Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

Six weeks as a military nurse…

😀 😀 🙂

hospital sketchesThis is a short account of Louisa May Alcott’s brief career as a nurse during the American Civil War. She only spent six weeks in the military hospital before falling ill with typhus and being persuaded by her father to come home, but during that time she saw first-hand some of the horrific injuries inflicted on the soldiers and the pretty basic and sub-standard care they got afterwards – in her hospital, at least, though she makes it clear there were other much more highly regarded hospitals at the time, too.

The first quarter of the book is taken up with her journey to the hospital in Washington. While mildly interesting in showing the difficulties of getting around during war-time, it does become somewhat tedious, mainly because of the tone she employs. Quite clearly, at that stage in her writing development Alcott had been reading a lot of Dickens, because not only does she refer to him on several occasions, but she adopts that kind of arch humour and tone of social superiority he employs from time to time, especially in his own factual writing. So, not content with giving herself the annoyingly twee pseudonym of Tribulation Periwinkle, she caricatures the people she meets and finds ways to mock them – their looks, their manners, the way they speak. I don’t like it much when Dickens does it, and I wasn’t any more keen on Alcott’s version, especially since sometimes she doesn’t quite manage to get the affectionate warmth into it that Dickens usually does.

Once she gets to the hospital, her tone changes for the most part, though she still tries to inject a little too much humour into it, I feel. But her observations on the way the hospital operated are quite insightful, and when she speaks of the suffering of the men, one feels her own voice comes through more clearly – that she becomes less conscious of herself as a writer and therefore more likeable as a human being. She doesn’t dwell on scenes of gore, but rather on the emotional impact of their injuries on the men and, indeed, on herself. Occasionally she drifts into that peculiarly Victorian style of religious mawkishness (Dickens’ influence again, I fear), and at one point regrets that she didn’t give the men little sermons on a Sunday to set their minds on a higher path – an omission for which I expect the poor souls would have been profoundly grateful had they known. (It reminded me of a line from The Grapes of Wrath: “That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”)

louisa may alcott
Louisa May Alcott

A second generation Abolitionist, Alcott really shows, quite inadvertently, how ingrained the belief in racial superiority was at the time. Despite the fact that she was making a real sacrifice to support the cause of emancipation, when she speaks of the “colored people” her language and tone had me positively cringing. It’s quite clear she sees them as inferior, almost sub-human, in every way, intellectually, culturally and even in physical appearance, and is rather nauseatingly self-congratulatory about her own condescension towards them. I did my very best to make allowances for the time and circumstances, but I found it hard going, and had the book not been so short, I doubt I’d have made it through.

The last section of the book tells of her own illness and how she went from nurse to being nursed. All in all, this is a very slight book, no more than novella length, and I would only recommend it as an interesting insight into Alcott herself, rather than as a particularly enjoyable or informative read in its own right.

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Book 5
Book 5