EVER YOURS, FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE: Selected Letters by Martha & Bea Nergaard--Eds. Vicinus


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Florence Nightingale's letters--fascinating, opinionated, witty, artful, tormented--were, for most of her life, the only means by which she imposed her tyrannical will upon a world that she thought she was chosen to amend. They reveal the tortured inner life of a warped but inspired personality alternating between feelings of worthlessness and omnipotence; her egotistical obsession with her sense of calling, with organization, statistics, and uniforms; her frustration with those who did not conform to her narrow ideals of righteousness; and her contempt for middle-class women, for the ineptitude of those she depended on (exemplified in her response to her sister for sending to the wintery climate of the Crimea a lace bonnet and silk dress when she had requested bear grease to protect her skin). She was quarrelsome and mercurial, a social anomaly, abandoning at age 33 the comforts of upper-middle-class life to become a nurse; and, after only two years of service in the military hospitals during the misguided Crimean War (1854-56), becoming a legend. She spent the last 54 years of her life as an emotional invalid leading a revolution in British nursing education and military reform largely from the bed to which she confined herself, refusing to see anyone, even her family, except by appointments, which were rare. Unfortunately, extended editorial intrusions turn this otherwise absorbing volume of letters into a Victorian epistolary biography: a bland and pointlessly defensive narrative displaces Nightingale's colorful, personable, emotionally charged letters and thereby belittles or misreads their significance, as many of her correspondents did during her lifetime. To the editors--Vicinus (English & Women's Studies/Univ. of Michigan) and Nergaard, a psychotherapist--Nightingale was the ""engine that drove the machinery of sanitation""; to herself, she was destined, chosen, a martyr to order, cleanliness, rectitude, professionalism, and a life of action. Her life, her very sense of being, was defined by her mortal struggle against her family, the women of her class, government bureaucracy, the greed, indifference, and theoretical detachment of those in power, and her own compelling death wish. For all their commentary, the editors fail to identify those allusions and quotations that account for their subject's formidable intellectual background, and to account for the influence of Florence Nightingale herself.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1990
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press