Occasionally, when I am not sure what to read next, I pick something from the books I inherited from my mother. Her collection included Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens. I was confident that I would enjoy it as I had previously read Winds of Heaven (1955) about a widow finds herself lost in post-war Britain. I featured it in the Older Women in Fiction Series.
Thursday Afternoons is an earlier novel, published in 1945. Monica Dickens had served as a nurse, an experience she drew on for her popular novel-memoir One Pair of Feet, published in 1942, featuring her training during the Second World War. This novel returns to the setting of hospitals, before the NHS, and the world of doctors, nurses and patients.
The title of Thursday Afternoons suggests routine, the things that happen every Thursday afternoon. The reader is introduced to Dr Stephen Sheppard and here he is one Thursday afternoon running his clinic in suburban Dynsford for no pay as he has a lucrative private practice in London’s Wimpole Street. Nurse Lake is assisting him, organising the patients in the waiting area, sorting their files, and ensuring that everything goes smoothly. Routine. Settled ways of doing things. A writer introduces these in order to provide some disruption.
The disruption builds up from the start of the novel. It is the late spring of !939. It begins with patients who will insist on handing the doctor their out patient Registration Card. He only needs their file. But they persist. There is worse coming than upsetting the routines of Dr Sheppard’s clinic. As the novel progresses the likelihood of war increases. Trenches are being dug in London parks, people are deciding which of the armed services to join, to remove their families out of London, and women are exploring the possibilities of war work.
Everyone likes Dr Sheppard, especially Nurse Lake. The patients hang on his words, the nursing staff are in awe of him, the ward sisters and Matron want to entertain him for tea and biscuits. His colleagues respect him. His wife defers to his every decision. His friends can’t get enough time in his company. Dr Sheppard lives the life of an entitled and privileged man.
No-one is quite so pleased with Dr Stephen Sheppard as Dr Sheppard. The reader sees him enjoying all his privileges. His wife Ruth is a tedious woman with little flair. We notice that Dr Sheppard has recently been unfaithful to his wife. We learn that they had a daughter who was drowned, and it emerges that Stephen was sleeping on the beach at the time.
He is bored by his life, drinks, smokes and eats a great deal and takes it for granted that he will be successful at whatever he turns his hands to. One of his projects is to write a novel, and he pursues the secretary of a publisher, one of his patients who owes him money. We learn that he has no skills as a writer, but he assumes that he has.
He decides to join the navy taking it for granted that the service will welcome a man of his talents and successes. The recruiters see him as out of touch and ill-prepared for the demands of medicine in war. This not very nice doctor sails through London in his nice car, imagining that life still has much to offer him. Actually, life has other plans for him and for everyone as war approaches. Hubris is a word to associate with him.
One theme of this novel is the hierarchies of the health service before the war: public/private; male/female; medical/nursing/patients; entitlement/charity and so forth. The hardship of the lives of trainee nurses are exposed, they are bound by petty rules, extreme long hours, hard work and humiliating exams. Dr Sheppard, of course, sails above this. Nurse Lake experiences it every day. And Monica Dickens knew what she was writing about.
It was good to be reminded of the history of the hierarchies that still exist today, and of the inability of people to control their destinies.
Monica Dickens (1915-1992) said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in the States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published four books before Thursday Afternoons. She published many, many more in her life, including the Follyfoot series for children.
Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens, first published in 1945 by Penguin Books 320pp
The Winds of Heaven (1951) by Monica Dickens in the Older Women in Fiction Series (June 2018).