A Book for Helen Ashton Day: A Background for Caroline (1929)

It is a rare but lovely thing to be able to read a novel without knowing anything about it.

When I found this book all that I could see was the title and the name of a familiar author. As I started to read I realised that I had found a book that told the story of a life.

Caroline Hill was born in 1888, the only child of a comfortably off but not very happy couple. Her mother left when she was still very young, so Caroline barely remembered her, and on the one occasion when they met, many years later, she fond that she had nothing to say.

Her abandoned father became reclusive, not because his heart was broken but because his new position in society embarrassed him. The consequence of that was that his daughter had a very sheltered upbringing with a very small social circle. It was lucky that Caroline loved books, and that she had a caring and compassionate governess. She was a lost when the time came for her governess to move on, but her father realised it was time for her daughter to step into the adult world, and he hoped that Caroline would marry well, raise a family and find the happiness that had eluded him.

Sadly it seemed that was not to be. Caroline has an ardent admirer, but try as she might she could feel nothing for him. She was relieved when he left to fight in the Boer Was, but she had the grace to mourn when she heard the news of her death. She was drawn to another young man, but he had no feelings for her, and was horrified when he learned that the woman he thought was old-fashioned and destined to be a perpetual spinster thought that there could ever be anything between them.

Ashton, Helen - 1930s

It was only when the Great War came that Caroline’s life changed. She wanted to help, she wanted to change her life, and so she took up nursing. She struggled with the work and with the conditions, but it was an emotional awakening and it was her real coming of age.

After the war Caroline accepted an unexpected proposal from an elderly widower. They had been good friends and they had a happy marriage, built not on passion but on shared interests and mutual understanding. Caroline was happy in her new role, marriage suited her and she loved being the mistress of her own home in the country.

Sadly it was not long before Caroline would have to call on her nursing experience as she cared for her husband through a long illness. His death shattered her, and it took a long time to for her to pick up the pieces of her life.

Her husband had left everything to her, but she knew that was because he wanted her to support the son of his first marriage. She understood his strengths and his weaknesses and she did her best for him and for the young woman who would become his wife.

The story ends when Caroline had found peace; content with her own company and with the knowledge that she had good friends and a role to play in the lives of her younger relations.

This is a long book, it is very well written and the story is told at a stately pace. At first I found it difficult to warm to. Caroline’s story rang true but it wasn’t engaging, and I didn’t feel close to it. It felt that I was hearing a story second-hand, that I was being told about the friend of a friend; but as the story progressed I came to appreciate it more and more.

Helen Ashton understood her subject, her life and the world she lived in very well, and she portrayed them with sympathy, empathy and wonderful control. She made her points simply and effectively, and I appreciated that Caroline was the kind of woman, she led the kind of life that isn’t often placed at the centre of a work of fiction.

When it was published this must have seen very old-fashioned. The story is set in the twentieth century but the style is nineteenth century; but that I think that it works.

I admired ‘A Background for Caroline more than I loved it, but I am glad that Caroline’s story was told and I think that the style of the story suited its subject.


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.