Doctor Serocold: A Page from his Day Book by Helen Ashton (1930)

I read Helen Ashton’s name somewhere, I’m not quite sure where, a month or so ago. I realised that she was one of those authors reissued by an interesting press whose name I hadn’t run through the library catalogue to see if any more of her work had been kept in stock. I’m not often lucky, but this time I was. I found that there were a dozen books, some fact and some fiction, tucked away in reserve stock.

I couldn’t find out much about the majority of those books; I couldn’t even find a proper bibliography of the author; and so I decided that it would be sensible to order in most successful book first.

I found that this is one of those books that captures the story of a single day in the life of its protagonist, and that in doing that illuminates his whole life and the world around him. It’s one of those books for people like me who marvel at the fact that every person they see, every person they pass in the street, has a whole life story; and wonder what some of those stories might be.

Doctor Serocold is an elderly doctor in a small country town. His day begins early, when he is called to the deathbed of his partner, the man who had been his mentor and who has become a dear friend; and it ends late as he watches over the birth of a child, and the start of a new life. The events of the day, and his awareness of his own mortality as he waits for the results of his own medical tests, draw out a rich seam of memories and emotions.

Doctor Serocold#The tone is exactly right, it catches a gentle melancholy, a sadness that a life is reaching its final act and a quiet determination to keep living. The clarity of the characterisation and the perfectly chosen details make this story so very engaging.

Doctor Serocold really was classic example of the traditional family doctor, the man who knows all of his patients’ lives, as well as their medical histories. He approached everything that he encountered with compassion, empathy and understanding, and with just enough wryness and character, to make him distinctive. He was aware that the world was changing, that the cottage hospital that he had helped to establish must grow; and he hopes that the young woman doctor he has taken on as assistant, whose skills and qualities he has come to admire, will be accepted by the community and will want to stay.

I liked him, and as I shared in his thoughts and followed him through an eventful day I came to understand why he had become the man he was, and why he wanted to continue on his chosen path.

The doctor’s day is busy. There is a visit to an elderly spinster; a difficult woman who he has learned to deal with tactfully. There is a routine operation at the cottage hospital, that he finds more difficult than he should, maybe because a younger doctor who he knows considers him rather old-fashioned is serving as his anaesthetist. There is the matron to talk with, a capable woman he knows that they are lucky to have. There is a visit to a young man who is still living with terrible war injuries, who he wants to steer away from his over-protective mother and towards the young woman who he can’t quite believe loves him. And, maybe most movingly of all, there is a visit to the woman he loved and lost, and he will have to confirm her suspicion that she is gravely ill, and accept her wish that there is no fuss and that her family is not disturbed.

Every character, every emotion, every detail, is captured beautifully and precisely; and they come together to create a wonderful picture of Doctor Serocold and the world around him.

I was sorry that the end was a little contrived, and a little rushed, but everything else had me captivated.

I can understand why this quiet book was so warmly received in its day; and I’m very glad that a wise librarian held on to a copy.

28 thoughts on “Doctor Serocold: A Page from his Day Book by Helen Ashton (1930)

  1. This does sound like a wonderful novel. I hadn’t heard of novel or author before either.

    I just discovered the other day that my library had just got rid of a couple of books by Stifter, one of my recent favourite discoveries. They were their only copies…why do they do that? Luckily enough I read them in time.

    Still, I’ll have to see if they’ve got a copy of Doctor Serocold.


    1. Helen Ashton does seem to be very obscure, but thank heavens Persephone picked up the one book and stopped her disappearing altogether.

      I despair of libraries sometimes, and I’m reading as many books as I can from reserve stock just in case they disappear. Popularity rather that quality seems to be the determining factor for acquisitions and disposals, rather than quality, or the way a book can continue to speak for its times or its ideas.

      There should be copies of this book out there – it was a film in the fifties and the copy I read was more recent.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There are so many undeservedly lost books and this sounds a real find, Jane. I don’t know why libraries can’t keep hold of more of their older books – it’s becoming increasingly harder to access older books.


    1. I know that in some cases it’s simply a lack of space, but I’m afraid that libraries have been easy targets for spending cuts and down here we have fewer librarians with a proper understanding of what is needed in the long term. Libraries were merged with various other departments into ‘front facing services’!

      I’m sure more people would read older books if they knew they were there and were ‘marketed’ a little.

      ‘If you like Persephone Books , try this!’

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh this sounds delightful. I found a Helen Ashton book at a National Trust book shop at one of the properties I visited over the summer. Yeoman’s Hospital published in 1944.


    1. I have Yeoman’s too and “RETURN TO CHELTENHAM” and i have borrowed THE HALF CROWN HOUSE from my library.I liked them enough and this review has prompted me to borrow it from the library.


  4. I have read 3 of her books and this one is in my library “stores”.I will borrow it.”TADPOLE HALL” is the rare one i would like to find.


    1. Well, I saw her name thanks to Persephone Books reissuing ‘Bricks & Mortar’ and when I saw it somewhere I decided it was time to look her up in case there were other interesting titles to be unearthed. My library has ‘Half-Crown House’ and I plan on ordering it very soon.


  5. I will be looking out for her books, too – as I loved “Bricks and Mortar” when I read it a while ago. I wish libraries would keep books somewhere, too – it’s all very well having the new bestsellers and they do have space issues, but one copy of everything should be kept somewhere. Our library used to keep a store of authors beginning with A-C for a Midlands or perhaps national project, but I’m not sure whether that’s still being kept up now.


    1. The library service might work better if they could work together across the country rather than at the whim of local authorities, The latest bestsellers no doubt help statistics, but education and promotion of books that have something to say should be more important. I have ‘Bricks and Mortar’ still to read but have out of print titles from the library higher up my list of priorities because I can’t help feeling that they’re less safe than books on my own shelves.


  6. Another author for my “Where Jane led me” shelf! My library has none of her books, unfortunately – though the search engine helpfully offered me an Ashton Kuchter film instead. Hopefully there are copies available to borrow from other libraries.


  7. Serocold was a really good book and i agree about the ending being rushed.And the town hall meeting scene could have been cut out.
    BUT not all her books appeal to me as “SWAN OF USK” is a biographical novel about a soldier/poet and mystic.Not my cup of tea.And “PARSON AUSTEN’S DAUGHTER” a similar historical novel about Jane Austen.Both have average or poor reviews online.”FOOTMAN IN POWDER” is about a servant at the court of the Prince Regent.


    1. The town hall meeting scene wasn’t my favourite, but I appreciated that it was there as another aspect of the role of a small town doctor in that period. And I’d noticed that Helen Ashton’s historical works were less well regarded that those set in her own era, so they’re well down my list of reading priorities.


  8. Just bought “BACKGROUND FOR CAROLINE” and “FAMILY CRUISE” by Helen Ashton.And two more of her books to read online courtesy of THE HATHI TRUST.


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