Nightingale, the Grievance Nurser; the Crimea as Career Opportunity: Laura Fraser as Florence in the BBC1 Production Miss Nightingale

Article excerpt

Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

Florence Nightingale: The Woman and her Legend by Mark Bostridge (Viking, ?25)

FLORENCE Nightingale is such a famous figure that you don't expect anyone to know much about her; that's what legends are for, to stand in for more contradictory information. For generations it was quite enough to know that Nightingale went to the Crimea, shone a lamp on the wounded, reformed healthcare and was heroic. It was only when Lytton Strachey reviewed the image of this particularly eminent Victorian in 1918 that he concluded there was "more that was interesting" in the real Florence Nightingale than in the legendary one, "also less that was agreeable".

A century later, Mark Bostridge has produced a full, scholarly and compellingly authoritative biography of The Lady with the Lamp and confirmed Strachey's impression of a thoroughly disagreeable but complex and puzzling subject.

Nightingale was a serious and selfreflective child, younger of two daughters in a tight-knit, neurotic family of wealthy Unitarians. Her father's life of inactivity aroused her contempt; she longed for service and status, but not in marriage. Bostridge very deftly links Florence's restlessness to that of a whole generation of young women responding to Jane Eyre's cry that women "must have action" and they will make it if they cannot find it.

Florence found it through an impeccable channel; "God spoke to me," she said, licensing her sense of destiny. Quite what destiny took several years to work out.

Florence was always keen on statistics, reports and parliamentary documents and had thought of training as a nurse in order to set up her own sisterhood, but her family opposed it. Her anger and frustration made the atmosphere at home poisonous; coming back from a fortnight with the Protestant deaconesses at Kaiserswerth, her Christmas greeting was "I feel myself perishing when I go to bed ... I wish it were my grave".

Not surprisingly, the family caved in eventually and in 1853 Florence took up the post of superintendent of a gentlewomen's home in Harley Street, from where she soon extended her influence to superintending nurses at King's College Hospital. …