- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 23, 2004


By Gillian Gill

Ballantine Books, $27.95, 312 paages, illus.


Florence Nightingale was unquestionably a great heroic figure in her own time and one of the chief strengths of Gillian Gill’s lively biography is its ability to make us feel that, far from looking smaller to us a century and a half after her achievements, she seems if anything even more impressive.

Every child used to know the story of “The Lady With the Lamp” who walked through the wards of the military hospitals during Britain’s Crimean War against Russia in the mid-1850s. And the story of how Florence Nightingale cleaned up — in every sense of the term — those installations was almost as famous.

Mrs. Gill tells us that Florence did indeed proceed through those halls at night, a small Turkish lantern in hand, comforting sick and dying soldiers; but she also tells us in unforgettable terms just what this indefatigable woman had being doing all through the day. No wound was too gruesome, no bandage too filthy and louse-ridden, no bodily decay and waste material too foul for the close-up and personal attention of this well-born gentlewoman. Heroic, indeed.

And if all this hard, disgusting physical labor was heroically undertaken, still more impressive was the reforming passion which underlay it. Florence Nightingale’s central insight, that the conditions of Army life — and specifically its hospitals — were more lethal to soldiers than combat itself, inspired her to press for the reform of that most recalcitrant of institutions, the British Army, and in the process to improve both the status and the practice of nursing itself throughout the world.

Mrs. Gill shows us how this determined young woman, possessed of a messianic confidence, was able to harness her contacts in government and throughout society to move mountains. Whether you are a believer in government actions or in private endeavor, you cannot but stand breathless in awe of Florence’s ability to blend the two and to bend statesmen and generals, sovereigns and bureaucrats, to the justice and inevitability of her cause.

What an unlikely and contradictory figure this Victorian Joan of Arc was:

“A workaholic who could barely get out of bed. A political lobbyist who avoids meeting people. An ascetic who lives in [fashionable] Mayfair. A recluse with contacts all over the world. A control freak who struggles to leave it all up to God. Florence Nightingale… was a living oxymoron, and that she managed to achieve so much is a measure of her extraordinary capacity.”

The biographer is writing here of her subject’s life in the more than 50 years left to her after the Crimean War, a time in which her passionate advocacy had worldwide effects.

Her efforts helped soldiers on both sides in America’s Civil War and in the Franco-Prussian conflict and also extended beyond government to many aspects of what we would now call civil society, especially in the Indian Raj, which had captured her imagination although she never actually saw it. Yet these contradictory qualities so eccentric and prominent in her later years had always been part of Florence’s make-up and they render what she achieved in her activist prime still more impressive for her ability to triumph over them.

Genius is a uniquely personal, indeed individualistic quality, but Mrs. Gill argues that Florence’s particular genius was, at the very least, strongly linked to her remarkable family:

“This book is called ‘Nightingales,’ and its theme is that Florence Nightingale was an exceptional woman born into a loving and gifted family that on many different levels enabled her to achieve great things. But this is not the message Nightingale herself wished posterity to receive.”

As is evident from this passage, this biographer is in her own way as strong-willed as her subject and she is adept at resisting Florence’s control even as she illuminates it. Her portrait of the intricate nexus of antecedents, in-laws and contacts who influenced and enabled Florence is beautifully done.

Unlike so many biographers who hit their readers with a complex web of family connections at the book’s outset only to turn them off before they even encounter the actual subject, Mrs Gill is clever enough to open with an indelible portrait of Florence refusing to marry the distinguished man her family wants her to.

Right at the outset, we see this remarkable woman casting aside any obstacle to her mission in life. The unorthodox but effective construction of “Nightingales” is only one of the indications that Florence’s complicated story is in the hands of a masterly biographer.

A notable feature of this book is its convincing and knowledgeable portrait of the time and milieu in which Florence Nightingale lived and worked. Mrs Gill understands that these were very different from today’s world and she gives us all sorts of information, beautifully presented, about topics ranging from the entail of landed estates to wet-nursing. One thing she never does, however, is fall into that dangerous trap of judging people and events by today’s standards. Although she is happy to illuminate the past with information drawn from modern scientific knowledge, she refuses to jump to facile conclusions based on current sociological or psychological fashions. Refuting the claims made by some academically respectable feminist scholars concerning Florence’s sexuality, Mrs. Gill is resolutely factual, commonsensical — and even humorous.

“Since the lesbian accusation is important, let me be very clear and explicit. Florence Nightingale was not a lesbian. History, as opposed to imaginative literature, is based on evidence, no one has produced any evidence that Florence Nightingale ever engaged in sexual relations with women. This I assume to be the standard working definition of a lesbian. Given the immense volume of documentation we have about Nightingale’s life, this lack of evidence must be given full weight. No one during her life reported or suspected anything that can be construed as sexual acts with men or women. From everything we know about Florence Nightingale, if ever there was a woman conspicuously chaste, resolutely celibate, and absolutely virginal, it was she.

“It is true that Florence Nightingale was a lifelong spinster, but anyone inclined to argue that her refusal to marry is evidence of her homosexual tendencies must be prepared to entertain the possibility that Oscar Wilde, with his wife and two sons, was actually straight.”

What a pleasure it is to encounter a biographer who is not interested in debunking her subject or in putting her on some procrustean bed of ideology or dogma. Mrs. Gill has achieved the feat of creating the proverbial portrait with all its warts while still demonstrating that her subject possessed an undeniable greatness that is if anything augmented by those very flaws and foibles. An extraordinary woman truly brought to life, an uncommonly judicious and skillful biography: who could ask for more?

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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