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 (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004) (535 pages; $27.95 cloth)

How did the young, well-bred, Florence Nightingale become the Florence Nightingale memorialized as heroine, founder of modern nursing, and statistician? Most who know of Nightingales work focus on her post-Crimea life. But Gillian Gill, who has also authored biographies of Agatha Christie and Mary Baker Eddy, decided to explore Nightingale's life before she chose to enter the public arena. What results is a rich, readable, and entertaining narrative that analyzes Nightingale and her family within the military, political, and social contexts of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England.

Gill's central thesis is that one cannot understand Nightingale's choices, strengths, or flaws without considering her family background and childhood. Drawing on numerous primary sources concerning Nightingale and her extended family and friends, Gill suggests that most biographers have uncritically accepted Nightingales version of her early life, particularly the lack of family support for her interest in nursing. Gill convincingly argues that Nightingale's family, although often exasperated by her choices, continued to love her, missed her when she traveled, and put up with a lot from her. In many Nightingale biographies, Florence's mother, Fanny, and sister, Parthenope, exist as negative mirrors to Florence's nontraditional choices and ambitions. Gill, however, draws a much deeper portrait, and as a result, we see certain events through their eyes, not just from young Florence's perspective. The detailed examination of Nightingale's family history, childhood, and the way in which her father structured her education also help us understand why she was drawn to nursing rather than to medicine.

The book begins by tracing her father's and mother's families back through the eighteenth century. Nightingale's progenitors included both male and female reformers who participated in reform movements relevant to their era, for example, by joining slavery abolition groups and participating in the religious radicalism of the English Protestant Dissenters. We learn of her parents' courtship and travels, Nightingale's privileged Victorian childhood, and her emerging young womanhood in the context of Victorian society's constricted opportunities for women. Gill also examines closely the first defining act of Nightingale's life, her rejection of marriage to a man about whom it appears she cared deeply, Richard Monckton Milnes. …