Nurse Burton's Autograph Book with West Indian Poetry

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Description

The autograph book of a Nurse Burton who served at Seaford Hospital in Sussex (pictured). The book includes entries by the West Indian patients whom she looked after, along with a sketch of the hospital and a photograph of Nurse Burton.

Context

The autograph book of Miss Burton, pictured in the above photograph, who served as a nurse in Seaford War Hospital, shown sketched in the cartoon, reveals the intimacy of care in the inscriptions by her West Indian male patients. Autograph books are a unique genre: signed by the patients just before they left the wards, the narrative is determined not by the author, as Santanu Das has commented, but by the addressee (Touch and Intimacy, 178). Much like the familiar platitude of the greeting card poem, the genre of the autograph book provided ‘a formal language that legitimises the articulation of intimacy’. As such, as well as sketches and cartoons designed to make the addressee laugh, more sentimental declarations and farewells feature in them, sharing some of the characteristics of troop magazines. This was particularly significant for the black men of the British West Indies Regiment whose inscriptions appear in the autograph book, enabling them to refer to the intimate care they received, without any suggestion of miscegenation. The language in the poem by Private Cunningham is cautiously vague – ‘Your kindness has done its part' – limiting any sense of touch between the man and Nurse Burton which is present in the white poetry. Interestingly, he also remarks on the how Nurse Burton had recognised that these men were humans, where their race had prevented others from doing the same: ‘You know we’re built like all other humans’. The established language of the autograph book allows this expression of gratitude alongside entries by white men within the same text without them appearing different or ‘other’, while simultaneously preventing anything untoward about the relationship between nurse and patient being read in the poem.