She was born into a wealthy family. Her mother was one of ten children of William Smith, a progressive MP, whose rich merchant father Samuel Smith "had come to the assistance of Flora Macdonald [the Jacobite who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after being defeated at Culloden] when she was a penniless prisoner in the Tower [of London] ... To show his sympathy with the sturggle of the American colonists for freedom in the War of Independence he had relinquished his title to a large part of the city of Savannah." (C 1) Florence's mother's sisters included Anne who lived in "Waverley Abbey near Farnham, the house which gave Scott the title for the Waverley novels" (C 1) and Joanna who married into the Bonham Carter family which has long been important in British public life; the actress Helena Bonham Carter is a descendant.
Such a background gave Florence an entree in the British social scene and invaluable contacts with influential people. It was knowing Sidney Herbert, the Secretary at War in 1852, which got her the Crimea gig. As a teenager she knew Lord Palmerston. and his son-in-law Lord Ashley who, as Lord Shaftesbury became known for his philanthropy and was commemorated by the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. At 22 she stayed at Chatsworth with the Duke of Devonshire; the entertainments being arranged by Joseph Paxton (the head gardener who later desinged the Crystal Palace and whose biography is reviewed here). At 24 she met Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the American Republic. In 1852 (aged 32) she was friends with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. (C 5) It was a turbulent time for foreign travel. In 1848 the Nightingale family had to leave Rome as Garibaldi was arriving to defend it against foreign troops. (C 4)
However, her family background proved a huge disadvantage in pursuing her nursing vocation. Nursing was immensely unrespectable. Hospitals were for the poor, were overcrowded, smelly and filthy and nurses were notoriously immoral: one head nurse told FN that "she had never known a nurse who was not drunken, and there was immoral conduct practised in the very wards", including prostitution. (C 4). Even fourteen of the nurses that FN would select to go to the Crimea were described as being "of no particular religion unless the worship of Bacchus should be revived." (C 7) Little wonder that there was family opposition to FN's choice of career.
But the opposition was intense. FN's sister Parthenope was immensely jealous of her. Florence was younger, prettier and more intelligent. Parthenope and their mother Fanny were manipulative and controlling, demanding FN stay with them, throwing hysterical fits which required FN to stay at home and look after them whenever FN tried to go somewhere to learn about nursing. At the age of 17, FN was called by God; at 25 she realised she was called to be a nurse but it was a further eight years before she finally left home to pursue her career. And FN was one of the strongest-minded women possible! She wrote "Women don't consider themselves as human beings at all. There is absolutely no God, no country, no duty to them at all, except family ... I know nothing like the petty grinding tyranny of a good English family." (C 5)
Her father wasn't much help to her. "As long as he had books and conversation he was indifferent to other pleasures" (C 1) although later in the family battle he sided with her and corresponded with her through his club so that her letters to him wouldn't have to be read out by his wife at the breakfast table.
She was a bit weird. "As a very young child she had an obsession that she was not like other people. She was a monster. That was her secret, which might at any moment be found out." (C 1)
She certainly ended up a monster. Her dysfunctional relationship with illness distorted her relationships. The examples of her mother and her sister, using illness to get their own way, was one she learned to follow. Because she was prepared to sacrifice herself, working long hours (such as 6AM to 11PM) she expected others to do the same and she was angrily intolerant of those who couldn't. People died under her yoke because she drove them on, refusing to accept that they were really ill: "She regarded bad health as her personal monopoly." (C 16) "What she felt, what she endured, must be unique. No illness was to be compared with her illness, no self-sacrifice was to be compared to her self-sacrifice; no grief could rival her grief." (C 16) Thus she told the mortally ill Sidney Herbert that his symptoms were "fancies" (C 13) By insisting he kept working she "forced him to sign his own death warrant." (C 16) When he finally resigned she was bitter and contemptuous and "cut herself off from him" (C 16). When Aunt Mai returned to her (ill) husband after looking after FN for three years, FN "did not forgive Aunt Mai for nearly twenty years." (C 16) Much later she realised; "she said she felt like a vampire who had sucked Sidney Herbert's ... blood." (C 19) But even in old age, when she went back to her family, she criticised her sister for making a song and dance about her health: "In fact her sister was suffering from the first symptoms of the arthritis which is a few years turned her into a helpless cripple." (C 22) FN was not the world's most empathetic nurse!
Another aspect of this strange attitude towards illness was the way she felt it ennobled. "Suffering lifts its victim above normal values. While suffering endures, there is neither good nor bad, valuable nor invaluable, enemy nor friend." (C 20)
Part of the problem was that "she refused to consider what had been done, only what had not" (C 19); she was a perfectionist.
One of the ways she kept working despite ill-healthy was by the "new-fangled operation of putting opium under the skin which relieves one for twenty-four hours - but does not improve the vivacity or serenity of one's intellect". (C 19)
Was she a lesbian?(Does it matter?) When she was young she conceived a 'passion' for a friend; in order to keep close to the friend she encouraged the friend's brother to the point where he proposed and was rejected; the family were very angry. She enjoyed close relationships with other women but rejected all the proposals of marriage she had from men. At the end of the day she probably died a virgin. But was this because she was a lesbian or because she had a call from God?
The problems in the Crimea started with government cuts. "There were departments which during forty years of economy had been cut down nearer and still nearer the bone." The British Army Medical Service had 12 clerks in its office. (C 8) Another problem was the inflexible administration: nothing could be done without an order: "In January 1855, when the army before Sebastopol was being ravaged by scurvy, a shipload of cabbages was thrown into the harbour at Balaclava on the ground that it was not consigned to anyone." (C 9) "Even the horses which had taken part in the Charge of the Light Brigade had starved to death." (C 9)
A large part of the problem was the attitude of the senior officers (who were aristocrats and gentlemen) to the ordinary soldier (who were poor people). FN was firmly on the side of the ordinary soldier. "It has been said by officers," she pointed out, "that there are three causes which make a soldier enlist, viz. being out of work, in a state of intoxication, or, jilted by his sweetheart." Did this mean that they should therefore encourage "more poverty, more drink, more faithless sweethearts"?
- Money was not the motive for the common soldier. "The supreme loyalty which made a man give his life for his comrade, the courage which enabled him to advance steadily under fire, were displayed by men who were paid a shilling a day."(C 11)
- "She found that a great many of the men could neither read nor write, and she asked if she might engage a schoolmaster. This was absolutely refused. 'You are spoiling the brutes', Lord William Paulet told her." (C 11)
But in the end FN's work nursing did little to prevent the death rate in the hospitals rising. The most effective action was taken by a Sanitary Commission consisting of Dr John Sutherland, Sir Robert Rawlinson, a civil engineer, and Dr Milroy. They investigated the water supply and the sewers, limewashed the walls, killed vermin and destroyed the furniture that harboured rats (C 9). In the three months after their work the mortality rate fell from 14.5% to 5.2% (C 10) It had been 73% in six months at one stage. (C 12)
Once the Crimea was over FN worked tirelessly to improve public health, especially in the army and in India. She found that the death rates in barracks was greater than the neighbouring civilian district: five times as much in St Pancras and Knightsbridge; this despite the fact that the soldiers "were all young strong men who had been subjected to a medical examination to guarantee their physical fitness. ...soldiers are certainly killed by these neglects ... as if they were drawn up on Salisbury Plain and shot" (C 13)
Other fascinating moments:
- One of the nurses in the Crimea was Miss Polidori, sister to Byron's doctor John Polidori, who wrote The Vampyre, and aunt to the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (C 8)
- One lady wrote to ask for a job: "I have had a passion for soldiers all my life and now wish to get my bread by it." (C 12)
- Sidney Herbert's motto was "It takes two to make a quarrel and I won't be one." (C 13)
A fascinating portrait of a monster. It has certainly changed my understanding of the 'lady with the lamp'. She may have achieved great things but the people around her suffered tremendously and she never really acknowledged the sacrifices of anyone but herself; she was monstrously egocentric.
November 2019; 435 pages
Biographies of other Victorians:
- A Thing in Disguise: by Kate Colquhon: Joseph Paxton, the gardener who designed the Crystal Palace
- Stanley: Henry Morton Stanley, the psychopath who discovered Dr Livingstone: if I thought Nightingale was an unpleasant woman Stanley was far, far more horrible (although he had the excuse of a terrible childhood); both these two shared the characteristic of never believing another person could be ill and always thinking others hypochondriacs.
- Dickens by Peter Ackroyd
- Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd