Doing It Better Than Mother: Liane Aukin Looks at the Private Life of Florence Nightingale, and at How Her Strained Relationship with Her Mother Shaped Her Destiny

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`For every one of my 18,000 children I have expended more motherly feeling and action in a week than my mother has expended on me in 37 years.'

THE NURSE HAS long been the butt of jokes and the object of sexual fantasies; the target of denigration as well as of idealisation. At one end of the spectrum she is Dominatrix, at the other--Angel. Current attitudes to nursing reveal the traces of old ambivalences about the function of nursing and the notions of femininity embodied in the figure of `nurse'. Many of the ambiguities inscribed in the modern image of `nurse' were enacted and deeply embodied in the life and psyche of the profession's founding figure, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).

Much has been written about Nightingale and every aspect of her life and influence must, by now, have been studied. Her contemporary biographer Edward Cook (1913) consolidated the honour in which she was held during her lifetime. He does not sanctify Miss Nightingale but exercises a courtly respect. Lytton Strachey wrote his famous monograph eight years after her death and injected life into what was becoming a mummified memory. He showed her warts and all, dedicated, powerful, and ruthless; more, he created a style of historical biography that legitimised the idea of interpretation. Cecil Woodham Smith gave a more detailed narrative in her 1950 account, and for the first time explored the personal and domestic relationships that contributed to her life. F.B. Smith (1982) tries to explode the myth by suggesting that she was a liar and manipulator attempting to conceal her own mistakes. There seems to be enough evidence to support almost any interpretation. However, to the general public she is still remembered as the Lady of the Lamp and she retains a mythic hold on the popular imagination. Despite the many other remarkable nineteenth-century women who devoted their lives to reform and social change none has succeeded in toppling her from her position as one of the most famous women in the world.

On her return from two years' nursing in the Crimea, Nightingale built on her extraordinary popularity and became a reformer and administrator of genius capable of terrorising an entire cabinet and set about the reform of the War Office and the Medical Establishment of the British Army throughout Britain and the Empire. She founded the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas's; was consulted by political figures in successive British governments and corresponded with many abroad; her statistical survey of sanitation in Indian rural life (1863), which she extended to a study of the injustices suffered by the indigenous population at the hands of a colonial justice system, was so thorough that each successive Viceroy came to be briefed by her before taking up office even though she had never set foot in the subcontinent. She spoke several languages, had a profound knowledge of theology, literary gifts and left a legacy of thousands of letters, notes and reports; her every waking hour was spent working for the betterment of the poor, the ill and in particular, the British soldier, 18,000 of whom she had seen die--it is reported that while in the Crimea, she sat at over 2,000 deathbeds. Back in London in 1857 she succumbed to illness--though no diagnosis was ever made and she lived to be ninety--and did this work over forty-five years from her room and increasingly, from her bed. Force of character and, the multiplicity of her achievements and talents place her in a class of her own. There is no certain way to explain the mystery of her genius, but can we attribute all her achievements to altruism?

In seeking to answer this question I want to place Nightingale in the context of the shift in female consciousness as reflected in the writings of women novelists in the early and mid nineteenth century. Many of their novels reveal a revolt not only against fathers but, more striking, against mothers. As Marianne Hirsh points out in The Mother and Daughter Narrative, (1989), the novels of Gaskell, Austen, Elliot and the Brontes offer three possible narratives for the Mother: the Dead Mother, the Comic Mother and the Ineffective Mother. …