Amid the Australian Army hospitals of World War I Egypt, two deeply determined individuals find the resilience of their love tested to its limits.
It's 1911, and 21-year-old Evelyn Northey desperately wants to become a doctor. Her father forbids it, withholding the inheritance that would allow her to attend university. At the outbreak of World War I, Evelyn disobeys her father, enlisting as an army nurse bound for Egypt and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
Under the blazing desert sun, Evelyn develops feelings for polio survivor Dr William Brent, who believes his disability makes him unfit to marry. For Evelyn, still pursuing her goal of studying medicine, a man has no place in her future. For two such self-reliant people, relying on someone else for happiness may be the hardest challenge of all.
Pamela Hart is an award-winning author for adults and children. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney. Under the name Pamela Freeman she wrote the historical novel The Black Dress, which won the NSW Premier's History Prize for 2006. Pamela is also well known for her fantasy novels for adults, published by Orbit worldwide, the Castings Trilogy, and her Aurealis Award-winning novel Ember And Ash. Pamela lives in Sydney with her husband and their son, and teaches at the Australian Writers' Centre. The Desert Nurse follows her bestselling novels The Soldier's Wife, The War Bride and A Letter From Italy.
Author: The Desert Nurse: A grand love story set in a far-flung theatre of war
Question: How did you come up with the idea of The Desert Nurse?
Pamela Hart : In my first historical novel, The Soldier's Wife, the main character's husband (the 'soldier' of the title) is injured at Gallipoli, and comes home wounded. That was based on my grandfather's experience at Gallipoli, and I was aware that after the injury he had a bad fever which he almost died from, and he was saved by good nursing. So I always had in the back of my mind that I should acknowledge those nurses at some point – and this was the book to do that with.
I have also always been interested in the early women doctors, so I wanted to explore that theme as well.
In the book, William, the main male character, has injuries from polio as a child – that is based on my own family doctor, who has the same issues from childhood polio. So it was putting all those ideas together which gave me the central themes of The Desert Nurse.
Question: What research went into The Desert Nurse?
Pamela Hart : Oh, so much! It's hard to describe it all. We're very lucky that, because the Gallipoli campaign was immediately seen as important to the Australian population, families kept any souvenirs from family members who were there, which included many diaries written by both soldiers and medical staff, so I had a lot of great background material to work with. The Australian War Memorial has digitised a lot of this material, so it was all there at my fingertips.
There was a lot of visiting museums, and reading histories and memoirs. And there was a fantastically useful book, More than Bombs and Bandages, by Kirsty Harris, which looked in detail at the actual work nurses did during WWI.
My main character came from Taree, so I did a fair bit of research into the Manning Valley area – I have a whole file of real events from there that I never got to use! Maybe in some other book… Also, I read the newspapers of the time to get a sense of how the war was being reported and thought about.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Pamela Hart : All of my historical novels have several kernels of truth – most of them begin with true stories which I then fictionalise.
For example, in The Desert Nurse I have my character William Brent, a doctor who is considered 'unfit' for the army because of his polio injuries, just turn up on the station at Alexandria when the Gallipoli wounded begin to come in after the first assault on 25th April, 1915. He starts to help, and because they are so desperately overwhelmed by the wounded, he is allowed to continue working at the hospital. This actually happened with a woman doctor, Agnes Bennett, who is also a character in the story. I figured if they let a woman help, they'd let a man with a bad leg help! Agnes, by the way, is the most fantastic person you could imagine – she went on to be the first woman captain in the British Army and was given control of all of the hospitals and medical staff in the Serbian theatre of war.
So most of the incidents in the novel are based at least in part on something which really happened. And many characters are real. Agnes Bennett, Major Bagly, and almost all the nurses (not Hannah, but Connie and Alice and Mable and all the rest), are based on actual people. Arthur Freeman, for example, was my grandfather!
Question: There are several issues raised in this book. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?
Pamela Hart : I always wanted to talk about women and medicine. There were so many barriers to women who wanted to be doctors – the biggest of which was university fees, since only quite privileged people could afford them at the time. That's one of the reasons I have Evelyn obsessing about money! Obviously, family and societal attitudes were also important, and this period is one where attitudes change markedly, because of the wonderful work women did in the war. So that was deliberate.
William's exclusion from the Army is an issue I've been interested in for some time – it was touched on in A Letter from Italy. Men who couldn't fight were treated badly at home and were often wretched about it. The myth of the bronzed Aussie really bloomed during this period, and those who didn't match up were looked down upon. It was a different kind of body-shaming, but it was very real and difficult for those involved.
Anything else which is in the book probably came up in the writing – as I researched and began to write, for example, I saw a lot of photos of nurses and soldiers in Cairo having lunch or dinner at restaurants, or picnicking in gardens, and there were often Egyptian servants standing behind them, totally overlooked by the participants. That started me thinking about racism against Egyptian nationals, which is played out in the relationship between Matron and Dr Fanous, and prompted me to make more of the character of Tewfik later in the book.
And, although perhaps people don't notice it, I am committed to not white-washing history, so I always include the people who were really there: Aboriginal diggers, Indian and Maori and Gurkha troops, and so on. That's not so much an 'issue' for me, as a commitment to showing the way it really was.
Question: What is the best thing about creating a character like Evelyn?
Pamela Hart : She's so clever! And I had fun walking a tightrope between her cleverness and her compassion (and hopefully she learned a few lessons about that along the way.)
I'm always interested in writing about characters who don't realise their own impact – whether that is in brains, or looks, or ethics, or energy. I think Evelyn doesn't completely understand how she comes across to others, or how much Hannah, for example, looks up to her.
But really, the best thing is to evoke and honour the women like Evelyn who forged ahead and cleared the path for those who came later. It was hard for them, and it's good to be able to acknowledge that and to shine a small light on their work.
Interview by Brooke Hunter