Fiction & Poetry

Falling in Love with the Past

This article accompanies Agnes Arnold-Forster’s piece “Racing Pulses: Gender, Professionalism, and Health Care in Medical Romance Fiction” in History Workshop Journal issue 91, where it is available on free access.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated all sorts of unsettling things about society, healthcare, and the world of work. NHS staff have been run ragged, but people from across the workforce have found the past eighteen months challenging. And female workers, specifically, have borne the brunt of these difficulties. In the US, nearly 1.8 million women have dropped out of the labour force entirely, and many more have struggled to navigate things like childcare and working from home, often without adequate support.

The history of work and how we feel about it is a key interest of mine and it is clear that many of the challenges people are currently facing are products not just of the pandemic, but of longstanding flaws in the way paid and unpaid labour is distributed between the genders and the ways in which women’s work is systematically devalued. Mid-century romance novels might, at first glance, seem like a strange place to look for the lineage of these flaws, but they and their authors offer intriguing insight into the world of women’s work and the effort that female workers – from all sorts of professions – must exert to maintain their positions and advance their careers.

A medical drama: a film director talks to actors playing a surgeon, a nurse and a patient. Oil painting by John Heseltine, ca. 1975/1980.
Wellcome Collection.

Elizabeth Gilzean was born in Lachine, just outside Montreal in Canada on March 1st, 1913. She trained as a nurse in 1930, before moving to Bermuda for fourteen months to work. While there, the Second World War broke out and she met and married her husband. She returned to Canada to have her first baby while her husband continued fighting overseas. After the war, they both moved to Scotland where Elizabeth had her second baby. Her husband was tragically killed in East Asia and Elizabeth returned to nursing work. She started writing in earnest in 1951, mainly medical and family articles until 1956 when she started two science fiction paperbacks set in hospitals. Her first Mills & Boon novel was published in 1958 and less than two decades later, she had written more than 35 romances for the firm.

During her tenure as a Mills & Boon author, she wrote hundreds of letters to her editor, Alan W. Boon, and at times they were exchanging correspondence daily. These letters are held at the University of Reading’s archive and I used this material to write my article in History Workshop Journal 91 on medical romance fiction, gender, professional identity, and representations of Britain’s new National Health Service. The essay is mostly about healthcare labour, but these letters are also a testament to other kinds of work. The work of writing, of being self-employed, and of navigating what is now referred to as a ‘portfolio career’ or a ‘side-hustle’ (Elizabeth wrote alongside her nursing career for many years). The correspondence is also evidence for the work of maintaining professional relationships and friendships.

The correspondence between Elizabeth and Alan is warm and personal. He often invited her for lunch or dinner in London and they exchanged witty and affection banter. She wrote to him in March 1957:

‘I am hurt, deeply hurt. On Wednesday evening, Olive leaned across the coffee bar and said to me: ‘How long have you been calling him Alan?’ In true Mills & Boon fashion I sighed deeply and said sadly: ‘Never. He hasn’t asked me to.’ There was a gleam of pride in Olive’s eyes when she replied: ‘He asked me to call him Alan the last time I was in London.’ ‘T’aint fair. What’s she got that I haven’t got? I shall certainly have to put you in my next book and I doubt very much if you will be allowed to get the girl!’

Reading these letters that narrate the trials and tribulations of romance, friendship, parenthood, and professional life, I found it almost impossible not to feel as though I was getting to know their authors. As a historian, I know that correspondence does not offer unmediated access to the inner workings, feelings, and experiences of historical actors. It is, however, hard to hold that knowledge front and centre when you’re so absorbed in the minutiae of someone’s life.

As a result, in writing this article I came to feel as though I didn’t just know Elizabeth Gilzean, I started to like her too. And my feelings for her were not just affection, but admiration. Mills & Boon authors, including Elizabeth, attained an astonishing rate of productivity – sometimes churning out two (witty, charming, commercially successful) novels a fortnight.

These were impressive women who combined careers in healthcare at a time when women were systematically excluded from such professions and when their skills were diminished, with writing careers, again in the face of sustained misogyny. Romance fiction, their authors and readers, were undermined by social commentators and literary critics and dismissed as light-weight and frivolous.

Authors like Elizabeth crafted complex female characters – working women who reflected the labour that they themselves were undertaking. One of her heroines, Noel Aston, must work with Bill, who ‘makes no secret of his belief that women have no place in research’ and ‘has no use for clever women’. Elizabeth wrote to Alan in 1958, ‘Noel has the handicap of brains and an intelligence that matches and exceeds that of some of the male colleagues with which she works. They fall for her loveliness but are afraid of her brilliance.’ At the end of the novel, Noel and Bill fall in love. However, their romance does not jeopardize Noel’s career. Rather, they enter a companionate marriage of equals. Instead of ‘striving one against the other’, they ‘combine love and marriage and their jobs by doing it in partnership.’

While much has changed since the 1950s, so many of the themes explored in Mills & Boon persist, and many of the obstacles their authors faced continue. Medicine continues to be a male-dominated profession, surgery specifically, and nurses are still dismissed as providers of emotional, rather than technical, expertise. The literary world still looks down on romantic fiction or ‘chick lit’ and navigating the patriarchy remains something we all still must do.

One of the reasons, perhaps, I feel such affection for Elizabeth, is that despite not working as either a healthcare professional or a romance novelist, I can still see myself in her labours. I am a writer, a precariously-employed academic navigating my own ‘portfolio career’, and I also must engage with the patriarchal institutions she grappled with. Seventy years might separate our lives, but more parallels than differences remain.

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