florence 6.flo.0002 Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire .  ‘Florence Nightingale,” concludes an illustrated children’s biography from 1959, “will always be famous among the great women not only of England, but of the world. The efficient hospitals and devoted nurses of to-day owe an immortal debt to her, and through them the lives of all of us have been affected by the work of this great and gracious lady.”


From such acorns mighty oaks do grow. As a child, Mark Bostridge was given that 50-page biography by his mother. Now, many years and 500 pages later, Mr. Bostridge has produced “Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon,” a dense and compelling biography of a woman who is rightly venerated but often too simplistically understood. http://louis-j-sheehan-esquire.blog.friendster.com

The iconic version of Nightingale appeared within her lifetime and became, in a way, institutionalized. She was the first nonroyal woman to appear on English currency. How did the gently born and well-bred Florence become the Lady with the Lamp, walking hospital corridors in the midst of war, inspiring wounded soldiers to turn and kiss her shadow as she passed?

Florence Nightingale
By Mark Bostridge
(Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 647 pages, $35)

According to the classic inspirational narrative, she nursed her dolls as a girl and bandaged the broken leg of Cap, the shepherd’s collie. She persuaded her close-knit family that she could become a new kind of nurse, not the usual drunken slattern. During the Crimean War (1854-56) she fought for common soldiers and triumphed over pig-headed doctors and inept officials. She was an emblem of feminine care and British grit.

This picture of Florence Nightingale, according to Mr. Bostridge, is not so much false as one-dimensional. In his telling, she is no longer a behaloed “gracious lady” but a complicated woman of her time, humorous and wry, often unlikable, always formidable. Her accomplishments were real enough, but Mr. Bostridge assesses them more judiciously than early hagiographers or later scoffers like Lytton Strachey, who included Florence Nightingale in “Eminent Victorians” (1918), his debunking group portrait of an era.

In Mr. Bostridge’s account, Florence struggles internally with her sense of duty and desire for fame and outwardly against the propriety of her loving family and its world of marriage and private charity. Her incisive intelligence, particularly in statistics, was evident early on. She was lucky in her father, who insisted on giving her the best education. And yet, as Mr. Bostridge puts it, “he seems not to have foreseen the possible consequences of pursuing such an advanced program.”

As a young woman she joked about attending scientific lectures and the milliner’s: “Our brain pans are so much enlarged that we’ve been obliged to have new bonnets.” On a grand tour of Egypt (she traveled on the same boat as the sexual tourist Gustave Flaubert!), she had a religious and vocational epiphany: “God called me in the morning & asked me ‘Would I do good for Him . . . without the reputation?’ ” Her religion was intense but unorthodox. As Mr. Bostridge notes: “She saw prayer essentially as a misdirection of human energy that would be more fruitfully employed in going out into the world seeking to effect change.”

But as she approached her 30s, with no prospect of satisfying her own ambitions or her family’s hopes for her, she became increasingly frustrated: “Oh if one has but a toothache, what remedies are invented! What carriages, horses, ponies, journeys, doctors, chaperones, are urged upon one; but if it is something the matter with the mind . . . it is neither believed nor understood.” She was courted by several influential men, including the poet and politician Richard Monckton Milnes and the scholar Benjamin Jowett, before she seemed to recognize that marriage was not part of her picture of herself. As Mr. Bostridge recounts, she continued to enjoy the admiration of such men, often married — for example, Secretary of War Sidney Herbert and the poet Arthur Hugh Clough — not always to the pleasure of their wives. http://www.soulcast.com/Louis3J3Sheehan/

Through a mix of intractability and subterfuge she won her way to nursing studies in France and Germany. Back in London, she became the first superintendent of the Establishment for Gentlewomen during Illness. Then, in 1854, the Crimean War broke out (pitting Britain and France against Russia), and Sidney Herbert suggested that she mobilize Englishwomen as nurses. The aimless variety of her life clicked into place. Even her sister, Parthenope, who had been the greatest foe in the family to Florence’s interests outside it, converted to the cause and gave a push to the emerging Nightingale narrative: “All things have . . . fitted her for this. . . . None of her previous life has been wasted.” http://www.soulcast.com/Louis3J3Sheehan

In the Crimea, Mr. Bostridge reminds us, journalists and artist-engravers were at a war front for the first time and managed to mobilize public opinion “as never before.” Thus Florence Nightingale, the gentlewoman showing care for the common soldier, began to be seen as the embodiment of the nation’s conscience. “I wish we had her at the war office,” Queen Victoria said. The queen’s subjects went further: They put pictures and statuettes of Florence in their homes and named their daughters after her. Until then, “Florence,” for the British, was only the name of an Italian city.

She cannily used her secular apotheosis to expand her work. Her great talent turned out to be not nursing but impelling people to form and reform institutions. In all her efforts — concerning sanitation, nursing methods, theories of disease or hospital architecture — she marshaled both facts and righteous indignation. The deaths arising from unsanitary conditions in the army, she said, were equivalent to taking “1,100 men per annum out upon Salisbury Plain and shoot[ing] them.” In short, she was far from being merely gentle and gracious, as myth would have it; she could be acerbic and uncompromising when it came to pushing her projects forward. And why not? Salvation — both physical and spiritual health — was worth fighting for.

So that children’s biography had it fundamentally right: We do owe Florence Nightingale an “immortal debt.” But Mr. Bostridge transforms the simple outline of her life into a full and masterly portrait.  Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: