Florence Nightingale & Lytton Strachey

Florence Nightingale was born on this day in 1820, and Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was published earlier this week — May 9, 1918. Nightingale is the focus of one of the four essays in Strachey’s influential book, which is credited with introducing a new form of biography, as intended. “Who does not know them,” Strachey wrote of the typical tome, “with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?” Aiming to unstuff the Victorian armchair, Strachey replaced the comfort of unchallenged fact and hero worship with something more critical:

Everyone knows the popular conception of Florence Nightingale. The saintly, self-sacrificing woman, the delicate maiden of high degree who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to succour the afflicted, the Lady with the Lamp, gliding through the horrors of the hospital at Scutari, and consecrating with the radiance of her goodness the dying soldier’s couch — the vision is familiar to all. But the truth was different….

Strachey “let a genie, gleeful and irreverent, out of the bottle” of biography writing, says Michael Holroyd, and most of Nightingale’s later biographers grant at least a degree of accuracy to his portrait of an autocratic, egotistical busybody, “a legend in her lifetime, and she knew it.” In Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon (2008), Mark Bostridge notes that Strachey’s Nightingale is a woman thoroughly at odds with herself:

In the scheme of Eminent Victorians, she embodies the Victorian spirit of humanitarianism, though paradoxically her own humanity is sacrificed in the process of pursuing humanitarian goals. According to Strachey, Nightingale had suppressed her genuinely erotic nature, transforming herself into a megalomaniac, who “would think of nothing but how to satisfy that singular craving of hers to be doing something.”

Suppressed eroticism was a favorite theme of Strachey’s, the following taken from a May 7, 1927, letter to a friend commenting on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, just published: “It really is most unfortunate that she rules out copulation — not the ghost of it visible — so that her presentation of things becomes little more…than an arabesque — an exquisite arabesque, of course.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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