Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale

Article excerpt

Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill, PhD; New York: Ballantine Books, 2004; 560 pages, $27.95

written for the general public, this absorbing biography gives the reader an intimate glimpse into the life of Florence Nightingale and her family. When a review copy arrived at the NLN office last year, I took it home thinking that I that would scan it and pass it on to our book review editor. As I started reading, however, I was hooked. I could not put this book down, I told everyone I knew about it, and I decided to write the review myself.

The colorful story of Florence's strong, eccentric, freethinking forebears provided the first hook. I was intrigued to learn that before losing his fortune, her maternal grandfather, William Smith, was a member of parliament who advocated strongly for the end of the slave trade and for other liberal causes. And I delighted in the account of how her grandmother, Martha Smith, led her 10 children on periodic travels throughout England and the continent, with some children riding in a carriage and others on foot at a time when roads were muddy and motels nonexistent. I turned frequently to the end notes and the family tree in order to make sense of this complex and interesting group of people.

Frequently on visits away from home, the Nightingales and the Smiths maintained journals and wrote lengthy letters to members of their large, extended family. As they traveled, their letters were intended to be copied and passed around, just as we might copy interesting emails we receive. Gill uses these voluminous sources to take us through Florence's troublesome two years with a governess who attempted to "curb her rebelliousness, correct her egotism, and make her behave like a nice, good little girl"; the happy years she and her older sister Parthenope were educated by their father; the debutante years, when Florence attracted many friends and admirers and Parthe grew more and more sickly; and the years of conflict as Florence grew frustrated and angry with her family's unwillingness to allow her to lead an independent, useful life. …