Review of NIGHTINGALES: THE EXTRAORDINARY UPBRINGING AND CURIOUS LIFE OF MISS FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by GILLIAN GILL
What I enjoy the most about reading nonfiction is when you think you know about a topic but discover how little you actually knew. Most everyone has at the very least heard the name Florence Nightingale, and I even include young children in that bold phrase “most everyone.” She’s renowned for her service as a nurse, specifically for her work during the Crimean War, as well as for how her professional ambitions and exceptional work ethic helped the women’s movement at the time.
Of course, that’s not where Florence’s story begins nor where it ends. I didn’t know what an unusual childhood she had for her time, although it makes sense that being raised against the norm teaches one to challenge the norm. It becomes very clear that Florence wouldn’t have become the woman she did, nor have been able to accomplish all that she had, without the support of her family. That’s not to say that everyone was supportive about everything all the time, but Florence’s family was certainly unique in how much they indulged their daughter’s controversial life choices.
Florence’s father (known as W.E.N.) particularly stands out: as a very attentive, caring parent in an era where most wealthy families left their children to be raised by nursery maids and mothers stereotypically showed more concern for their children than fathers. Florence’s father not only doted on his children, but took his controversial parenting a step further by educating his daughters significantly beyond the norm. Whether we’re talking specific subjects, scope of overall education, depth of study, or means of gaining new knowledge (like reading), W.E.N. encouraged his daughters to defy expectations and pursue their intellectual interests.
Florence’s mother, “Fanny,” on the other hand, blamed much of Florence’s unbecoming behavior on an overactive mind pushed past the limits of good female health. Needless to say, Fanny wasn’t nearly as on board with W.E.N.’s ambitious educational curriculum for their daughters. Throughout Florence’s life, her mother expressed concern about Florence’s nontraditional choices, especially in terms of the unwanted social scrutiny those choices brought towards the entire family.
I found myself most affected by the portrayal of Florence’s relationship with her sister, Parthenope. From all descriptions, it sounds like Parthenope was a wonder of a woman tragically relegated to her sister’s shadow. She spoke many languages, studied literature and art and music, and understood politics, history, and philosophy better than most women of her time. However, Florence always outperformed older sister. It’s difficult to ever know a person’s heart, but from available information, it sounds like Parthenope—for the most part—did not resent her sister, even though Florence could be a very trying person to love. Instead Parthenope acted as another pillar of support for Florence, helping bring forth her younger sister’s potential.
Florence had several other influential family relationships, but so much more fascinating detail about her life lies beyond her blood relations. She had several suitors and came quite close to marrying a cousin; her ultimate rejection of said cousin caused a serious rift between the families, who had both been anticipating a happy union. She also had a nine-year courtship with a politician suitor before finally explicitly admitting, to him and herself, that she believed marriage would interfere with her nursing goals. Perhaps what most surprised me about Florence’s life was to learn that she was intermittently bedridden from the age of 37 to her death at 90. I never realized that a lot of her accomplishments in the field of nursing were achieved through letters and other writings delivered from her bedroom during periods of illness. I also found the discussion of petty work politics in the nursing field all too relatable. Before Florence could institute any of the most impactful changes she had in mind, she had to navigate a mundanely familiar sea of egos, personnel clashes, and bureaucracy.
Unless you’re already a Florence Nightingale expert, I’ll bet you don’t know her as well as you think you do. While she has always been an intriguing historical figure for me, her life and family history proved far more unusual than I anticipated. As someone living in an American culture focused on individualism, this book is an especially powerful record about the rippling benefits of challenging social norms.