Boylston, Helen Dore

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BOYLSTON, Helen Dore

Born 4 April 1895, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; died 30 September 1984

Daughter of Joseph and Fannie Dore Boylston

An only child, Helen Dore Boylston attended Portsmouth public schools and trained as a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. Two days after graduating, she joined the Harvard medical unit that had been formed to serve with the British Army. After the war, she missed the comradeship, intense effort, and mutual dependence of people upon one another when under pressure, and joined the Red Cross to work in Poland and Albania. This work, often in isolation and with little apparent effect, wasn't satisfying. Returning to the U.S., Boylston taught nose and throat anaesthesia at Massachusetts General for two years. During this time Rose Wilder Lane read Boylston's wartime diary and arranged for it to be published in the Atlantic Monthly.

In the diary, Boylston wonders if the narrower, traditionally feminine world would have contented her if there had been no war: "I might even have married, as the final Great Adventure—which now seems to me a terrifying and impossible thing to do." Coming into a small inheritance, she spent several years living in Europe. When her money was lost in the Depression, she returned again to nursing but, in the meantime, began trying to earn a living by writing.

The short stories Boylston sold to the Atlantic and elsewhere are small narrative moments, with carefully controlled viewpoints and a detailed perception of the surface of reality. "Dawn" is about a girl's first kiss; several others are told through the eyes of a dog, cat, or horse. Failing to discover any important adult subject matter, Boylston began to reproduce, for girls, the milieu she knew best. Sue Barton, Student Nurse, published in 1936, was the first of a series of seven in which Boylston intended to supply accurate information about a much-romanticized profession. Four "Carol" books in the early 1940s did the same for the stage; Boylston's friend and neighbor, Eva LeGallienne, supplied her with the necessary background.

The Sue Barton books are not written to formula; some are episodic while others answer a single dramatic question. Although the first is undoubtedly the best—longest, most careful in characterization, richest in detail—all are technically well above the level of series fiction. They also reflect the times in which they were written. In the early novels, Sue Barton is an acceptable 1930s career woman, who postpones marriage first to develop her own talents and then for financial reasons. In Visiting Nurse (1938) she does socially conscious work in the slums and in the next book (1939) creates her own job by persuading farm women to fund a rural nurse service. By 1949, however, she is the mother of three children under six, and wondering whether her training is wasted now in her role as wife and mother. The next book, Neighborhood Nurse (1949), insists that it is not and ends with a new pregnancy as answer to the problems of a restive wife, although in the final book, written in 1952, Boylston arranges for Sue's husband to be stricken with tuberculosis so she can happily return to hospital work. She also makes a point of demonstrating that Sue's children are not harmed by having a working mother.

The Sue Barton books remain in print and the earlier ones, at least, are still much read by girls between eight and twelve. Like Boylston's wartime diary, the books are full of cocoa-parties and female comradeship. Sue Barton, though technically an adult, is actually a big girl with whom preadolescents identify; she is jolly, frank, competent, mischievous, and rather timid about facing her superiors. The only thing she does with the man she loves is work with him, as friends, to bandage a burn or track down a typhoid carrier. The books are kept moving by minor crises in which Sue takes a bus downtown and is afraid she will get lost, must stay alone in the dark, is unsure of her ability to take on responsibility, has misunderstandings with her friends, or must deal with authority figures who are sometimes unfair or mistaken. In other words, Sue is confronted with the crises which loom large in the lives of preadolescents, rather than the actual social and emotional difficulties of the late teens and twenties. Sue solves most of her problems without adult—or male—help. Nursing is portrayed as woman's ideal career because it is useful, caritative, and supervised. It is not glamorized, however: the books give brisk and bracing accounts about operations, dirty work, and insanity. Each book emphasizes supportive female friendship; several reach an emotional climax in the heroine's relationship with some admirable older pioneer of nursing or public health. This conception, however, becomes more obviously artificial as the demands of mature womanhood are not met; Sue is neither so convincing nor so interesting as an adult as she is in the early books.

Other Works:

"Sister": The War Diary of a Nurse (1927). Sue Barton, Senior Nurse (1937). Sue Barton, Rural Nurse (1939). Sue Barton, Superintendent of Nurses (1940). Carol Goes Backstage (1941). Carol Plays Summer Stock (1942). Carol on Broadway (1944). Carol on Tour (1946). Sue Barton, Staff Nurse (1952). Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross (1955).


Lane, R.W., Travels with Zenobia: Paris to Albania by Model T Ford: A Journal (1983).

Reference Works:

CB (1942). The Junior Book of Authors (1951). Twentieth-Century Authors (1978).