Mark Bostridge's Florence Nightingale.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 24 2008 6:30 AM

Florence Nightingale's Fever

Diagnose this driven nurse at your own risk.

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It's such a story, this life, and it comes in three oddly shaped acts. For a long time, much too long, Nightingale struggled against her family: its upper-middle-class complacency, its conventionality. Music, needlework, drawing-room chatter, the management of servants—these were the tasks for unmarried daughters. And in the 1840s, just when the young Florence fixed on nursing as her vocation, it was a deeply despised form of labor, recently made grotesque (though hilarious) in the person of Dickens' Sairey Gamp (Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844): the illiterate, inebriated fantasist, the prattling night thief with an imaginary friend. The genteel Nightingales could hardly imagine, and certainly could not abide, their respectable daughter stepping down the rungs of class to take up the mantle of nursing. Florence could imagine almost nothing else. The first long chapter in her life is a story of demand and resistance, Florence intent to become a nurse and her family, especially her sister (Parthenope) and mother (Fanny), refusing to unbend. They discouraged her from visiting hospitals; they prohibited her training; they called her back to the drawing room. But she was unsubdued and unreconciled. The struggle continued for years, until it became clear that the misery of the family would only worsen if Florence were not somehow accommodated.

Chapter 2 then appears in a flash. In the spring of 1853, she at last began work in London as superintendent in an institution tending "elderly gentlewomen." By the fall of 1854 she was in Turkey, leading a team of nurses at the war hospital at Scutari. In February 1855, the Illustrated London News portrayed her as the lady with a lamp, and by the end of the year her fame was an avalanche, a torrent, an inundation. But then, soon after her return from the war in 1856—when her "saintliness" was an antidote to the embarrassment of an ill-managed war and when her reputation was rivaling the queen's—the third chapter began. Nightingale refused the apparatus of fame. She kept her distance from the family, which now exulted in her success. ("They like my glory. … Is there anything else they like in me?") Physical collapse overcame her; she surrendered interest in her own practice of nursing; she retreated to the Burlington Hotel, and there, as at various other addresses, she lived mainly as an invalid for the rest of her long life.

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Bostridge's account is such a good one because it breaks the grip of simplicity. Why did we ever want to keep Nightingale in a box? Why was it so important to make her saintly? And why did it feel amusing to call her a hypocrite? There were all those early idolaters, those mid-Victorians who named their children "Florence," who subscribed to the Nightingale Fund, who wrote letters to thank her and poems to celebrate her, and who made her an icon of all that was selfless in womanhood. Then there were the mockers and insinuators of later decades, Lytton Strachey above all, who in Eminent Victorians saw her as twisted into the shape of her obsessions. But thanks to Bostridge—to his unbroken nontendentious curiosity—we can have a Nightingale of our own, a mixed life, too complicated for veneration or satire.

The most memorable and indigestible thing about Florence Nightingale is finally the ferocity of her self-determination. ("No one has ever done anything great or useful by listening to the voices from without"—"I can bray so loud.") No will could be more concentrated or vehement or relentless. There in the service of others—always writing and working for the public good—she never broke free from self-assertion and self-righteousness, but also never from a clawing self-laceration. Her deepest motives? Do you really want to know them? Will we be any clearer—about Nightingale or our own call to service—if we settle questions of her desire, her ambition, her charity, her cruelty, her energy? Precisely by not settling such questions, Bostridge has told the story well, so well that we know we'll never be finished with Nightingale, not even when all the Dude Ranch Nurses have gone home to mama.

Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.