Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

From Sagely Wisdom to Supervision: Nightingale as Sage and Nurse

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

From Sagely Wisdom to Supervision: Nightingale as Sage and Nurse

Article excerpt

Susan Hamilton explores the ways in which Victorian women produce intellectual prose writing in a period when the "intellectual" is resolutely gendered masculine. Arguing that two apparently unrelated Nightingale texts, Cassandra and Notes on Nursing, articulate related concerns about women's place in Victorian culture, this essay explores Nightingale's access to and appropriation of sites of textual authority.


"And what is it to be 'read aloud to'? The most miserable exercise of the human intellect."

Nightingale, Cassandra (1852)

"What do you think the patient is thinking of during your gaps of nonreading? Do you think that he amuses himself upon what you have read for precisely the time it pleases you to go on reading to yourself?."

Nightingale, Notes on Nursing (1859)

When George Landow asked, "Were there any female Victorian sages?" (32) he turned to Nightingale's Cassandra and answered in the affirmative. A call of despair that insists on the stultifying effects of domesticity on middle-class women, Cassandra is an angry, elliptical manifesto displaying many of the rhetorical and formal properties Landow has suggested identify Victorian "sage writing." Taking as his critical cue a genre largely of his own making, Landow tackles Cassandra's status as intellectual prose as a simply formalist concern, matching rhetorical strategies, and formal properties of the text--oppositional placement of the sage, use of grotesque symbols, discontinuous narrative structure--and emerges with yet another example of Victorian "sage writing" at the end of the process. Landow ignores, or perhaps sees as irrelevant, the ways in which this Victorian text was variously read, understood, and generally assessed by Victorian readers, leading him to overlook in his analysis of the text the question of Cassandra's audience and of who actually heard the voice of this female "sage." Claiming Cassandra as an aggressive reinterpretation of the sage, Landow fails to note that the text was never published in Nightingale's lifetime and so never circulated publicly as "sage writing"--a central property, if not a formal one--of all of those other Victorian texts that Landow has identified as sagely. Though Cassandra was included as part of the second volume of her Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth, this volume was privately printed in 186o and circulated only among friends. (1)

If genre theory is inadequate and perhaps misleading when used to approach Cassandra, what can we say about the text and the (unpublished) critique of domesticity that it contains? Carol Christ's work on the gendered valence of Victorian nonfiction prose points to some of the conditions that underlie Cassandra's publishing history by showing how extraordinarily difficult it was for women to publish in the places where much of Landow's "sage writing" appeared, and how rarely it was that Victorian women took up the public position of the intellectual, a masculine form of literary authority that was associated with "broad learning, original thought, and spiritual authority" (Christ, 25). Christ's exploration of the Victorian man of letters--that figure identified by Carlyle as the hero of Victorian culture--yields startling figures that map out the gendered contours of the periodical press as an industry. Charting women's access as writers to the periodical press, Christ notes that only about 13% of the 11,560 authors indexed in the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals are women. Of those approximately 1500 women, only eleven (a mere .001% of the authors listed in the Wellesley Index) wrote frequently enough for the periodical press to have earned a reasonable living writing the essays, reviews, and other forms of nonfiction prose that constitute the principal platform for intellectual writing (Christ, 21-22). Nightingale is not one of these eleven women, though she did write six articles in leading periodicals, ranging from "A Note on Pauperism" (1869) in Fraser's Magazine to "Our Indian Stewardship" (1883) in the Nineteenth Century. …

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