Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon
Helmstadter, Carol, Nursing History Review
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.A.B. Young thesis that the "Crimean fever," which almost killed Nightingale in May and June 1855, was what has now been identified as a disease called brucellosis. In fact, Bostridge, quite convincingly, relies heavily on this modern diagnosis to explain the difficult course of Nightingale's long invalidism.
Unfortunately, perhaps because footnotes are so expensive to print or because the book is aimed at the trade rather than students of nineteenth-century history, it is not footnoted. In a sense this is understandable because the sources utilized are massive. For example, one collection alone, the Nightingale papers in the British Library, is the library's second-biggest single collection, second only to the Gladstone papers. Bostridge references every direct quote and makes some comments in a section called "Notes," which is very helpful but, for general information, sources are not given. For example, we learn that Nightingale's ferocious matron, Mrs. Clarke, who was an army in herself at Harley Street and Scutari, was formerly matron of the Sheffield union workhouse. For those of us who are interested in the Crimean War nurses, it is disappointing not to know where this information came from, allowing us to possibly track down more information about Clarke. For students of nursing history (although perhaps not for the general reading public, who will enjoy this book just as much as scholars) this is all the more disappointing because the book is so thoroughly researched, both in the vast primary sources and numerous contextual works.
Readers of Nursing History Review will be pleased that Bostridge has carefully read the revisionist nursing history of the past twenty-five years, and indeed Nursing History Review itself, citing, for example, Joyce MacQueen's "Florence Nightingale's Nursing Practice." Bostridge spends more time on nursing than may be justified given all the work Nightingale did on army and public health reform both in Britain and in India. Lynn McDonald's Collected Works of Florence Nightingale , of which eleven of the sixteen projected volumes are now in print, will devote only two volumes to nursing, which may perhaps be an accurate reflection of Nightingale's interest in and time spent on nursing, especially in her more active years. The need to deal with all the myth grown up around Nightingale and nursing may justify Bostridge's allocation of space.
There is an excellent bibliographical review in the last chapter, beginning with Stanmore's less than flattering portrayal of Nightingale in his 1906 biography of Sidney Herbert. Bostridge includes movies and plays as well as books and ends the chapter with the largest British trade union representing nurses rejecting Nightingale as the founder of modern nursing. One book that he omits and that deserves his well-informed view is Evelyn Bolster's Sisters of Mercy in the Crimean War, which treats Nightingale, who is a major figure in her story, in such a way as to make F. B. Smith's Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power look almost mild. The Bolster book is important because a number of recent scholars have accepted as accurate its delineation of the role of Mother Francis Bridgeman and her Sisters in Nightingale's effort to establish a coordinated nursing team in the East. Bostridge describes Smith's work as character assassination masquerading as serious history and finds that he makes many statements that are not supported and sometimes even contradicted by his citations.
There are the inevitable small errors to be expected in a first edition. To name one or two: the six St. John's House nurses who went to Scutari with Nightingale were not St. John's House Sisters but rather paid, working-class nurses; Nightingale's matron Mrs. Clarke did not leave Scutari in 1856 but was dismissed in April 1855 when it was discovered that, as well as being disagreeable, she had a major drinking problem and was leading other nurses astray. There was a Mary Ann Clark, who was one of Miss Skene's Oxford district nurses, who did leave Scutari at the end of the war. (There was even a third Clarke, Elizabeth, who worked at the Renkioi Hospital.) These are minor mistakes and can be easily corrected in the second edition, which I am sure this book will go to.
In summary this is a highly readable, very scholarly, up-to-date, and important contribution to the Nightingale story.
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Publication information: Article title: Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon. Contributors: Helmstadter, Carol - Author. Journal title: Nursing History Review. Volume: 18. Publication date: January 1, 2010. Page number: 220+. © Springer Publishing Company 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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