Bound Women: The Plight of the Other in Florence Nightingale's "Cassandra"

By Maynard, Lee Anna | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Bound Women: The Plight of the Other in Florence Nightingale's "Cassandra"


Maynard, Lee Anna, Nineteenth-Century Prose


In Cassandra, Florence Nightingale argues against the English woman's relegation to the domestic sphere by imaging her as Other, most vividly through allusions to Chinese footbinding, a statue of the Archangel Michael, and the mythic figure of Cassandra. By thus creating another Other, Nightingale demonstrates both the relative homogeneity of English women and men, as well as the barbarity of English men and the cultural institutions they promote.

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The central lament of "Cassandra," Florence Nightingale's manifesto, is that women in England have passion, intellect, moral activity ... and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised" (205). The relegation and confinement of women to the domestic sphere effectually contrives to prevent Nightingale and women like her from achieving or even attempting work in the public sphere. In her essay, Nightingale utilizes three images to call attention vividly to this plight: Chinese footbinding, the statue of the Archangel Michael, and the figure of Cassandra. Within the flame-work of a text concerned with the situation of women in England, these images operate by creating an Other, which functions in two ways: first, it unites English men and women through their shared locale and historical period, therefore lessening the perceived chasm between their respective spheres and abilities; and second, it lends English women biblical and mythic properties, while attributing barbarity and ignorance to English men and the cultural institutions they promote. Nightingale further demonstrates the Other-ness of English women by shifting gender roles in circumstances varying from the everyday to the extraordinary. Nightingale assumes the mantles of sage and of prophet in "Cassandra," both revealing contemporary culture as it really is and envisioning a future relieved by another Christ.

By the time Nightingale composed "Cassandra" in 1850-51, the idea of the domestic sphere was firmly entrenched in the English consciousness; in fact, as she wrote the essay (which she first conceived as a largely autobiographical novel), she was despairing of ever being allowed by her family to pursue the nursing career she considered her calling. Throughout the essay, Nightingale inveighs against the very notions and strictures she herself struggled with. Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction, argues that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conduct manuals and domestic fiction actually created the private sphere and the figure of the domestic woman, Patmore's "Angel in the House":

   In representing the household as a world with its own form of
   social relations, a distinctively feminine discourse, this body of
   literature revised the semiotic of culture at its most basic
   level.... that the relative number of conduct books appeared to
   decrease as the eighteenth century came to an end was not because
   the female ideal they represented passed out of vogue. To the
   contrary, there is every reason to think that by this time the
   ideal had passed into the domain of common sense.... (63)

A sage, George Landow posits, is a "forthspeaker about present events" (33), and Nightingale fulfills this definition as she cogently realizes and articulates the change in the perception and treatment of women. She writes that "there is perhaps no century where the woman shows so meanly as in this.... there is no longer unity between the woman as inwardly developed, and as outwardly manifested.... In the last century it was not so.... In the succeeding one let us hope that it will no longer be so" (228). Nightingale recognizes that it is, in large part, conduct books that have given rise to this (for women) sad state of affairs, saying that "women are never supposed to have any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted ... and women themselves have accepted this, have written books to support it" (211).

Self-abnegation is the refrain of these conduct books, which "[enjoin] young girls to submissiveness, modesty, self-lessness; reminding all women that they should be angelic" (Gilbert and Gubar 23). …

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