Following on from yesterday’s foray into the medical world, today I bring you Margaret Becomes a Doctor. And another profession that it would never have occurred to me to contemplate. If this book is to be believed though, I’d have had the qualifications to study medicine back in 1957. That was the first of many surprising and/or astounding things in the book which I read for the first time last week. The career novels of the 1950s and 1960s were published primarily to inform young people (I only collect those for girls) about the careers described so I have to assume that the information in them was correct.
So, to Margaret. From London, she’s the only child of a barrister and when we meet her she’s seventeen and spending part of her holiday from boarding school with her GP uncle and aunt in Lincolnshire. Her mother is pleased to allow her to do this as it means she’s able to further her friendship with George Forbes, son of wealthy landowners. Clearly then, we are firmly in the world of the middle classes.
At school, Margaret is studying for her advanced course (A levels??) in English, French, Latin and History. Will this be a problem? As it turns out, no. When she asks the Dean of St Boniface’s, her chosen hospital, about this at interview, he says that ‘all other things being equal, I tend to favour candidates who have studied the classics or any of the Arts’. And Margaret has other things going for her: she’s captain of the lacrosse team and the president of the debating society as well as helping with the library at her local hospital.
Naturally, Margaret is given a place on the six year long course and goes back to school for her final year rejoicing. Her mother, who would much rather she stayed at home until marrying a suitable man (George ideally), isn’t happy but her father supports her decision. George is angry. He doesn’t believe in women doctors. ‘A woman’s job is to be decorative, and not mix herself up with the sordid side of life’, he contends.
So Margaret begins her course, meets new people, makes friends and learns much about medicine. As do we. I have to confess that I slid over some of the descriptions of experiments and anatomy. Most of the science is over my head and I don’t know enough to know how much of the information given is out of date. A lot, I would imagine.
There are seven years of Margaret’s life crammed into 189 pages so of necessity things move apace. We get snapshots showing Margaret to fair advantage but certainly not as a paragon of all the virtues. She passes her exams but is never going to win prizes; she is diligent and responsible but enjoys her social life. And that’s one of the positives of the book. Margaret is a properly created person and not just a vehicle for sharing information.
To a modern reader, there are plenty of jarring notes in the book but that’s because it’s of its time. Patients’ rights and confidentiality are not things with which our characters need concern themselves! The one thing I was actually surprised by is the attitude to smoking. Most of the students do it and it is actively encouraged by the demonstrators in the dissecting room. Apparently smoking would make the students feel less sickened by the smell of decay…
Almost all of the career novels for girls end with at least the hint of a forthcoming marriage. And this book is no different. By the end, Margaret is engaged to Donald Wade, a young GP. At least he is enthusiastic about her continuing to work, until they have children anyway. Margaret (as befits a woman?) has decided to go into Public Health and this means, she says, that she’ll ‘be free in the evenings to get your meals’. Ah, there’s still a long way to go!