Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Enid Bagnold - A Diary Without Dates

A Diary Without Dates, by Enid Bagnold, is an odd little book that I very much enjoyed. I read it back in December but got sidetracked as I started writing about it. But I still think it is worth talking about.

In her Preface, Bagnold explains:

This book was written when I was nineteen. I was sent away from a vast, weary military hospital for having written it, - because (a) to publish it was a breach of military discipline (at that date, and at the beginning of the war; afterwards everybody turned author); and (b) the breach was glaring because antagonism to the sisters showed through what I wrote.

The war was World War I and the hospital was the Royal Herbert Hospital Woolwich, although neither of those facts is disclosed in the book. Sisters were the "real" nurses (the equivalent of an RN) while others who were called "nurse" were at a lower training level. Bagnold was a VAD - a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment through which girls volunteered for the war effort. They, in effect, took the place of the male orderlies who would have been sent to the Front.

The book does read like excerpts of a diary and in her Preface Bagnold says that she "wrote my little nightly letter to myself, which is this book." She doesn't make clear how she was able to get it published at the age of nineteen in the middle of a war.

There are, as the title indicates, no dates to the entries. It isn't clear to me that the entries are necessarily chronological although the book is divided into three parts: "Outside the Glass Doors", "Inside the Glass Doors" and "The Boys ..." which segregate the book into the various jobs that Bagnold did in the hospital. At first she laid trays and delivered meals. Then she begins to work in a ward of officers. In the final section she works in a ward of enlisted men (the "boys"). But although she sometimes goes into detail on what she is doing and about the men in the hospital, it is really a book of "impressions" and, among other things, she writes beautiful, serene, impressions of her walks home from the hospital through the countryside. But her impressions of the men in the hospital and her reactions to them are what makes this book stand out.

From the first part where she carries trays of food:

Pain ...

To stand up straight on one's feet, strong, easy, without the surging of any physical sensation, by a bedside whose coverings are flung here and there by the quivering nerves beneath it ... there is a sort of shame in such strength.

"What can I do for you?" my eyes cry dumbly into his crowded brown pupils.

I was told to carry trays from a ward where I had never been before - just to carry trays, orderly's work, no more.

No. 22 was lying flat on his back, his knees drawn up under him, the sheets up to his chin; his flat, chalk-white face tilted at the ceiling. As I bent over to get his untouched tray his tortured brown eyes fell on me.

"I'm in pain, Sister," he said.

No one has ever said that to me in that tone.

From Part II where she is in the officer's ward watching the patients interact with each other:

They know so little about each other, and they don't ask. It is only I who wonder - I, a woman, and therefore of the old, burnt-out world. These men watch without curiosity, speak no personalities, form no sets, express no likings, analyze nothing. They are new-born; they have as yet no standards and do not look for any.

Ah, to have had that experience too. ... I am of the old world

Again and again I realize, "A nation in arms . . . "

Watchmakers, jewelers, station masters, dress-designers, actors, travelers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the unquestioning faith of children.

The entire book is disjointed little passages like this, like what you would write in your diary. Where there is a narrative, it peters out. We hear from time to time of the attentions of Mr. Pettitt, the patient who has a crush on her, who she is kind to but gives no encouragement to. There is the mysterious patient who is never identified to whom she grows too close, a relationship of which the administration disapproves and whom they finally move to a different hospital. There are sections where "convoys" arrive with new deliveries from the Front in which she describes how the old patients take in the new arrivals. They are noted but not in any direct narrative form. And interspersed are brief aching little entries like this:

Can one grow used to death? It is unsafe to think of this ...

For if death becomes cheap it is the watcher, not the dying, who is poisoned.

I suspect that one of the things that got her into trouble was her view of the difference between being on an officer's ward and a ward with "the boys".

It is a queer place, the "Tommies" ward. It makes me nervous. I'm not simple enough; they make me shy. I can't think of them as the others do, as "the boys"; they seem to me fully grown men.

When a nursing Sister orders a series of injections, Bagnold asks if the man has symptoms and notes "In a Tommies ward one dare ask anything; there isn't that mystery that used to surround the officer's illnesses." And in her descriptions you see that the men receive care but there is a certain callousness towards them, as if they are not capable of understanding what is happening to them. But then, Bagnold, finally realizes, no one can really understand the pain of another human being. She notes this as she listens to a Sister complain about her own earache one day and she thinks about how that woman listens day after day to men who tell her that they are in pain and yet, when she herself is in pain she is astonished at the pain of .... pain. And Bagnold notes the dilemma. One human being cannot imagine the pain of another. And yet "It is almost impossible to nurse a man well whose pain you do not imagine."