A century turning

Here is chapter five of my two-stories-in-one novel Christobel. It’s 1899 and Christobel, having decided to become a nurse, has now qualified. The dying months of the nineteenth century fade away and the bright, hopeful twentieth begins.

Then the chapter fast-forwards to 1906 and Christobel goes on what is a pivotal holiday as it later turns out. It’s the catalyst for a change of direction in her life that leads to dramatic consequences she could never have imagined . . .

I do hope you are enjoying my book. If you are new here and would like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family.


Chapter 5

There was really only one way, now, of spending much of the remaining days of Frieda’s visit to England. Hooked on the novelty of hearing an unexpected voice from the distant past, the intriguing words winging across the years, they spent much of their time reading Christobel’s journal. And when they weren’t doing that, with genealogical interest piqued, Chris pestered Pam for all the information she had of her mother and her grandmother Christobel. Some of the diary passages, they agreed, were rather pedestrian and disappointingly dull, and they skimmed over those, but many others were fascinating.


14th April, 1899

It’s a red-letter day today! Now I am a fully-qualified charge nurse, having passed my examinations with a certificate from the hospital to attest to it! Now I can do more real nursing, like Mabel, and have underlings under me now, with their bright, enthusiastic faces, just like I was three-and-a-half years ago. I can boss other girls about a little, pass the menial work to them. Well, that’s only fair. After all, I had to do all that when I began!

It seems like only yesterday when I was like them, hopefully starting out as a Probationer Nurse, which is the lowest of the low, at St. Thomas’s. But at least I was on the bottom rung of a much better establishment than Grantham Fever Hospital. Apart from the high level of medical excellence, St.Thomas’s is a splendid, imposing, modern building in the Classical style with wonderful facilities, such as a proper x-ray room and an impressive, hygienic operating theatre employing the antiseptic protocols of Dr. Lister. And the wards are light, airy, clean and well-ventilated, with balconies for the tuberculosis patients, as recommended by Miss Nightingale.  

There are considerably better opportunities for advancement here than out in the provinces. I know Mother was secretly a little miffed that the second of her daughters was deserting her too, leaving the family fold to better herself, but then she says she believes in female equality with the male, after all, that women should be able to get on and have a career just as much as men. So that means that women like Mabel and I have to leave home in search of greener pastures. She can’t have it both ways. Besides, she still has Harry at home, and I don’t think my unadventurous little brother is ambitious enough to want to leave Sleaford, somehow.

Yes, it’s nice to be free now of at least some of the drudgery of the job: the bed making, the polishing and dusting, the fetching and carrying, the bedpan emptying and cleansing, the serving of food and sometimes feeding it (although I enjoyed doing that), and being a general “dogsbody”. Much of the work could be done equally well by domestic maids, really, although to be fair, some of it, like the floor washing and stoking of fires, is done by the scrubbers. It’s been hard work and long hours, looking after often seriously ill patients. And people too often, sadly, dying, usually of the infectious diseases which still plague London too much, in spite of the advancements in public hygiene and better housing in recent years.

I’ve now got slightly better living conditions, with my own bedroom in the Nurses’ Home, so they are a little less cheek-by-jowl and afford slightly more privacy, although, Mabel says, they’re considerably better than Grantham. It was often dangerous there. There, she’s told me, several nurses died during the last major epidemic, mostly of pneumonia.

There are still the strict rules and institutional living conditions, of course, as if we were in a nunnery, (it’s a good job I have no interest in young men!) There is still little time for socialising with the opposite sex, even if it was allowed, but it isn’t. It’s forbidden us to go out with doctors or students, and if we’re caught doing so, it means instant dismissal. Like nuns, we are expected to be married to our work, completely dedicated to our calling. But that is fine. I am fully dedicated to enact God’s will in the service of humanity. I need no other diversions. I enjoy the chaste camaraderie with the other girls: the occasional river trips or omnibus rides into the West End or to Hyde Park on days off. That’s quite enough, thank you!    

So, now I’m a fully fledged nurse. No more lectures on inserting catheters, on preparation for operations and rousing patients from anaesthesia afterwards, or on applying and removing leeches, or clearing tracheotomy tubes, about bread and charcoal poultices, about the sad business of laying patients out after death, and the many other procedures in a modern hospital. No more of that. But I will miss the interesting lectures on medicine and pathology by the physicians, and on surgery and anatomy (which I didn’t find gruesome at all!) by the surgeons. But, I expect, there will always be new things to learn. Medical progress is so rapid nowadays. I doubt whether I will ever be fully trained, really.

And so this is to be my path through life. Twenty-year-old Christobel Farley is prepared and ready for the world!


1st January, 1900

Well, what a momentous day! The first one of not just a new year but of a new decade, and even more than that, a new century. I won’t see the like of this again, not unless I live to be a hundred and twenty-one, at any rate, which is very unlikely I should think, even with all the advances in medical science. Many people, especially the lower classes, still do not even reach the Biblical three score years and ten.

Today is a day off between switching from night duty to days. Yesterday was the last of “nights” for a week, so after coming off duty at eight this morning and sleeping for seven hours solid, now, in the late afternoon, with a cheerful fire spreading its cosy warmth from my bedroom fireplace, I’m penning this entry.

Although I was on duty last night, I and the rest of those who were working were able to see in the New Year and new century. As it was such a special occasion, Matron allowed each ward a brief celebration. We hung up Union Flags and banners around the Male Fever Ward proclaiming, “Goodbye 19th Century” and “Welcome 20th Century” around the ward, which may have cheered up some of the patients, and as midnight approached, and so as not to disturb them, we all crowded, those of us working and those off duty (who will be very bleary-eyed doing the day shift this morning, I’ll be bound!), into Sister James’s sitting room, where we partook of a small glass of sherry provided by the Governors. I must admit it made my eyes water a little, as I’m unused to alcohol, but I had to drink it to enter into the spirit of things and managed to swallow it in very small sips.

Sister had her fob-watch to the ready, and as the last seconds of 1899 trickled away and midnight approached, she began the countdown, and we all vociferously joined in, erupting into “Happy New Year!” after the “one”. Then Sally Dawkins, who has quite a sense of humour (and even looks quite like Marie Lloyd the entertainer, so she tells us), piped up and said, “No, Happy New Century!” So we all laughed, and chorused, “Happy New Century!”

Then Sister told us to raise our glasses to the New Year and new century, and pray that it would be a good one, a peaceful one, with which we, I at least, fervently concurred. Then we linked arms in the time-honoured way and sang “Auld Lang Syne”, followed by “God Save The Queen”, after which we all hugged and kissed each other, and more than one sentimental tear was shed.

And then Elsie Goodall told us there was one more rite to perform, and left the room, and a minute or two later returned holding a parcel wrapped in newspaper. She said it was a tradition where she lived: on New Year’s night you were supposed to open the back door to let the old year out and then ask the first dark-haired man to be seen to come in through the front carrying salt, bread and coal. The salt was supposed to ensure enough money in the New Year, the bread enough to eat and the coal enough warmth. She said she knew she wasn’t a man, but at least she was dark-haired! She unwrapped the parcel and there, sure enough, was a coal and a (rather grimy!) slice of bread sprinkled with salt! We all laughed, and Sister said she hoped it would do the trick, and told her to put the parcel, including the bread, on the ward fireplace, in the hope that it would bring the poor souls luck.  

But the celebration was quickly over and Sister told those of us on duty to return to our patients, although many of them were asleep. I returned to the bedside of one of the most seriously ill, Albert Barlow, who has tuberculosis and is near the end of his life. We can do little for him, other than sponge with cold water to alleviate the fever, keep him warm and feed him beef tea to try and sustain his strength, but he’s wasting away. Pray God that his passing will be peaceful. We’re told that, although the agent causing the disease has been identified (a bacterium), current science has no certain remedy, other than to relieve symptoms. Perhaps one day in the future, there will be such a thing.

Poor Albert comes from the slums in the East End, and that’s probably the cause of his parlous state: bad sanitation, poor housing and overcrowding. Great strides are being made to improve things in that respect in some areas of London, particularly the better-off ones, but there’s still much to do. Mother would contend I’m sure that it’s a matter of political will as much as anything. Perhaps she’s right.

When I got back to him he was significantly worse; his breathing was even more laboured, he was shivering, there was blood on his chin and chest from coughing and his brow was glistening with sweat. I got him another blanket, sat beside him, wiped his forehead and cheeks, and held his limp hand. But there was no life in his sightless eyes, no vital spark at all. All I could really do was to stay with him, wrap him in my love and ease his passage to meet his maker. No other patient needed my attention as desperately (most were asleep) and so I stayed, through the dark watches of that night, and towards dawn, as the first light began to filter through the high windows of the ward, he sighed, weakly coughed a final time, exhaled his last breath and departed this life.

So he didn’t live to see the twentieth century, and all the wonders that may be coming. Poor man, he was only twenty-nine. But at least he’s at peace now.

When eight o’clock came, and feeling a little depressed at this inauspicious start to nineteen-hundred, instead of returning to the Nurse’s Home and my bed, I looked into the Maternity Ward. I asked the Sister there, Marie, who has become a close friend, if there were any new arrivals, any twentieth-century babies yet. She smiled, clearly delighted. “Yes,” she said, indicating a bed halfway down the ward on the right-hand side, “Maisie Lawrence gave us one, a couple of hours ago. A beautiful little girl.”

I walked to the bed, where a pale-faced, exhausted-looking young woman lay with a white bundle in the crook of her arm, its contents clamped to her breast. “Congratulations,” I said, “this is our first baby of the new century!”

She smiled at me, tired but radiant in new motherhood. “Yes, so they tell me. She’s quite famous, by all accounts.”

“She certainly is,” I agreed, moving the shawl aside to see the tiny red face more easily. “Have you decided on a name for her yet?”

“No,” she said. “To be honest, we were quite convinced it would be a boy. That’s what my mother thought, because of the way she was lying. We’ll have to think of something, smartish.”

I had a flash of inspiration. “Can I make a suggestion then?” I said, a little impertinently. She nodded.

“Well”, I said, “Why not call her ‘Hope’?”


23rd August, 1906

Sleaford. Back from the first part of my annual holiday which was spent with Marie in Belgium, her home-country. It was wonderful, seeing another part of Europe and another culture for a few days. Thankfully, the steamer crossing to Antwerp was quite calm and we weren’t troubled by sea-sickness! Then there was a pleasant railway journey through flat, lush countryside to Brussels, Marie’s home city. Her parents’ smart, well-kept villa (he is a doctor, in general practice, not in a hospital) is situated in a prosperous suburb of the city. They’re very nice, hospitable people but they speak very little English, so it was incumbent on me, really, to practice my reasonably good although rather rusty French (it was a good job their first language wasn’t Dutch, as it might well have been!), rather than rely on Marie to translate everything both they and I said to each other.

Interestingly, Doctor Lefebvre told me that he has a friend, Doctor Antoine Depage, who is hoping to set up a nurse training institute in the city, where nurses would be trained according to the principles of Florence Nightingale, and he is in the process of buying buildings for the purpose. It sounded very interesting, and quite flattering that someone would wish to emulate best English practice. It seems that English nursing has gained something of a reputation in recent years, if Doctor Depage’s opinion is anything to go by.

We had a very pleasant three days (that was all; I’d promised Mother I would spend the greater part of the holiday with her, which is only fair). Marie showed me all the sights of Brussels, like the opulent, utterly charming, spacious market square known as the Grand-Place (or Grote Markt in Dutch) surrounded by elegant stone-built guildhouses. I could have strolled around there for hours. And the very modern, astonishing, buildings like the Hôtel Tassel, with its exposed metal structure (very daring!) built a few years ago by the architect Victor Horta, a leading figure in the Art Nouveau art movement, which I love, with its swirling, sensuous lines and motifs often borrowed from nature.

Then there was another treat: a trip out into the countryside in Doctor Lefebvre’s motor car! It went rather alarmingly fast (30 miles per hour!) which rather took my breath away at first, but I quickly got used to it. Then it became quite exhilarating. We had a picnic, in a meadow beside a river, which was very grand and a little romantic, as if we were subjects in a painting by Έdouard Manet. Impressionism seems very old-fashioned now though, compared with Art Nouveau.

On the final day we even did some shopping, in the wonderfully ornate, light-filled arcade of the Galeries royales Saint-Hubert. I bought an Art-Nouveau-inspired scarf for Mother and a similarly-styled necktie for Father. I feared they might be a little too modern and exuberant for their tastes, but they declared themselves pleased when I gave them. And I treated myself to a small indulgence: some prettily-wrapped chocolate from a very genial and obliging lady chocolatier.

Brussels is a beautiful city. I could happily live there, I think. Certainly, I could have stayed there for much longer, but I had to reluctantly leave Marie to complete the rest of her holiday and return to Antwerp and the steamer to Harwich, then return to London and catch the train to Sleaford. It was a lovely visit.

So, there are a few relaxing days here in Sleaford now, then it’s back to my patients next week.

Happy days!    





About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
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3 Responses to A century turning

  1. You might shoot me for saying this but diaries are a bit linear and not as interesting as letters where you get the “two and thro”which adds a greater dimension and is more engaging.
    Would a cache of old letters have been a better approach. I know you have used letters and their conversational style before.
    What led you to diaries?

    • wordsfromjohn says:

      Thanks for the comment Mike. No, I won’t shoot you! Did you mean the ‘to and fro’ of letter writing, the reciprocating? That aside, is there a significant difference between diary entries and letters though? Apart from the latter being prefixed with a ‘Dear (whoever)’ as opposed to a date, both are a telling of events or a sharing of thoughts related in the first person. There was no particular reason for the diary device, other than to clearly differentiate Christobel’s story in style from Chris’s by making it first-person. But yes, I suppose it could have been old letters instead, possibly C writing to her mother, but then that would lengthen those chapters quite a bit if Ma’s replies were included too, and I’m trying to keep it reasonably tight, as you suggested. Unless I pared down C’s letters to only the really most salient ones. (Actually though, as C’s story progresses and becomes more dramatic, it will be difficult for there to be an exchange of letters anyway.) I’ll ask other opinions about this.

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