Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon

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Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon By Mark Bostridge (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008) (647 pages; $35 cloth)

Like Cleopatra, whose infinite variety time could not make stale, Florence Nightingale continues to fascinate us. Since Sir Edward Cook's 1,000-page, two-volume biography published in 1913 there have been almost fifty further biographies: Mark Bostridge's 647-page work therefore stands in a long line. Cook's magnum opus has stood the test of time, challenged only briefly by Cecil Woodham-Smith's popularly written Florence Nightingale , published in 1950. Cook managed to strike a fine balance between sympathetic admiration for his subject and a critical approach, all the more difficult because the Nightingale heirs commissioned his work. Woodham-Smith did not footnote her work, and although she gained access to the Claydon archives, which Nightingale's executors denied Cook, she relied heavily on Cook as have most of Nightingale's biographers. Her Florence Nightingale is much more in the tradition of the hagiographies and lacks Cook's judicious critical sense.

So much new information has come forward since Cook published ninety-five years ago that Bostridge's contribution is well justified. For nurses in particular this is especially relevant because Cook either was unaware of the tremendous problems at the Nightingale Training School or, more likely, considered it impolitic and possibly harmful to the struggling new profession to detail them. It took a former union organizer, Monica Baly, to make public the failings of the much respected Nightingale training when she published Florence Nightingale and the Nursing Legacy in 1988. Bostridge studies Nightingale, as the subtitle The Making of an Icon indicates, with a special interest in how the Nightingale legend and the real multifaceted historical woman interacted with each other. He points out that Nightingale's reputation as the iconic nurse was greatly helped by the secluded life she led after her famous collapse in August 1857. Her disappearance from public life made it possible to sentimentalize her as the saintly and compassionate lady whose shadow the soldiers kissed. At the same time it diminished the brilliance of her personality and intellect and her extensive work in other areas. He tells us that one of his inspirations in writing the biography was Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who also knew how to both deny and exploit her femininity. Her career gave him insight into the political advantages and vicissitudes experienced by a woman operating in a male-dominated world. Thatcher herself admired Nightingale as a great historical figure, a lady who, she said, "had an idea, who knew what she wanted to do, and wasn't going to be put off by anyone" (pp. xxii-xxiii). Thatcher is certainly an apt comparison, but the gendered barriers she faced in the maledominated world of the late twentieth century, though significant, pale in comparison with the domestic sphere that constrained ladies of Nightingale's generation.

Bostridge's Florence Nightingale is an extraordinarily scholarly work providing a wealth of detail, a good deal hitherto unknown, about Nightingale's family and network. His encyclopedic knowledge of her society helps us understand why she acted as she did, and he writes with the same sympathetic yet critical view as Cook, not glossing over her flaws. Both students of nineteenth-century nursing history and the general reader will find the new information enlightening. The book also includes a number of fascinating pictures that I for one have never seen before-for example, Nightingale's father in his forties, her mother in court dress in 1823, a photograph of Lea Hurst taken in the 1860s, Aunt Mai and Uncle Sam Smith and the Bracebridges who chaperoned and helped Nightingale in Scutari, and Mary Stanley and Sister Sarah Anne Terrot, two of the Crimean War nurses. Like Barbara Dossey, Bostridge completely accepts the D. …