Monday, April 19, 2010


Wow! Has it really been February since my last Victorian read? Well, this latest one was a doozy. Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill is a book I picked up at random-I read last fall (& enjoyed) another of her books, We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals-which turned out to also be the right period! I guess I should have known the Crimean War was during Victoria's reign, but I'm not very knowledgeable about military history.

Nightingales was an engaging read. Not to be too much of a spoiler, but 3/4 of the action occurs before Florence Nightingale is 40 years old-though she lived to be 90, she spent 30 years as a near-recluse, suffering from what was probably chronic brucellosis. Gillian Gill wants her biography to be the biography of the Nightingale family, so there's a significant amount about her family history & her immediate family in the beginning of the book. Her immediately family-father WEN, mother Fanny, & sister Parthe-did play a large part in forming Florence's unique character. Florence Nightingale was a study in contradictions-passionate yet able to cut friends ruthlessly out of her life for a single infraction; energetic & hardworking for her cause, yet sickly & prone to depression;& as 'the Lady of the Lamp', she tirelessly toured hospital wars & charmed her patients, but then chose to remove herself from social life entirely in later years. Her story seems very Victorian in that, in many ways, her life's work almost didn't happen as circumstance, social conditions & family thwarted her at almost every turn. Nightingale should have married, taken care of her parents & plain, invalid sister, & lived out a quiet life in comfort. But she didn't, as we know.

Many pages-at least 5 chapters-are devoted to Nightingale's time in Crimea, which was actually just 21 months. These wartime experiences are the heart of the book, & Gill reaches to try & include Nightingale's family in this part of her story, but not very successfully. Her wrangles with the military, politicians, & other women sent to nurse (since nursing wasn't a profession yet, people's definitions of it varied greatly) are eye-openers. Alcohol is considered medicinal, some of the nurses are religious sisters bent on saving souls rather than healing bodies, & hygiene is not considered at all until Nightingale's arrival-soldiers lie in their own filth, covered by stinking linen & teeming with lice, in their hospital beds, before she takes over.

Nightingales' flaws lie in Gill's writing style. I found her style down to earth & engaging at times (she refers to Nightingale as 'Flo' for most of the book), but at other times choppy & confusing, as she introduces characters & plotlines in one section & then explains them fully 5 or 10 pages later, bouncing back & forth on the timeline she knows by heart but which the casual reader does not.
Despite its flaws, I would recommend this book as an introduction to the life of Florence Nightingale. It is witty, informative & you will not be bored!

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