The Crimean War’s beloved “Lady With the Lamp” appears as the magnetic center of this multi-generational family saga filled with public achievement and private love-hate relationships.
As a pioneer of reform and greater autonomy for women, Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) drew inspiration from the sprawling Nightingale/Shore/Smith clan of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her grandfather, William Smith, successfully battled in Parliament to abolish slavery. Her father, William Edward Nightingale (nicknamed WEN), educated Florence and older sister Parthenope himself. Fanny, WEN’s wife, created an indispensable social network among the rich and powerful with a steady stream of parties. Under these influences, Florence grew into a brilliant, vibrant, yet moody woman. Especially unsettling, she rejected a suitor in favor of a celibate lifestyle that would allow her to pursue her calling as a nurse. Parthenope, a chronic invalid throughout much of her adult life, fell into such hysteria over her sister’s decision that she almost wrecked the family. Despite volumes of Nightingale family correspondence, significant aspects of Florence’s life remain enigmatic, including her reclusiveness following a debilitating illness in 1857. Gill, author of several scholarly books on women’s lives, is careful not to push far beyond this massive documentary evidence; she dismisses, for instance, speculation that Nightingale was a lesbian. The leisurely paced narrative occasionally bogs down in extraneous detail, but it masterfully illuminates crucial background elements, including the family’s Unitarian tradition of political radicalism and the inheritance laws that made suitable matrimonial matches a necessity for the Nightingale girls. In contrast to Lytton Strachey’s acid portrait of in Eminent Victorians, Gill notes Nightingale’s faults (e.g., self-pity and a tendency to suck the life out of those who aided her) without losing sight of her intelligence, energy, compassion, and courage in taking on the male army medical establishment in the Crimean War.
An incisive examination of one loving but divided family’s grappling with power, privilege, passion, and philanthropy in Victorian Britain.