York author Donna Douglas can’t quite believe how popular her Nightingales novels about wartime nurses have become. She spoke to STEPHEN LEWIS

WHEN her agent first asked Donna Hay if she would be interested in writing a series of novels about pre-war nurses, the York author was a bit taken aback.

She’d already written a string of contemporary chick-lit novels. But nurses? Before the war?

“I said: ‘Why are you asking me that?’,” recalls the 55-year-old. “I’d no nursing background, and I had never written a historical novel.”

But Donna, who lives in Rawcliffe with her husband and daughter, agreed to at least research the idea. And she’s glad she did.

Several books later, her Nightingales series – set in a fictional East London hospital – have proved massively popular.

“The fifth one made it onto the Sunday Times bestseller list,” says Donna, who writes the novels under the pen-name Donna Douglas. “I think it has taken everyone a bit by surprise.”

It shouldn’t have. Part of the success is undoubtedly down to the popularity of TV shows such as Call The Midwife, which have stoked a real hunger for nostalgic fiction.

But part of it is undoubtedly down to Donna herself. She a bit like the heroine of a novel by Thomas Hardy or Anthony Trollope – one of those clever women whose independence of mind and spirit can’t quite be held in check by the conventions of the day, so that they occasionally say slightly disgraceful things.

In the same way, Donna’s sense of fun can’t quite be constrained by the conventions of a nostalgic novel about wartime nurses. So her characters spill off the page – almost bursting out of their corsets so full of life are they.

Nightingales At War, the sixth book in the series, is out now. And it sees the return of nurse Dora Riley, the popular heroine of the first Nightingales book.

The book opens with Dora turning up at the Florence Nightingale hospital in the East End to ask for a job. The war is on, and her husband Nick is away fighting at the front.

As the married mother of baby twins, she’s not allowed to work as a nurse, the matron tells her sternly. “Suppose you’re in the middle of your shift, nursing several patients on the Dangerously Ill List, and you receive word that one of your babies is poorly. What will you do then? A mother’s instinct is to look after her own children, not someone else’s.”

Dora tries to maintain her meek, submissive appearance – and fails. “Yes, well, I ain’t got much choice thanks to Hitler,” she snaps in a broad East London accent.

Naturally, she gets the job and goes back to work in the hospital during the middle of the Blitz. The war worked wonders in terms of liberating women, Donna points out, There’s pluck and hardship – not to mention tragedy – aplenty in store for Dora and the rest of the Nightingale nurses as the war unfolds. Donna has an extraordinary photo which helped inspire her to write the book. It shows a hospital in Stepney which really had been bombed.

“Half the ward is missing, but you see these three nurses still making up the beds as though nothing had happened...”

This being Donna, however, there’s some slightly disgraceful fun in store, too: much of it based on real events.

She was helped to research the books by retired nurses.

“They have some amazing stories,” Donna says. “A lot of the stories in my books actually happened.”

There was the doctor who insisted on always smoking (back in the days when that was allowed) and annoyed the nurses by throwing his cigarette ends in the same bin all the time. “So they put a bit of cotton wadding soaked in ethyl alcohol in the bin – and next time he did it it exploded!”

Then there was the student nurse who assisted in an operation. The patient’s leg had to be amputated – and the surgeon instructed the poor student to dispose of the leg. In those days, Donna says, hardly able to stifle a giggle, a nurse couldn’t question a doctor. “She didn’t know what to do with it, so she just carried it away with the foot sticking out.”

Well, you were warned. Disgraceful.

• Nightingales At War by Donna Douglas is published by Arrow, priced £5.99