Florence Nightingale was for a time the most famous woman in Britain–if not the world. We know her today primarily as a saintly character, perhaps as a heroic reformer of Britain’s health-care system. The reality is more involved and far more fascinating. In an utterly beguiling narrative that reads like the best Victorian fiction, acclaimed author Gillian Gill tells the story of this richly complex woman and her extraordinary family.
Born to an adoring wealthy, cultivated father and a mother whose conventional facade concealed a surprisingly unfettered intelligence, Florence was connected by kinship or friendship to the cream of Victorian England’s intellectual aristocracy. Though moving in a world of ease and privilege, the Nightingales came from solidly middle-class stock with deep traditions of hard work, natural curiosity, and moral clarity. So it should have come as no surprise to William Edward and Fanny Nightingale when their younger daughter, Florence, showed an early passion for helping others combined with a precocious bent for power.
Far more problematic was Florence’s inexplicable refusal to marry the well-connected Richard Monckton Milnes. As Gill so brilliantly shows, this matrimonial refusal was at once an act of religious dedication and a cry for her freedom–as a woman and as a leader. Florence’s later insistence on traveling to the Crimea at the height of war to tend to wounded soldiers was all but incendiary–especially for her older sister, Parthenope, whose frustration at being in the shade of her more charismatic sibling often led to illness.
Florence succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. But at the height of her celebrity, at the age of thirty-seven, she retired to her bedroom and remained there for most of the rest of her life, allowing visitors only by appointment.
Combining biography, politics, social history, and consummate storytelling, Nightingales is a dazzling portrait of an amazing woman, her difficult but loving family, and the high Victorian era they so perfectly epitomized. Beautifully written, witty, and irresistible, Nightingales is truly a tour de force.
From the Hardcover edition.
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About the Author
She lives in a suburb of Boston.
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
Entails and Abolitionists
To get the measure of our four Nightingales, we need to go back to the time before Victoria became Regina and find the source of their wealth, their class identity, their social confidence, their philanthropic energy, their political influence, and their neuroses. Let us see them first as part of an expansive, tumultuous, brilliant clan that in the course of the nineteenth century included, most prominently, Smiths, Shores, Nicholsons, Bonham Carters, Leigh Smiths, Cloughs, and Verneys. This clan in turn formed part of the “intellectual aristocracy” chronicled by Noel Annan, members, in Virginia Woolf’s words, of the “very communicative, literate, letter-writing, visiting, articulate, late nineteenth century world.” This small, closely knit group provided Britain with many of its scientists, theologians, philosophers, sociologists, journalists, university teachers, and writers.
Moving farther out in the circles, both Fanny and WEN’s families were by tradition Unitarian, or “Rationalist Christian,” and thereby hooked into an international network of believers, small in number but of great influence, especially in New England. Long after most clan members had ceased to attend Unitarian services, this Unitarian heritage was to shape the lives of male and female descendants. Then the Nightingales and their expanding clan were conspicuous members of that larger rising middle class in Britain that stood beneath the “dignified” classes of monarchy, aristocracy, and gentry and above the agricultural and industrial laborers. This was the “efficient” class, which, according to Walter Bagehot, who belonged to it, in fact ruled England and made it work.
Finally, this clan, living in the years when all the world accepted that Britannia ruled the waves, was deeply, self-consciously, triumphantly, but not narrowly, English.
So our story begins in the late eighteenth century in the Midlands, the industrial heartland of England, more specifically in the county of Derbyshire, where Nightingales began the move up the social ladder that in three generations brought them from mere local prominence to international fame.
Nightingale, “singer of the night,” began in Middle English as the name of a small, inconspicuous, and not uncommon bird with a singularly sweet song. Greek filomela, Persian bulbul, just plain American thrush, the nightingale has become the bird of poetry par excellence. Across cultures the nightingale is female, a brutally ravished heroine, a caged companion to a lonely Chinese emperor, the Philomel of melody whom Shakespeare summoned to lull Titania in the magic wood. The soldiers who met Florence Nightingale in the Crimea knew her affectionately as “the Bird,” and the romantic associations of her surname had their own small part to play in the legend crafted around the woman.
Given the traditional femaleness of nightingales, it seems fitting that WEN, Fanny, Parthenope, and Florence, our four protagonists, came to be Nightingales through the distaff side. In fact, Florence would have been plain, unromantic Miss Shore, whose mother was—oh horrors!—a Smith were it not for a piece of legal sleight of hand. In 1803, the eight-year-old William Edward Shore inherited the lands and estate of his great-uncle Peter Nightingale, squire of Lea Hall in Derbyshire. Peter Nightingale was the brother of young William Edward’s maternal grandmother, Anne Nightingale Evans, and the uncle of his mother, Mary Evans Shore. William Edward—the man variously known for sixty years to friends and family as Nightingale, Night, Uncle Night, and WEN (as I shall generally refer to him for convenience)—took the name of Nightingale only in 1815, when he turned twenty-one.
The boy inherited the estate through an entail. Entail provisions were ancient and complex strategies worked into English law whereby the capacity to sell or bequeath real property was restricted so that the family of the original owner kept control. The theory was that a piece of land belonged to a family and that a specific individual might hold it and enjoy its profits during his lifetime but could not sell it or control its disposition after his death. One common entail on the “heirs of the body” sought to ensure that, if an heiress died, her family property would pass to her own children or revert to her own family if she had no children, not to any subsequent wives and children her husband might have.
The primary purpose of land tenure law was to keep a property intact across the generations, and the time-honored way to do this was to give preference to a single male heir. If a man had six daughters and then a son, his real property must by law pass intact to the youngest child. If a man had several sons, the eldest inherited the property. In the worst-case scenario of a man with only daughters, however, his property was equally divided between the daughters. Entails on an heir-male prevented such divisions by dispossessing all the daughters in favor of some distant male relative. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen dramatized the dark shadow cast over the lives of Mrs. Bennet and her daughters by an entail on the heir-male that governed the Bennet estate. In the event of Mr. Bennet’s death, his wife and children would be cast into penury since his house and fortune would inexorably pass to his male cousin.
Entail provisions were often eccentric, and according to one contemporary witness, this was true of the Nightingale entail. That redoubtable lady Frances Coape Smith, together with her husband William Smith, M.P., visited her old friends the Shores in their Tapton home in 1804 and recorded the following entry in her travel journal: “William Shore, a lad of about ten years of age, has had 100,000 pounds left him by a Mr. Nightingale, with the whimsical prohibition of neither benefiting himself when under age, nor suffering his daughters to inherit. Should he not have a son, it goes to his sister.” Mrs. Smith had no way of knowing it in 1804, but the Nightingale entail would turn out to be of immediate importance to her own family. Not only would her daughter Fanny eventually marry the lucky William (Shore) Nightingale, but her son Sam would marry William’s sister and heir presumptive, Mary (Mai) Shore.
The medieval law of entail was one of the most arcane of legal specialties, and the further one ventures into the question of the Nightingale entail, the murkier things become. Frances Smith obviously did not understand it since she says the boy WEN inherited a hundred thousand pounds. An entail governs real property, not personal property, so presumably what Frances meant was that WEN inherited real property worth some one hundred thousand pounds. She says that WEN would be unable to benefit from the Nightingale money during his minority, but thereafter she implies that he could do anything he liked with it except leave it to his female children. But things were much more complicated than this. Much of the land surrounding the new house of Lea Hurst and all the Embley Park property were purchased by WEN, and yet they were subject to the Nightingale entail, and so passed on his death to his sister, Mai, and his brother-in-law, Sam Smith. On the other hand, the Nightingale land in Derbyshire proved to have valuable coal deposits, generating revenue that WEN was able to invest. Such investments were not real property, and it was increasingly unclear whether their profits fell under the terms of the Nightingale entail or formed part of WEN’s personal estate and could thus pass to his daughters. And so, because he failed to produce a son, WEN was throughout his life accountable to Sam Smith, as husband to Mai, heir under the entail but not a legal entity under the doctrine of “feme covert,” and father and trustee to Shore, who, as the only male child, would inherit from his mother.
One thing is clear. Fanny Nightingale and her two daughters were in rather the same position as Jane Austen’s fictional Bennet women. They lived in the shadow of an entail, and this created stresses. Most specifically, they all three knew that on WEN’s death they would lose their home. The large, expensive, and greatly beloved estates of Embley and Lea Hurst would pass to the Sam Smiths. Property issues smaller than this have been the bane of families throughout history. As we shall see, the Shore-Smith-Nightingale family showed some greatness of spirit in the considerate and civilized way they handled the problems of the Nightingale entail.
When William Edward inherited from great-uncle Peter Nightingale in 1803, his grandmother Anne Nightingale Evans was still alive—she died only in 1815—as was his mother, Mary Evans Shore. If my own small son were to inherit a fortune from my uncle, I should probably harbor some bitterness at being passed over. But married women in England around 1800 were obliged to accept the fact that the law hated to trust women with money, so Mrs. Shore is unlikely to have felt any resentment about her son’s windfall. In fact, she had the satisfaction of knowing that the Nightingale money would come to her son if she should die young and her husband start a new family. Furthermore, with his only son rich in his own right, William Shore the elder, himself a wealthy man from a wealthy family, would be able to leave his widow more than comfortably off and find a large dowry for his daughter. Mai, as she was always called to distinguish her from her mother, would have excellent marriage prospects. That was about as much as a woman could rationally hope for in England at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The Shores, the family of WEN’s father, and the Evanses, the family of his maternal grandfather, made their homes and their livings in the Midlands. This region is only a couple of hundred miles from London and yet, in the view of England’s oligarchy from the days of Chaucer well into the nineteenth century, a barbarous place, though not, of course, quite as bad as Scotland. Like many northerners, the Shores and their kin engaged in what the Victorians liked to disparage as “trade”—that is to say, commerce, industrial production, and finance. Their moral tone was high, their thrift and diligence exemplary; they made and mined and banked and became rich. But in custom, and in that crucial class marker in England, language, to an educated English southerner, they were at best provincial, at worst uncouth.
Originally, the Nightingales came out of the same class as the Shores since the origin of the Nightingale fortune was lead. In Derbyshire, the mining of that traditionally ignoble metal goes back many centuries, and a certain Peter Nightingale first came to local prominence as the owner of a lead mine in Wirksworth, Derbyshire. Records of the Nightingales’ commercial transactions apparently go back to the seventeenth century, and in the early eighteenth century, they managed to move up the social ladder when the first Peter purchased the Manor of Lea, across the valley from Wirksworth, and became master of Lea Hall. Peter Nightingale had only two children, a daughter, Anne, and a son, Peter, and the son of course inherited all the real property. The second Peter, who never married and thus produced no children who could inherit his real property, moved the family up several more notches. He was born in 1736 and earned the epithet “Mad Peter.” Local legend has it that the second Peter was a squire straight out of the novels of Fielding and Sterne, a hard-riding, hard-drinking bachelor.
Peter Nightingale Jr.’s madness did not extend to money. When he was not taking stone walls head-on or falling down dead drunk, Mad Peter seems to have had his wits about him. Far from dissipating his father’s fortune, he established a lead-smelting plant on his Lea property, built a mill for cotton spinning on the Lea Brook, and found the money to acquire the adjacent manors of Cromford and Wakebridge. He also modernized Lea Hall, giving it a pillared façade in the new Georgian style. This was more in keeping with the social status of a man who served for a time as high sheriff of Derbyshire. The cotton mill in Lea did not prosper and so, in what proved to be a canny decision, Nightingale turned it over to John Smedley, who changed the Lea mill from cotton to wool and soon began to make a profit. Smedley’s factory is still in business today, the oldest mill in continuous production in England. The imposing mill buildings still crowd the narrow sidewalks of Lea. A bridge bearing the company’s arms extends over the road like an industrial Bridge of Sighs.
In 1776 Peter Nightingale sold his Cromford property to Richard Arkwright, and this was to prove a most significant deal, not only for the fortunes of the Nightingale family but for the history of Derbyshire. Arkwright, a pioneer in the installation and exploitation of machines for spinning thread, harnessed the Bonsall Brook and the Cromford Sough, a local lead mine drain, and started spinning. Cotton imported from America’s slave South was spun and woven into cloth, priced to appeal to ordinary citizens all over the world, then shipped by Britain’s merchant navy, and marketed by British merchants. England became rich and slavery, far from withering away as the American founding fathers had piously assumed, brought the slave-owning states not only prosperity but also international legitimacy. All of this intense industrial activity was occurring in what amounted to Peter Nightingale’s backyard.
Arkwright was a competent engineer, but his real claim to fame was as an industrial organizer. He pioneered the factory system that not only revolutionized textile manufacture all over the world well into the twentieth century but offered a general model for concentrated, large-scale mass production units. In Cromford, Arkwright and his son built accommodation for their growing workforce on the site and houses for weavers in the village, with a third story to accommodate the looms. Cromford, hitherto a small community of sheep-farming and lead-mining families strung out along a rocky, narrow mountain valley, developed into the prototype of the factory complex. Versions of Cromford were established in Germany and the United States, and Americans from small textile towns in the South would feel at home in the village even today. By 1800 the Lea Brook was harnessed and polluted, the air in the deep valleys was thick with particulates from the lead smelting, and lead had made the ground bare in patches—“bellanded,” in the local term.
The Arkwright mills still dominate Cromford today. They are at the heart of the Peak District, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of England, a mecca for hikers, rock climbers, and mountain bikers. But when Parthe and Flo Nightingale spent their summers at their father’s new house, Lea Hurst, the local industry was not tourism. “Dark satanic mills,” in the words of William Blake’s famous diatribe “Jerusalem,” had in all truth spread over the “green and pleasant land” of Derbyshire. The lead mines and smelters, the coal mines, Smedley’s woolen mill at Lea, and Arkwright’s great cotton mills in Cromford were the source of the Nightingales’ wealth and social prominence.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Florence Nightingale grew up in a privileged and progressive milieu at the time the British Empire was reaching the zenith of its power and when Christian evangelicalism was changing the whole character of society. What resemblances do you see between British society in Nightingale’s day and American society now?
2. In the course of Florence’s youth, as a result of her father’s wealth and her mother’s social skills, the Nightingale family rose to become one of the legendary “ten thousand” families who ruled England and its far-flung empire. In her long fight to improve the health and quality of life for her fellow citizens, how much do you think Nightingale was impeded and how much was she helped by her family’s social prominence?
3. Florence Nightingale was brought up in a deeply religious family and felt very close to God, even as a small child. She wrote in her private notes that on three different occasions she heard the voice of God calling her to His service. Discuss the importance of Nightingale’s sense of divine mission and the character of her spirituality.
4. Florence Nightingale had a deep but difficult relationship with her only sibling, Parthenope Nightingale Verney. What did the sisters have in common? Why were they so often at odds?
5. Florence Nightingale never really forgave her parents, especially her mother, Fanny Nightingale, for preventing her from undertaking full-time work in hospitals when she was in her twenties. Do you blame the Nightingale parents?
6. Florence Nightingale’s relationships with other women were rarely smooth. Both in letters and in her unpublished work Suggestions for Thought,she frequently said how much she despised women of her own class. Talk about her relationships with her cousins Hilary Bonham Carter and Marianne Nicholson, her aunt Mai Shore Smith, and her friends Mary Clarke Mohl and Selina Bracebridge.
7. What were the key qualities that allowed Florence to succeed when she went out to Scutari in Turkey during the Crimean War?
8. The work of the women nurses during the Crimean War was a turning point in the history of the nursing profession. What was the work of women nurses like before Nightingale’s era, and why was it so difficult to launch nursing as a profession for women of all classes?
9. Florence Nightingale was revered and even adored by many who worked with her in the army hospitals, yet she also aroused bitter hostility. Even Nightingale’s admirers have agreed that her relationships with other nurses while at Scutari and in the Crimean peninsula were often bitterly contentious. The bitter tirades against Nightingale by other Crimean War nurses, notably Mother Frances Bridgeman, Mary Stanley, Martha Clough, and Elizabeth Davis, have always provided the ammunition for those who attack Nightingale as a power-hungry, self-publicizing harpy. What was it about Florence Nightingale that made her so controversial?
10. Florence Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War made her a legend in her lifetime. How did she react to her fame? How did she use it?
11. In 1857, when she was thirty-eight, Florence Nightingale’s health collapsed. For decades she was a bedridden invalid, admitting only chosen people to see her, one on one, and she never again had anything approaching a normal social life. Some have diagnosed Nightingale as suffering from an organic disease, most probably chronic brucellosis. Others have diagnosed her as a hysteric and hypochondriac who used physical symptoms to get her way. Recently, a suggestion has been made that she suffered from bipolar disease. What is your diagnosis of Nightingale’s illness, and what do you think she gained and lost from her fifty-three years of invalidism?
12. Do you think Florence Nightingale was a heroine? Do you think her life is still meaningful for us today? Do you like her, or just admire her?
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