Here is chapter 7 of the story of Chris and the story of Christobel. Well, to be precise, this time it’s the turn of Great-Great-Granny Christobel, speaking from the past. Her life is about to take an exciting turn, a turn which will have dramatic consequences she could never have foreseen. She’s been offered the opportunity to work abroad and experience continental European culture at an up-and-coming nurse training institute. The possibility is enticing and too good to pass up . . .
I hope you are enjoying this serialisation. If you would like, as Dylan Thomas once famously said, to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive.
7th May, 1908
There’s been an exciting development! My friend Marie left St. Thomas’s Hospital last year to take up a position nursing at that place in Brussels begun by Dr. Depage, the Nurse Training Institute, in the rue de la Culture, which I heard about when I was over there on holiday two years ago. Well actually, Marie says, the person in charge of nursing is Miss Edith Cavell, who used to be at the London Hospital, as Matron.
Marie had wanted to return home, she told me, and now she’s an assistant to Miss Cavell, teaching midwifery and obstetrics care, as that was her speciality when she worked over here. My friend is certainly ambitious even if it does mean going back to Belgium. But I can understand why she might want to return home, I suppose, and it’s a good opportunity for advancement for her. Well, I feel the opposite: the need to seek pastures new. I’m not willing to let the grass grow under my feet, thank you very much!
It seems the Institute is going from strength to strength and growing in importance, and Miss Cavell, who is also responsible for nursing in several surrounding hospitals, wants to recruit top class nurses wherever she can find them, not just in Belgium or France but in England too. Marie must have put a good word in for me, because Miss Cavell has written to me asking if I’d like to be interviewed for a position!
Well, the possibility of working in Brussels is definitely enticing. It’s a beautiful city, and if Marie’s parents are anything to go by, the people are very warm and welcoming. And I have a reasonable command of French, although no Dutch, admittedly. But French seems to be the language most commonly spoken in Brussels. So I’m sure I would soon become fluent.
I know it would mean greater separation in distance from Mother and Father, but I live and work quite a long way from Sleaford as it is, with infrequent trips home, so it would not be all that different really. The steam packet makes the journey across the North Sea in pretty good time, and I could probably cross to Hull and then take the east coast main railway line south to Sleaford rather than go via Harwich and London. So actually, the journey time might not be all that much greater.
Besides, I am now nearly twenty-nine. I’m no longer my parents’ little girl. I want to see the world! I’m sure Mother wouldn’t begrudge me that. So I’m going to write back to Miss Cavell, in my very best handwriting and English grammar. I’ll tell her about the wide experience I’ve gained over the last twelve years in many aspects of nursing, which is true; I have done, including general medicine, fever nursing, looking after children and even assisting at surgery during this last year. I was a tiny bit squeamish at first, I must admit (although I didn’t have the embarrassment of fainting!) but now nothing perturbs me. We see some pretty horrifically injured bodies sometimes, what with factory accidents and, increasingly, motor-car accidents caused either by them running into each other or running down pedestrians. I sometimes think the modern world is becoming more dangerous, not less. And then there are amputations of course, because of things like diabetes or blood poisoning. So yes, I can take pretty much anything in my stride now.
Marie tells me that Miss Cavell is a little bit of a harridan sometimes; she’s very strict and disciplinarian although scrupulously fair too. Marie says she’s very religious (and the daughter of a vicar, apparently, which doubtless explains it) but cares passionately about the welfare of both the patients in her care and her nurses, and is quite evangelical about good nursing generally. Well that would be all right. I’m well used to discipline from my time at St. Thomas’s and to religious observance too, for that matter, albeit that I was raised a Quaker but Miss Cavell is, I assume, an Anglican.
So anyway, I’ll take the plunge, as they say. I’ll write to Miss Cavell that I would be very pleased to attend for interview at her convenience. After all, Christobel Farley: “nothing ventured, nothing gained”!
22nd June, 1908
Well, here I am, ensconced in my lodgings at the school, three days after beginning my two months’ trial. The interview with Miss Cavell went very well and was certainly less daunting than I’d imagined it might be after Marie’s description of the formidable lady. I’d somehow expected her to be tall, stern, disapproving and fiercely authoritarian-looking, but she wasn’t at all. She was – is – quite the opposite: short, slender, with a fine-boned, kindly face but piercing eyes that rather disconcertingly seem to look right into your soul.
She was very impressed I think that I’d trained at St. Thomas’s in the ways of Florence Nightingale. She told me she was a firm believer in her methods: cleanliness, orderliness, efficiency and above all, kindness. Of course I nodded vigorously in agreement! Yes, she certainly put me at my ease, and especially when somehow the subject turned to painting. It seems she’s quite an accomplished watercolourist, and when I told her that I dabbled a little too, she sounded genuinely interested.
Dr. Depage, who was the other interviewer, seemed a very kindly man too, although he seemed content to allow Miss Cavell to do most of the talking, as if he was quite happy to defer to her in all matters of nursing. So when a letter came a few days later (dated 10th April, the day following the interview, so they hadn’t taken long in coming to a decision about my suitability!) it was hardly a surprise at all, although I was still delighted. And mother, when I told her, did seem genuinely pleased that I was getting on, although it isn’t actually a rise in status.
The accommodation isn’t as good as at St. Thomas’s – in fact the school, as I found out when I came for interview, isn’t purpose-built but consists of a terrace of four houses on the rue de la Culture, with doorways knocked through to create a single large establishment. Two of the former houses have become bedrooms and bathrooms for patients as well as a waiting room and consulting room for the doctors, and the other two are an office and quarters for Miss Cavell and accommodation for up to twelve nurses (although at the moment, there are just six of us), with an operating theatre on the top floor of number 145.
The trial period is just a formality really, I think, as I’m already a fully qualified staff nurse. I can’t believe I’ll be found wanting in any respect. The day is pretty regimented: rising at six-thirty to have breakfast under Miss Cavell’s stern gaze (she brooks no unpunctuality) at seven, then we wash and give the patients their breakfasts. At ten we have a coffee break, make our own beds and then dutifully follow the doctors on their rounds and administer the treatments they prescribe. I find that, with my experience, I often have to show three of the other girls, the complete novices what to do, so really I’m a part-time unofficial tutor! But I don’t mind that. The starting pay is 180 francs, which will rise to 300 in the third year.
After this trial, if I want to stay I have to sign up for a term of five years, the first three of which would normally be spent training: the first in medical nursing, the second in surgical care and the third in fever nursing and midwifery. I don’t know whether I’ll be required to do this, as I did it all years ago at St. Thomas’s. But then, I suppose, times change as medicine progresses, and Miss Cavell does seem to have her own very clear ideas about what constitutes excellent nursing. She’s probably even more advanced in her thinking than Miss Nightingale at St. Thomas’s.
So I might find myself sitting the final examination anyway, to gain a Belgian Nurse Training Institute Diploma. One can’t have too many qualifications though, I suppose. Then, having obtained that, I should imagine that I will be employed in private nursing homes or hospitals. But I think that, with my experience, I may well find myself practising properly well before the end of the three years’ training that the complete novices do.
Marie was right in warning me that this would be a very chaste existence again, like at St. Thomas’s. Perhaps it’s not surprising though, as Miss Cavell is of course a spinster. She rules over us like a stern but kindly Mother Superior! Perhaps the regime would be a little more relaxed if she were married. But it’s nice to be back working with Marie, who also takes on the role of staff nurse, although she seems a little under-employed at the moment just as a teacher, with so few probationers to teach midwifery.
Of course, now I’m working in a French-speaking part of Belgium, and as four of my fellow-students are either Belgian or French, we have to speak that language all the time. Miss Cavell speaks it fluently, and the only one who is struggling a little is Molly, who comes from Somerset. I help her out though, translating for her if she really gets stuck. As for myself, I welcome the opportunity to polish my French and become really fluent in it.
It is rather a contrast though between the school and St. Thomas’s. Really, it’s quite inconvenient, with the medical facilities divided between the former houses and Dr. Depage’s Berkendael Surgical Institute on the opposite side of the street. But I gather that these are the only premises that could be obtained when he was setting up the organisation. There are no lifts, and sometimes patients have to be carried down the stairs of the school and then across the street to the operating theatres in the Institute!
But never mind. I know that Dr. Depage and Miss Cavell have grand plans for improvement between them. They are determined to create a medical and nursing service here in Belgium which is the match of any to be found in London or elsewhere. It’s nice to be in at the outset of really quite an exciting venture.
28th November, 1910
At last I can sit, put my feet up and put pen to paper! The last few days have been a whirl of activity, making the move to the new hospital here in St. Gilles. Dr. Depage is again the chief surgeon and Miss Cavell the head matron (although she’s still based at the rue de la Culture), with the second and third year students from the Institute school completing their training here. There’s much more money available to support this hospital, both from the Government and out of the local rates for running costs, so Miss Cavell has told us, so the level of medical care and nursing should be top-grade.
As I hoped she might, Miss Cavell soon realised that there was little point really in my going all through the training again (apart from being “refreshed” and brought up to date in some aspects) and I was awarded the institute Diploma after only a year. So now, for the second time around, as a fully-fledged staff nurse again, she has moved me here to help form the kernel of the nursing staff. That’s quite an honour, to be so well-regarded.
This really is so much better than the other place, with all its inconveniences. For one thing, it’s all on one floor, so there’s no carrying trays (or patients!) up and down steep stairs risking life and limb. It’s so modern, with its wide corridors and light, airy wards. As well as an isolation block and an outpatients’ department, there’s a bright, colourful children’s ward and an excellent maternity ward. This is much more comparable with St. Thomas’s. And the grounds, which will be well-maintained, Miss Cavell tells us, should certainly aid convalescence. It will be a pleasure to be employed here and the work will certainly be varied.
Because this is a bigger establishment, there are of course more doctors too, covering a wider range of specialities, and therefore offering a wider range of treatments, and several of them also give lectures to the trainees. Dr. Godart teaches gastric diseases, Dr. Buys ear, nose and throat conditions, Dr. De Meyer does ophthalmology, Dr. Weymersch obstetrics, Dr. Pechere paediatrics and Dr. Pascal teaches cardiothoracic medicine. Even though I’m fully-qualified, I still attend all the lectures. Only that way can one really keep abreast of all the latest developments in medical care.
28th December, 1910
I probably shouldn’t be thinking such things, but I have been over the past few days. But that’s probably because I’ve had some leisure time in which to let my thoughts wander. Dr. Pascal is really quite handsome. The other doctors are middle-aged, and Dr Buys is as actually quite elderly, but Dr. Pascal is no more than in his early thirties, I should imagine (not that I’m a great judge of men’s ages, of course!) and is tall, slim, dark-haired and sports a magnificent handlebar moustache. He looks every inch the dashing Gallic hero of romantic fiction, or like a character from War and Peace or someone. Sometimes, when he’s lecturing us on ailments of the chest, showing us his exploded models of the human thorax and photographs of the dreadful things which can go wrong with it, I find myself just a little distracted, idly imagining what his looks like unclothed. But then I quickly mentally reprimand myself for being wicked and unprofessional! Besides, fraternising with the doctors is strictly forbidden, let alone marrying them, so it’s really rather a pointless conjecture.
Although we are caught up in the excitement of the new venture, the reason I’ve been idle the last few days is because Miss Cavell did kindly grant me a short break to spend Christmas at home, as I spent the festival last year working. So that was a very pleasant and a much needed rest, and it was good to be able to celebrate and share the Christmas festivities with my loved ones. I’m penning this having just returned to Belgium. Well, I didn’t want to be unsociable and spend visiting time with my nose in my diary!
Mabel was home for the holiday too, so of course we had a good old “chin wag”, as the patients at St. Thomas’s used to say, about nursing. She has recently been promoted to Sister, so she’s higher up the ladder than me now, but I think she’s quite envious of me, being a little cosmopolitan and working abroad. Although, like brother Harry, who’s now working at the Rowntree chocolate factory in York looking after the company accounts, I’m sure she would never venture overseas to work.
Mother is still involved with her Suffragist movement, but it seems no nearer to achieving its aims. She says that some activists, like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, are becoming very impatient with the lack of progress towards women’s suffrage, particularly as the last bill, which was proposing only modest reform after all, failed yet again three years ago. When we discussed it, Mother sighed and wondered whether it will ever happen. Yes, it is depressing; I can well understand her feeling so despondent. We had such high hopes for this century, but now look at Great Britain: embroiled in another South African war! Well, at least, working on the Continent, I’m well out of the bloodthirsty business. There’s quite enough suffering in the world for people like Mabel and I to try to alleviate, without stupid male politicians adding to it.