Cultural Capital: Mr Bismark and Big Pussie: The Special Friends of Florence Nightingale

Article excerpt

Cats, according to Florence Nightingale, possess much more sympathy and feeling than human beings. This was a conclusion she reached during her long periods of illness in the decades following the Crimean War. Confined indoors, working on manifold schemes for public health reform and often seeing no more than one person a day for fear of strain or excitement, Nightingale looked upon her cats as providing important solace and companionship. A story did the rounds in the 1870s that she kept 17 cats, with a nurse to attend to each, and that the cats were periodically sent to the country for a change of air. Except for the bit about the nurses, this isn't so far from the truth.

Writing a biography of Florence Nightingale - something I've been doing for longer than I care to remember - I've come to view her feline friends as engaging minor characters in the story. There's Mr Bismark [sic], a large white, "the most sensitively affectionate of cats, very gentle and really a lady", who moved in with Nightingale at her house in South Street, Mayfair, in 1867. A little earlier, Tom and Topsy had taken up residence on Nightingale's bed, "greatly to the horror of big Pussie, who does nothing but snarl at them". Through the years, cats come and go: Tib, a large Persian called Gladstone, Mrs Tit, and poor old Mr Muff who ended up being shot by a gamekeeper while taking the country air at the Nightingale family home near Romsey. Cats figure largely in Nightingale's correspondence and inky pawmarks sometimes leave their trail across her notepaper.

Recently, I was working in an archive in New York, one of the 150 associated with Nightingale across the world, which I hadn't already consulted. I was feeling pretty disgruntled having just attended a conference in Baltimore at which yet another speculative diagnosis of Nightingale's illness had been paraded and sensationalised in a kind of elaborate parlour game. The key note speaker, an expert on lactation and postpartum depression, had, surprise, surprise, decided that Nightingale had suffered the form of depression known as bipolar; in fact, depression was just part of the chronic brucellosis that Nightingale picked up in the Crimea, probably as a result of a bacterial infection transmitted through drinking goat's milk, but let's not get into that.

I was therefore in just the mood to be cheered by the little catty tale with a happy ending that emerged from the manuscripts I was working on. In the autumn of 1885 Nightingale, accompanied by Quiz, her Persian kitten, was returning by train to London from a visit to her sister Lady Verney at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. At Watford, Quiz suddenly jumped from her basket out of the window, on to the track and scampered out of sight. …