Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A Noble Type of Good Heroic Womanhood": The Popular Rhetoric of Florence Nightingale's Enshrinement

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A Noble Type of Good Heroic Womanhood": The Popular Rhetoric of Florence Nightingale's Enshrinement

Article excerpt

As a national figure, Florence Nightingale underwent an extended process of canonization through Victorian rhetoric because she did not comply with gender'ed expectations about women and women's work. In order to render her anomalous ideas and powerful career more culturally acceptable, the press actively shaped images of her in art and literature. Sainthood provided a paradigm through which Nightingale's exceptional behavior could be accounted for without threatening her widely proclaimed position at the pinnacle of British womanhood.

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As a tribute to Florence Nightingale, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned verses in 1857 that allude to her as a spirit of womanhood, a "lady with a lamp" (21) moving through "dreary hospitals of paid" (18). Wherever her shadow falls, it is reverently kissed by the soldier / sufferer on which it alights. Longfellow concludes that in England's "great history," Nightingale will be enshrined as "a noble type of good / Heroic womanhood" (39-41). And indeed, by the time he wrote these words, she was already thus enshrined in Victorian Britain's public discourse. Longfellows "Santa Filomena," (1) places Nightingale in the company of women formally enshrined as saints--a position Rosemary Hartill describes as "sentimentalized and sanitized into a pillar of conventional Victorian respectability" (13). Eyewitnesses to her reform of army hospitals during the Crimean War enshrined Nightingale in the rhetoric of letters, reports, and imagery in a way that highlights issues of gender, religion, and nationalism. Indeed, this rhetoric echoes in printed discourse throughout her lifetime and results in both her figurative and literal canonization. Despite iconoclastic accounts of her life composed after her death, in the twentieth century Nightingale officially attained the sainthood that she both avoided and exploited in the nineteenth, for the Canadian Church has put her name in its calendar of saints, and the American Episcopalians and the Church of England have pondered following suit (Calabria 152-153).

The figure of Florence Nightingale illustrates the precarious balance that cultural constructions of saintly womanhood must work hard (perhaps too hard) to maintain. As a Victorian public figure with a well-chronicled existence, she demands that we explicate the peculiar tales (and sometimes outright lies) told about women's lives to establish the terms and categories that contain them. Though venerated in her own lifetime, Nightingale was subsequently vilified in a way that indicates the fate of the holy woman who dares to step outside "womanly norms." The fiction of Nightingales's absolute saintliness could not be maintained in the face of the evidence she herself provided in her writing. In works such as "Cassandra" (1852) and Suggestions for Thought to the Searchers after Truth among the Artizans of England (1860), Nightingale announced her own permanent and very strong dissatisfaction with the state of Victorian womanhood, her refusal to conform to established norms, and her independent theological ideas. Her views on these topics made it necessary that she undergo a certain amount of "saint-making"--in this case, a process by which problematic or resistant female behavior is rhetorically domesticated in print and paint. Over time, sheer repetition of her saintly legend in these powerful media ensured her enshrinement in Victorian cultural discourse.

Almost from her first mention in The London Times Nightingale was clearly being groomed for cultural sainthood. (2) The Times coverage of the Crimean War is a hodgepodge of journalists' dispatches along with letters, eyewitness accounts, and official reports. Within this reporting, Florence Nightingale gradually emerges from obscurity and is transformed by public acclamation into an heroic individual. The Index to The Times during the war years is a significant illustration of this process: Nightingale, at first merely a subcategory of the war, becomes her own category heading in 1854 and remains so for three years. …

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