Writer of hospital romances
Friday 27 October 2006
Lucilla Mathew Andrews, nurse and novelist: born Suez, Egypt 20 November 1919; married 1947 Dr James Crichton (died 1954; one daughter deceased); died Edinburgh 3 October 2006.
The writer Lucilla Andrews produced over 30 novels in the "nurse" or "hospital" romance genre, a niche exploited successfully by novelists long before Andrews's own heyday of the 1950s through to the 1980s (Helen Ashton's fine 1944 novel Yeoman's Hospital is a shining example). Even so, the genre is generally regarded as a post-National Health Service phenomenon, and Andrews herself a practitioner far above the lowly hack who cranks out endlessly the formula "nurse meets doctor, nurse has a row with doctor, all is forgiven, wedding bells".
In many ways she appealed to those readers who actively detested romantic fiction. As instance my aunt, Elsie Bendel, a no-nonsense businesswoman who disdained fiction as being "not true to life", discovered Lucilla Andrews when in her eighties, and then couldn't get enough of her. "Everything seems so real." An author who would doubtless have agreed was Ian McEwan, whose Booker- nominated Atonement (2001) included a fulsome acknowledgement to Andrews's memoir No Time for Romance: an autobiographical account of a few moments in British and personal history (1977).
McEwan's novel is partially set in a hospital during the Second World War, and he drew extensively on Andrews's memories of her feverish and often gruesome time as a "Nightingale" nurse at St Thomas's during the worst of the Blitz. And although he had never read her novels, as he admitted, he praised her "marvellously precise prose" and her evocation of an almost lost world of disciplined ward sisters and hard-working, vocationally inspired young nurses in crisp, starched uniforms from "the Old Rectory, Nether Wallop or Little Snoring".
Actually, it is likely that Andrews would have bridled at even this mild stereotyping. By no means all her heroines came from country parsonages and taken as a whole they were a feisty bunch, whether trying to arrange other people's love affairs (Hospital Circles, 1967) or coping with desperate oil-rig emergencies (In Storm and in Calm, 1975) or simply staunching fountains of blood erupting from hit-and-run victims in A&E (numerous novels).
Rather like Andrews herself in fact, who was no sentimentalist and strongly believed in living in the here and now. "Nostalgia appeals to me," she once said, "as little as masochism." Her novels reflect her personality, as well as the seminal experience of living and working as a nurse through the London Blitz. Though she could write a pretty tale of romance, it was always against an utterly authentic background of blood and torn tissue and open wounds and agony and stark physical, rather than mental, trauma.
Lucilla Andrews was born in Egypt in 1919 to William Henry Andrews, who worked for the company that was later to become Cable & Wireless, and Lucilla Quero-Bejar, the daughter of a Spanish doctor. At the age of three, Lucilla was sent home to boarding school in Sussex, but thereafter never had much of an education and never went to university (years later her abiding determination was to make enough money to enable her own daughter, Veronica, to gain a first-class education: this she achieved).
At the age of 18 she worked as an army nurse then, when war broke out in 1939, joined the Red Cross and trained at St Thomas's. Her experiences as a nurse in the Blitz never left her, although there were lighter moments. When her nurses' home was blown apart by a V2 rocket towards the end of the war, all she grabbed was her eyelash curlers, as well as a file of notes for stories she was already trying to write.
In 1947 she married James Crichton, a doctor who, she soon discovered, was hopelessly addicted to prescription drugs. Their only child, Veronica, was born in 1949 but Crichton, shortly after, went into hospital on a long-term basis. He died in 1954, the same year Andrews's first novel, The Print Petticoat, which drew on her wartime experiences, was published.
Although she had broken into print a couple of years earlier with a short story in Good Housekeeping, the novel went the rounds of the publishing houses, generally to adverse comments such as "Too miserable" and "Too many graphic reminders of a time [the war] readers want to forget". In her autobiography she admitted that she had "narrowed my focus on the blood and tears" and soon realised that she could still describe the uglier side of nursing "without falsification" so long as she lightened her touch and included "at least one major love affair". Once she had grasped this, the way was open to the success she subsequently attained.
A hard-headed realist, she evolved her own rules for bestsellerdom, realising that she could mine her own experiences indefinitely - so long as she kept up with medical and surgical advances at the same time. In 1967, in Books & Bookmen, she warned would-be writers in the "nurse" romance genre:
God help the writer using a hospital background who does not verify facts and keep up to date . . . Treatments, and particularly drugs, change with such speed that even last year's edition [of a medical textbook] can be out of date and even dangerous.
Even so, it was still "the story" that mattered above all:
In a teaching hospital . . . 90 per cent of the medical and nursing staff will be under 30 and single, [and] sex will flourish openly. Conflict will be inevitable. Conflict is the essence of drama. Drama makes good copy.
Her early books were all issued by George Harrap, a publisher who ran only a small fiction line, with even smaller print-runs, and as a consequence her early first editions are now scarce, commanding three-figure sums from eager collectors. Her success was ultimately assured when the mass-market paperback publisher Transworld (Corgi Books) reprinted her by the tens of thousands, and she may also have contributed novelettes (of 30,000 to 40,000 words apiece) to Fleetway paperback "library" series in the 1960s and 1970s.
Lucilla Andrews was a founder member of the Romantic Novelists' Association which, just before she died, honoured her with a lifetime achievement award.
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