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"Everyone at the hospital where Jan Marlowe worked as Librarian was seething with excitement about the new consultant Ophthalmic surgeon. Jan liked him too, but found one of the patients more attractive still -- or did she?"
So the back cover blurb invited me to read 'The Hospital Librarian', written by Margaret Malcolm, and published as a Harlequin Romance in 1961. At the time, in 1990, I was standing at a table of paperbacks at a flea market, looking for some literary bargains, when I came across this hospital romance about a librarian. How could I pass it up? The image on the cover, intriguing yet appropriately chaste, has since graced t-shirts at conferences of the Canadian Health Libraries Association, and most recently, the Medical Library Association. Well, here it is, in all its stereotypical, politically incorrect glory, with purple prose still intact, the story behind the image of The Hospital Librarian, an otherwise unremarkable book which nonetheless does raise the important moral question: if you read to a man in bed, do good things necessarily ensue?
It is Spring, and 22 year-old Jan Marlowe, Librarian at Anchester General Hospital (in some unspecified, presumably British location) is unfulfilled and yearns vaguely for "something more out of life." Her yearning is perhaps understandable since her role as "the Book Lady" seems to consist mostly of wheeling book carts filled with recreational reading around to patients' rooms.
One romantic possibility (given the nature of the genre, is there any other?) for that "something more" appears in the form of Charles Vicary, 30-ish, "not particularly handsome", but soon-to-be the new Ophthalmic Surgeon, who while still unknown to Jan, tenderly removes a speck of dirt that has conveniently lodged itself in one of Jan's eyes, while she is wheeling her book cart around. The second romantic possibility, and third side of this soon-to-be love triangle, appears as Ricky Coleman, a boyishly good looking 26 year-old, wealthy playboy and bon vivant, who has just had eye surgery (suitably ominous violins should be sounding about now, since Charles performs the surgery) to remove a piece of glass from his eye; an injury sustained in an accident while driving his red convertible sports car.
Early romantic odds are on Ricky. His precarious, injured state elicits Jan's caring and compassionate side, while his devil-may-care attitude creates the promise of a lot of fun. But while Jan and Ricky indulge in a lot of hand-holding, making plans for fun excursions, and hoping his eyesight returns (there's those violins again), Charles is always on the periphery of the picture, looking solicitously on. But he's over 30, and has two kids -- there must be a Mrs. Vicary, right?
Well, what follows are various scenarios of the "getting-to-know-you" and the "will-I-or-won't-I" kind, as Jan ponders what's in her heart. Ricky's early lead looks insurmountable. This is in spite of his mother, a character you love to hate. She is always scheming to end her son's infatuation with Jan, who is, after all, fairly common compared to the "right" girls from the "right" families she imagines for her son. But, give him credit; when he's not combing his hair, Ricky is looking into his heart too. There is a dramatic scene where the bandages come off, and Ricky's eyesight is restored. He subsequently informs Jan that he thinks she's a great girl, even better looking than he imagined she would be, but that he thinks she needs someone who's more serious and stable than he is. After which, Jan watches him drive away from the hospital in his red sports car.
Spurned by her mostly shallow beau, what's a gal to do? Stage right, enter consoling, patient, understanding Dr. Vicary. After a few more "getting-to-know-you" kinds of scenes, including meeting Charles' mother who takes an immediate shine to Jan, we find out -- wait, you mean he's NOT married? He's widowed?? Those two boys of his are motherless??!!
Well it turns out Charles has been in love with Jan from the moment he removed that speck of dirt from her eye. Wedding bells may not actually ring in The Hospital Librarian, but as Jan and Charles walk hand in hand, at sunset, along the beach, back to Charles' seaside cottage, at the book's close, you would almost swear you could hear them, not very far off.
So ends The Hospital Librarian. But how did it end up as an image on t-shirts? Well, for a while, I actually collected early paperbacks, Harlequin Press among them. From very modest, and quite unromantic beginnings in Winnipeg, Canada, in the late 1950's, Harlequin Press is now one of the world's leading publishing companies. Being a hospital librarian, and one with a slightly warped sense of humour at that, when I saw a fair copy of The Hospital Librarian at that flea market, over ten years ago now, how could I NOT buy it? Cost me a quarter, which was almost what the book cost originally. I saw its potential as a tongue-in-cheek image for our profession.
(article originally published, in slightly different form in Biomeditaties 2001 nr 50 p 12-13 )