Sue Barton, Nurse
by Helen Dore Boylston

Review by
William H. Stoddard

  Sue Barton, Student Nurse: 1936, 244 pages
  Sue Barton, Senior Nurse: 1937, 220 pages
  Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse: 1938, 244 pages
  Sue Barton, Rural Nurse: 1939, 254 pages
  Sue Barton, Superintendent of Nurses: 1940, 239 pages
  Sue Barton, Neighborhood Nurse: 1949, 236 pages
  Sue Barton, Staff Nurse: 1952, 204 pages

Little, Brown: Boston
John Lane / The Bodley Head: London
November 2012

A career and life in nursing

In 1936, Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984), an American minor writer and a friend of Rose Wilder Lane, turned to the popular genre of juvenile fiction (as it was then called) with Sue Barton, Student Nurse. This sold extremely well, and Boylston found a market for four more books, ending the fifth, Sue Barton, Superintendent of Nurses, with her heroine's announcing her pregnancy to her husband. Boylston returned to the subject and the character in 1949 and 1952 with two more novels.

These are, as their titles make clear, stories about a woman pursuing a career — one of those that were readily open to women in the 1930s; Boylston didn't challenge her publisher by writing about a woman doctor. The shape of Sue Barton's career follows a common trajectory of the era: two volumes cover her training, a third shows her at the Henry Street Settlement in New York (a real institution, founded in 1892 by Lillian Wald to provide health care to immigrants and the poor, and still operating), and the next two take her to rural New Hampshire, where she first waits for her fiancé, Bill Barry, to establish himself and then combines marriage with a career as director of a new nursing school. The fifth volume ends with her first pregnancy and her decision to retire. Boylston may have intended the series to end there, given the long hiatus before the final books, which first showed Barton as a wife and mother and then had her return to work while her husband was in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

The alternatives of love and work are very much an issue in this series. In the first novel she gains two close friends, Katherine Van Dyke and Constance Halliday; Halliday gets married in the third and never appears again, whereas Van Dyke remains focused on her career and shows no romantic inclinations, and is still on stage in the last novel, running the nursing school that she helped Barton establish. Barton herself is more conflicted. In fact, that conflict is central to Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse, where her career goals nearly bring an end to her engagement. After her marriage, Sue Barton, Superintendent of Nurses takes a surprisingly realistic look at the difficulties of new relationships and of combining family and career in that era — and also shows the mismatch between Barton's real enthusiasm, which is patient care, and her educational and administrative responsibilities.

Despite this aspect of the theme, though, these are not exclusively, or even primarily love stories. Many scenes focus on Barton, Halliday, and Van Dyke and their relationships with other women, especially teachers, co-workers, and students. In the third volume, when Halliday is moving off stage, Boylston brings in a new character, Marianna Lawson, a teenage runaway living on the streets of New York, whom Barton and Van Dyke befriend, despite her touchy pride, and who is a major character in the next two volumes, and still on the scene in the final two. Their relationship with her and their relationships with other younger women are often troubled by misunderstanding, and a repeated plot turn involves getting another character to reveal some secret concern — more often than not, a question of professional standards or of vocation.

Vocation is Barton's central issue as well, and the primary theme of these books. She spends the first novel debating whether she has the courage to put her patients first. In the third, her career goals threaten her engagement — especially when she refuses to give them up. In the fifth, she struggles to pass on her vocation to a class of younger women, in the role of teacher and administrator. In the seventh, she returns more happily to direct involvement in patient care. And every one of these novels has one or more sections that involve her doing actual nursing work — even Neighborhood Nurse sees her called on to administer anesthesia while her husband operates on their young daughter's deeply cut leg.

By today's standards, the courtship and marriage in this novel is likely to seem retrograde, and not only because explicit sex is kept carefully offstage. A woman's career appears not as a right but as a privilege. A particularly archaic turn of plot, in Rural Nurse, has Barton figuring out the source of a serious public health problem in her New Hampshire community — and contriving a way to get Barry to figure it out, rather than solving the problem herself, so that he can get the professional credit, even if she has to stage manage it.

On the other hand, these novels do affirm women as professionals — notably in a sequence where Barton's older daughter, Tabitha, has difficulties in school, which her teacher attributes to Barton's attempting to combine motherhood and work; this turns out not to be what's going on at all. A shared commitment to medicine, and especially to caring for patients directly rather than running an organization, is clearly a major bond between Barton and her husband. It's notable that when he's about to return from the sanatorium, he worries over whether she's going to quit her staff nursing, which he can see makes her happy — but concludes that she's the one who will decide. And that same bond is shown in a passage earlier in Staff Nurse:

She realized, dimly, that he was telling her the exact truth — that he would not insult her intelligence nor their relationship by lying to her. If he said it wasn't serious — it wasn't.

That passage still provides a model for a good relationship, even if the material details have changed over the past few decades.


© 2012 William H. Stoddard

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