nurse’s Courage is set in the traumatic years of the First World War, a time when young women faced new challenges, new careers and tragic events that would bring about a sea change in their lives and the way they viewed the world.

A wide cast of characters from all sections of society reveals what it was like to be a nurse in an age before modern medicines and medical care, what it meant to face the horrors of the trenches and the heartbreaking consequences of losing your loved ones.

Mabel Court’s dreams come true when she enters the Booth Street Poor Law Infirmary in London as a probationer nurse in the early years of the 20th century. She pays no fees to train, has free bed and board and a uniform allowance, but the hours are long and the working conditions are harsh.

Most of her patients have long-term illnesses caused by poverty and deprivation; less than 20 years earlier they would have been termed workhouse inmates.

Mabel and her siblings were orphaned a few years earlier by terrible events that have remained secret within the family, but things are looking up for Mabel.

Her fiancé is Harry Drover, an earnest and clean-living young man who is training to be a captain in the Salvation Army. What he lacks in humour and fun he makes up for with his devotion to Mabel and his interest in her welfare.

At the infirmary, Mabel meets fellow orphan and probationer nurse Norah McLaughlin from Cork in Ireland and together they share the day-to-day triumphs and disasters on the wards.

Before long the two young nurses become firm friends with Maudie Ling, a childhood pal of Mabel’s who has worked her way up from one-time street child to music hall dancer.

But the year is 1914 and when war is declared, it’s as if a bombshell has exploded. They try to keep up their spirits but then Harry is maimed at the battle of the Somme. A pale and uncommunicative invalid, he seems cut off from the land of the living and Mabel realises that the life she and Harry had always hoped for is now impossible.

When Maudie falls pregnant by an officer and Norah’s boyfriend is lost at sea, all three girls are forced to face the fact that life will never be the same again.

A Nurse’s Courage is an absorbing novel, a tale of compromise and compassion, hardship and survival, in which Holt captures the suffering, resilience and, ultimately, the indomitable will of a generation blighted by a catastrophic conflict.

And readers can follow a new generation of Mabel’s family in Maggie Holt’s follow-up novel, A Nurse at War, also published by Arrow.

(Arrow, paperback, £5.99)