Florence Nightingale - Fantasy and Fact

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Florence Nightingale - Fantasy and Fact


Timko, Michael, The World and I


Michael Timko is professor emeritus at the City University of New York. His article "Margaret Fuller: Forgotten American Hero" appeared in the November 2000 issue of The World & I

While most of the major nineteenth-century European figures still remembered today by Americans are men--Dickens, Darwin, Freud, Marx-- one woman remains their equal: Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp. Reviewing one of the many biographies of her, Laurie Stone wrote: "No woman in Victorian England had more political ambition, more administrative talent, and more success in exercising both than Nightingale. At the peak of her influence--the 1850s and 1860s--she was virtually a ruler of the empire, deciding who would head military and health departments, doing the job of Secretary of State in effect. For nearly 30 years, Nightingale was a world consultant on civilian and military health care. Heads of government lined the waiting room of her house on South Street."

Nightingale also had some influence in Victorian America. In October 1861, shortly after the Civil War broke out, she corresponded with Dorothea Dix, superintendent of nurses for the Union armies, providing her with detailed information on hospital organization and care of the wounded. Not surprisingly, she was the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Santa Filomena," a poem he composed after learning about a letter written by a wounded soldier in Crimea describing the men kissing Miss Nightingale's shadow as she passed by their beds. "We lay there by hundreds," the patient had written, "but we could kiss her shadow as it fell, and lay our heads on the pillow again, content." Longfellow wrote:

Lo! In that hour of misery

A lady with a lamp I see

Pass through the glimmering gloom,

And flit from room to room.

And slow, as in a dream of bliss,

This speechless sufferer turns to kiss

Her shadow as it falls

Upon the darkening walls.

The image of shadow and substance is crucial, for behind the "domesticated" shadow of Saint Florence of the Lamp is the strong figure of a dedicated woman who fought family, friends, and fantasy to do the work to which she was certain God had called her. Stone accurately describes Nightingale's early years as "a swim through emotional soup," and, if anything, it is an understatement.

Born in 1810, the second child of wealthy, aristocratic parents, Nightingale from the beginning had a turbulent relationship with her family, especially her mother, Fanny, and older sister, Parthe. From the time she was six she was essentially regarded as a misfit. "We are ducks," her mother wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell, "who have hatched a wild swan." Her father, whose wealth was the result of an inheritance, preferred to remain aloof from worldly matters, while her mother, a social butterfly, thought of her daughters only in terms of marriage and social success. A typical Victorian "angel in the house," Fanny wanted her two girls to be angels too.

Flo, as she was called, rejected such "domestic" values. Her mother and sister were both typical women of their class, socially ambitious, uninterested in intellectual matters of any kind. To them the important aspects of life were essentially family ones: taking care of the hearth and home, having children, comforting husbands and family members. Above all, Fanny wanted to be a successful hostess, having large parties to which prominent people were invited. Parthe concurred but Flo rebelled. From her early childhood she lost herself in daydreams and felt herself to be a monster. From childhood Flo had an obsession, which she recorded in her diary, that she was different from other people.

Unlike Parthe, who clung to their mother, Flo felt much closer to their father. After losing a parliamentary election, he withdrew from public life and decided to undertake the education of his daughters. …

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