This essay examines the death, and the life, of Florence Nightingale, the great nursing heroine of the Crimean War. An eminent Victorian, Nightingale passed away at the ripe old age of ninety in 1910, at a time when Britain was witnessing great internal strife and facing looming international tension. By that moment, the Crimean War was a thing of the distant past. Even so, Nightingale’s death served as a national tonic. It allowed mourners to rekindle the myths of Nightingale’s lifetime that had unified a ravaged nation in the wake of the Crimean War. Nightingale’s most important reforming efforts, which included nursing education, army improvement, and sanitary reform, both in Britain and in India, would postdate the Crimean War. However, the image of a young Nightingale ministering to the troops in the Crimea would remain the dominant one, not just in her life, but at her death as well. As it assesses the death and life of Nightingale, this essay focuses on two moments of celebrity and mythmaking in the long career of the heroine: the making of her legend in the Crimea and its resurrection at her death. It follows earlier literature, both generated during the nineteenth century and written by those who study it, establishing Nightingale as the avatar of Victorian womanhood. Accordingly, it seeks to understand Nightingale’s passing as a belated death knell to the Victorian age.
In mid-August 1910, telegraph wires the world over were abuzz with startling news: “Florence Nightingale is dead” (Florence Nightingale: OM 3). So came the announcement of the passing of the heroine of the nineteenth century’s Crimean War (1854-56), who had gone on to improve sanitary conditions in India, reform the War Office, and transform the training of nurses in Britain and across the world. (On the Crimean War, see also Stefanie Markovits, “On the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade.”) If twentieth-century readers were shocked at the news about Nightingale’s demise, it was not so much because they were surprised that a great reformer and national heroine of the Victorian era had passed away at the age of ninety. Rather, it was for many an “astonishing revelation” that she was still alive (Bostridge xix). (See Fig. 1 for a photograph of Nightingale.)
Nightingale had enjoyed great celebrity at the time of the mid-nineteenth century’s Crimean War, a conflict fought between 1854 and 1856 that pitted a coalition including Great Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia against the Russian Empire. It was there that she was christened “The Lady with the Lamp,” a title that would endure throughout her life and after her death. Nightingale gained the affections of the soldiers in the Crimea and the public on the home front when she brought a band of thirty-eight nurses to tend to the sick at Scutari Hospital, just outside of Constantinople. Nightingale may have risen to prominence, and even to secular sainthood, during the War. Her unsought fame came with heavy costs, taking a great toll on her health. There were many moments during the Crimean conflict when Nightingale seemed perilously close to death. In fact, the obituaries written on the occasion of her actual passing were not the first ones. Concerned about Nightingale’s well-being in 1856, at the end of the Crimean War, none other than Harriet Martineau drafted an obituary for Nightingale. There, she proclaimed that Nightingale had, at the relatively young age of 36, achieved the “’highest lot ever fulfilled by woman,’” with the possible exception of sovereigns (qtd. in Poovey 164).
Nightingale certainly was in a precarious state at the end of the Crimean War. Her health was so compromised by its demands that she retired from public view, working instead from the privacy of her home. In the face of Nightingale’s poor health at the end of the War, her eschewal of public engagement on her return home, and her long life well after the conflict, it should not come as a surprise that her arguably belated passing was met with confusion. That said, this shock came accompanied by a great outpouring of feeling across London, Britain, and the English-speaking world. Local and national papers eulogized Nightingale; old Crimean soldiers and young nurses memorialized her; worldly metropolitans and local villagers remembered her. Tributes in print were followed by ceremonies in London and York. In public and in private, and in gestures large and small, England mourned this Victorian heroine more than half a century after her work in the Crimea.
If Nightingale had exited the public stage decades earlier and if many Britons thought her dead already, what, in sum, was the object of this exercise of national mourning in 1910? Historian Raphael Samuel once noted that Nightingale was a staple of Britain’s heritage, a protagonist in what he has called its Island Story (214). During her lifetime, critics and biographers have argued, Florence Nightingale united the nation. In her death, I hope to demonstrate, she would once again do the same. In death as in life, Nightingale captured the hearts and minds of the nation not just for the deeds that she accomplished, but also for the myths that surrounded her. When they acquainted a new generation with Nightingale’s exploits, those who remembered her at her passing sustained the myths that had been produced in her lifetime. The most notable of these, of course, is that Nightingale was the sole and single founder of modern nursing, or at least modern nursing education. (On nursing, see also Arlene Young, “The Rise of the Victorian Working Lady: The New-Style Nurse and the Typewriter, 1840-1900.″) Mourners also resurrected supporting myths, including the notion that the Crimea was the apex of Nightingale’s accomplishments and that the Lady with the Lamp was the epitome of Victorian womanhood. Indeed, Nightingale vied with Queen Victoria for prominence as the feminine exemplar of the nineteenth century. A relic and a remnant, she outlived Queen Victoria by a decade. When they said farewell to Nightingale, mourners far and wide bid farewell to the Victorian world order.
Like many contributions to the Britain, Representation and Nineteenth Century-History project, this essay addresses the constructed nature of the time and date stamps that historicist scholars use to understand the past (see for example Mary Favret; Herbert F. Tucker). It joins these essays too in noting the limited capacity of dates themselves to capture the ways our predecessors, like ourselves, encountered history. Nightingale passed away at a point that we can mark on a timeline: 13 August 1910. When they commemorated her death, mourners looked back on Nightingale’s long career. In particular, they focused on the first great public act of Nightingale’s life—her nursing leadership during the Crimean War, waged over half a century before. This is despite the fact that Nightingale made her lasting contributions to statistics, sanitation, and nursing education in the years following the War. These acts did not lend themselves to dramatization in the ways that Nightingale’s Crimean heroics had. Death, in truth, brought Nightingale newfound publicity. We would thus do well to understand Nightingale’s life’s course as a series of two public acts, the first leading up to the Crimean War and the second surrounding her death. This essay accordingly proceeds in two sections as it addresses the death, and the life, of Florence Nightingale.
Act One: The Life of Florence Nightingale
Who was the figure that captured the attention of a nation at war in the autumn of 1854? The reading public came to know Nightingale through newspaper articles, poetic tributes, and early hagiographies. The young woman who stole the hearts of England in the first difficult winter of the Crimean War was born in 1820, in the Italian city from which her parents derived her name. Florence Nightingale was the daughter of learned and liberal parents; her father, “an exceptionally cultured and broadminded man,” to borrow the words of biographer Mark Bostridge (3), exposed his daughter Florence and her sister Parthenope to learned and powerful people. Her mother, a descendant from an antislavery, dissenting family, taught her daughters an ethic of care. The environs of family homes at Lea Hurst in Derbyshire and Embley in Hampshire offered ideal atmospheres to cultivate a noblesse oblige that involved visiting poorer neighbors. These childhood households also provided the stage for storied occasions in Nightingale’s early life, which told of her nursing her dolls and wounded animals. As early as 1914, Nightingale’s first official biographer, Edward Tyas Cook, urged fans not to prophesy singular greatness from common girlhood penchants (see Bostridge 45). That necessarily said, such stories of feminine service and good breeding would turn Nightingale into a particularly agreeable and compelling figure for the British public during the mid-nineteenth century’s Crimean conflict.
Nightingale may have participated in what was understood as the common girlhood play of nurturing. Yet she stood out in expressing an early and abiding resolve to devote herself to the activity we have come to know as nursing. In her youth and young adulthood, Nightingale became increasingly intent on this course. As the story goes, she heard a divine call at the age of seventeen. The idea of being called by God may have softened some of the iconoclasm of Nightingale’s choice, if only a little, at a moment when it was uncommon, and even apostasy, for well-born Englishwomen to devote themselves to nursing (Poovey 167). At the time when Nightingale pledged herself to this vocation, it was not widely regarded as a respectable activity in England: quite the opposite, in fact. It was associated instead in the public mind with figures like the fictional Sairey Gamp, intemperate and incompetent, as rendered by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). It would be a misrepresentation, however, to say that there was no tradition of female nursing at the moment when a young Nightingale dreamed of making this her vocation. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Anglican sisterhood nursing sought, for instance, to meet the needs of the sick in London and elsewhere by providing “skilled, conscientious” care in hospitals through the nascent Ward System (Helmstadter and Godden 8; Mumm, 25). Contrary to popular understanding, then, Nightingale was “not alone in her concerns but was merely the most conspicuous of a large number of nineteenth-century women who devoted their lives, with as much self-assertion as self-sacrifice” to the cause (Moore x).
Although sisterhood nursing was gaining a foothold in Britain in Nightingale’s youth, she looked to the Continent for her training before returning to England to make her mark. This is an interesting, if unexamined irony in the career of a quintessentially English heroine. Nightingale was made, in more ways than one, on the European continent. An avid traveler, she spent time in Greece and Egypt. She sought out training in France and Germany, where she would learn the art of nursing from Catholic and Protestant orders (Holmes 4). Most influential was her stay at the Deaconess Institute at Kaiserswerth, which also shaped the philosophy of Elizabeth Fry, a predecessor to Nightingale and a Quaker humanitarian known for her work in England’s prisons. Nightingale’s stay at Kaiserswerth would shape her understanding of ward training as efficient and disciplined and of nursing demeanor as “quiet” and “serious” (Helmstadter and Godden 109).
Nightingale’s travels on the continent brought her into contact with Sidney Herbert, the eventual Secretary of War, who would send her off to Scutari during the Crimean conflict. Their meeting reminds us that Nightingale’s voyage to the Crimea was no sudden occurrence. Rather, it was the work of many years of personal diplomacy and assiduous study. This aspect of her past complicates our received history of Nightingale as a nurturing heroine and domestic archetype (Poovey 170). In fact, it was not uncommon, in her early years, for Nightingale to take on—or to be slotted into—a decidedly masculine role. In a family without sons, she was known as “the young squire” (Bostridge 25). And, as she defied that family’s wishes in traveling in pursuit of her vocation, Nightingale referred to herself, in a letter to her mother, as “‘your vagabond son’” (qtd. in Bostridge 160).
This self-titled vagabond would return home to England in the years leading up to the Crimean War. Nightingale brought her continental education back to London where she served as the superintendent of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London’s Upper Harley Street (Helmstadter and Godden 67). When Nightingale took up the post in the summer of 1853, the Ottoman Empire’s declaration of war against Russia was imminent. England and France would join in to protect the Ottoman Empire against Russian aggression in 1854. Although the allied forces were victorious, the conflict is known in Britain for the “blunder” of the War Office and the Government (Markovits, “Crimean War”). Stumbles by generals, by the commissariat, and by the medical corps marred the first few months of the War. These blunders led both to national embarrassment and to loss of life. If the War is known for these mishaps, it is also known for the production of a new set of national heroes, including the cavalry soldiers who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade, the rank and file privates who fought so bravely, and, most notably, Nightingale herself (Markovits, “Crimean War”). Her entry onto the national scene at a moment that “failed to produce” a “Nelson or Wellington” was particularly timely (Bostridge 263). Indeed, two years before, in 1852, the nation had buried a great hero of the Napoleonic moment: the Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo. (See Sean Grass, “On the Death of the Duke of Wellington, 14 September 1852.″)
The story of Nightingale’s arrival at Scutari, on the eastern bank of the Bosporus, is much mythologized. How did Nightingale find her way to the Crimea? It is said that she and Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of War whom Nightingale had met in Rome, both came upon the idea. It is also rumored that letters suggesting as much crossed in the mail. As Mary Poovey has noted, this story provided not just legitimacy for Nightingale, but also inevitability for her mission (167). The correspondence prompted Nightingale to gather a “little band of thirty-eight nurses” (Florence Nightingale: OM 9). Hand-picked by Nightingale, the “little band” was, in truth, a multifarious lot, composed from the working and middle classes, and “even two minor aristocrats” (Helmstadter and Godden 89). Not among them was the celebrated Jamaican healer Mary Seacole, whom Nightingale deemed too boisterous and unruly to join what she imagined, sometimes mistakenly, to be a disciplined and orderly cohort. Seacole made her way to the Crimea all the same; recently, she has rivaled Nightingale for attention in Britain, with a statue erected in her honor in the summer of 2016 on the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital.
At Scutari, Nightingale’s nurses—the first of eight parties to arrive from England—ministered to the wounded soldiers and sick men who were suffering acutely from cholera (Helmstadter and Godden 85). (On cholera, see Pamela K. Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England.”) Their actual work is often misunderstood. It was long thought that Nightingale and her band singlehandedly decreased the mortality rates at Scutari Hospital, where soldiers were dying at alarming rates. This popular legend has, since, been unsettled by scholars of nursing and biographers of Nightingale. That necessarily said, Nightingale brought what would become her trademark efficiency and organization to Scutari, though she was often at odds with the Army Medical Corps and even with some of her own nurses, not to mention with the Catholic sisterhoods working there. If the actual accomplishments of Nightingale and her nurses have been misunderstood, so too has their day-to-day work. Nursing was, as Bostridge points out, a “fluid” endeavor at the time when they arrived at Scutari (87). Nurses in the Crimea regularly attended to “laundry, needlework, cooking, and cleaning,” many rarely tending to patients (88). Nightingale herself had more interest in organizing the hospital than in ministering to the men. And she had little patience, in fact, for the middle-class women who pottered about ministering to the soldiers and making beef teas. She may have performed bedside rounds, but Nightingale was far more concerned to transform systems than to tend to individuals. The discovery of this preference was, as Bostridge has noted, a great disappointment to novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, one contemporary admirer who contributed to the Nightingale legend. A part of the Nightingale family circle, Gaskell had stayed at Lea Hurst, the family home, while writing North and South (1854), a novel that, Stefanie Markovits argues, shows up traces of the Crimean War (The Crimean War 88).
Gaskell was just one of many contributors to the collective myth of Florence Nightingale. William Howard Russell, the “Special Correspondent” for the Times, did his part to shape public conceptions of the Crimea’s heroine. Poets on both sides of the Atlantic wrote tributes to Nightingale. Julia Ward Howe’s “To Florence Nightingale” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Santa Filomena” (1857) contributed to the making of Nightingale as a secular saint. But Nightingale was not just an exemplar for the learned classes. Street ballads and doggerel attested that she was “’the heroine of the cottage, the workshop, and the alleys’” (qtd. in Bostridge 261). Tributes extended well beyond the written word as well. Children, steamships, and racehorses bore her name; “waxwork dolls” and “Staffordshire figurines” represented her likeness (Poovey 198).
It is, perhaps, to the realm of visual culture that the molding of Nightingale as a heroine owes the most. The Crimean War was the first war to be covered amply by Britain’s illustrated press. Nightingale gained popularity thanks to an image in the Illustrated London News that pictured her walking through the wards at Scutari with a Turkish lamp (fig. 2). The image did much to domesticate a stern and forbidding woman who expressed a notable dislike for portrait photography at the height of its popularity. It influenced, too, the celebrated rendering by Jerry Barrett, whose painting, The Mission of Mercy (1856-58), hangs now in London’s National Portrait Gallery (fig. 3). It is from this painting that the image of a gentle and soft Nightingale, rather than a severe and domineering one, was taken for the £10 note that circulated in Britain between 1975 and 1994. The portrait has enjoyed popular appeal and great endurance. Yet, nursing historians such as Judith Moore have lamented its predominance. This “familiar and static image of Florence Nightingale” as emblazoned in the public consciousness, Moore and others argue, “conceals even more than it embodies” (x).
A good deal of this image’s longevity can be attributed to Nightingale’s capacity, in the course of the Crimean War and in its aftermath, to unite a fractured and frustrated populace. Whether accurately or not, Nightingale epitomized middle-class industry in the face of aristocratic failing, female nurture in the face of battlefield carnage, and purposeful action in the face of military blunder. Members of all classes recognized as much, and so sought to offer Nightingale her just rewards as the Crimean War drew to a close. A national subscription thus raised £50,000 in her honor.
The subscription was to provide the centerpiece of Nightingale’s ongoing work. The Crimean War is often understood as the apogee of Nightingale’s career, the height of “Nightingale mania” (Bostridge xxi). But, to use the words of Nightingale’s first official biographer, it was “not the end of her active life. In a sense it was the beginning” (Cook xxvi). The War spurred Nightingale’s reforming career. Nightingale had traveled back to Britain from the East incognito, using the alias of Miss Smith. From that time, she eschewed public appearances. In the decades after the Crimean War, Nightingale made good on the hopes of the Subscription Fund. Its direct use was in the foundation of St. Thomas’ Training School, the first secular training ground for nurses in Great Britain. It would provide a template for training across Britain, the empire, and the globe. In fact, by the end of the century, the “Nightingale Nurse,” “respectable and proper” had “emerged as the standard model throughout the English speaking world” (Helmstadter and Godden 2).
During her later years, Nightingale’s influence extended well beyond St. Thomas’ Hospital and even beyond nursing. She was a paragon of liberal-minded reform. Nightingale vigorously and forcefully engaged in the reworking of the War Office, often sparring with foes—and friends—from her Crimean days. She sought to improve sanitary conditions in India, too. For these causes, she wrote prolifically. Shelves of publications fill library bookcases; thousands of letters fill England’s archives. Nightingale was also an innovative statistician, developing her well-known rose, or coxcomb, graphs to communicate to the medical community and the broader public the extent of deaths by disease in the East (fig. 4). Alongside these pursuits, Nightingale engaged in discussions about spiritual life and about women’s role. Eventually, she would be claimed by the feminist movement, particularly on the 1928 occasion of the publication of Ray Strachey’s The Cause, well after Nightingale’s 1910 death. Nightingale was, at once, a proper lady and a woman warrior. The malleability that contributed so greatly to her appeal in her lifetime would thus continue after her passing.
Act Two: The Death of Florence Nightingale
Nightingale’s life has been amply studied. The same cannot be said of her death, though Bostridge recently gave it sharp consideration in his 2008 biography. Nightingale may have died in retirement from the public sphere, but her passing was an eminently social occasion. Like the Crimean War, Nightingale’s death offered an occasion to lionize and mythologize this important Victorian heroine. Nurses and veterans, journalists and hagiographers, cosmopolitans, and villagers all participated in marking Nightingale’s passing in the summer of 1910. As they did so, they rekindled the myths of Nightingale’s lifetime. They cast the Crimean War as the apogee of her achievements; they credited her with the birth of the profession of nursing; and they praised her as the truest expression of English womanhood. As they did so, they bid farewell not only to a cherished heroine but also to a bygone age.
Nightingale may have outlived Queen Victoria by nine years, but their denouements coincide in striking ways. Never one for public engagement after the Crimean War, Nightingale scarcely left her bedroom in London’s South Street after 1896. It is fitting to imagine her addressing veterans of the Charge of the Light Brigade, another group of heroes from the Crimean War, through Edison’s phonograph in 1890. In those early years of recorded sound, she must have seemed to the aging veterans to be something of a spectral presence—a beloved voice from beyond. Not only a recluse, Nightingale was, herself, a living relic in those last decades of her life. Nightingale’s last immediate relative, her dedicated sister, Parthenope, died twenty years earlier, in 1890. Nightingale’s circle of friends and colleagues associated with the Crimean War and her early work had passed away as well. Perhaps the most difficult loss to sustain was that of her intellectual acumen. Acute and exacting, her mind had left her as well. Feeble and bedridden, the elderly Nightingale was a shade of her former self. Even so, the elderly Nightingale did not want for honors and accolades. Important birthdays came with public recognition. As Nightingale’s life drew to a close, she received the Freedom of the City of London, meeting the honor by asking that the funds be instead spent on charity. In her final year, she attained the Order of Merit, enjoying the distinction of being the first woman to hold the status, something not lost on feminist contemporaries who noted it in their correspondence.
As these instances suggest, Nightingale’s legend seemed to grow during her long convalescence. At no time, though, did her absence make the hearts of the nation and the world grow fonder than on the occasion of her passing. Newspapers across the globe reported that “The Lady with the Lamp” was no more, having expired from heart failure at the ripe old age of ninety on Saturday 13 August at her London home. It was, in the understanding of the Victorians, a good death, or at least a variant thereof (Jalland). Nightingale passed at home and around family, though not in the company of a husband or children (Pringle). Public emotion at the moment of Nightingale’s death, at least as expressed in the newspapers and in tributes, was strong. Her loss produced a collective outpouring of “sorrow” and “pride” (Florence Nightingale: OM 3). As it imagined the effect of her passing, the Times surmised that the “news of her death” would “be received” with “feelings of profound regret” (“Death of Miss Nightingale”). As it imagined the magnitude of the loss across the Atlantic, the New York Times recalled the sentiments of Harriet Martineau, expressed some sixty years before: “Not even the death of a royal personage could have called forth more universal expressions of regret and tributes of love and affection,” the newspaper declared (“Miss Nightingale Dies”).
In his book Weeping Britannia, historian Thomas Dixon has recently assessed tears as a “liquid social bond” that could bind together a nation whose emotional workings have been commonly understood as driven by the stiff upper lip (8). The capacity of collective mourning to unite a divided populace was not lost on those who marked Nightingale’s passing in print. They wrote against the backdrop of rising tensions in England, the Empire, and Europe. In England, militancy among several populations was rearing its head. In the Empire, longstanding ties were being unsettled by the rise of nationalist movements. And in Europe, diplomatic tensions were threatening an epoch of relative peace. As The Observer noted in 1910, the deceased Nightingale had the much-needed capacity to bring “men and women of all classes” together (“Florence Nightingale”). These abilities extended beyond the borders of England, to the “British Empire” (Florence Nightingale: OM 3); to “the English race all the world over” (Newman 3), and as the Manchester Guardian reported, to “all lands where her name has been spoken among men” (“Death of Miss Florence Nightingale”).
Such adoration could only accrue to someone of a singular status. Nightingale was, according to the Times, a “unique figure in history,” distinctive in her force and selflessness. “No heroine in the world’s history has left behind a more illustrious or more honored name,” it declared. She exhibited an “almost superhuman power of swaying persons and events as she saw fit” (“Leader: Florence Nightingale”). “No monarch ever reigned as Florence Nightingale reigned,” wrote a suffragist admirer, who also described Nightingale as a “beacon of light for ages yet to come” (Holmes 20; 2). Admirers compared her to Joan of Arc. She had about her “a halo almost of sanctity” (Billington).
The gendered stakes of adoration recalled the efforts of those who feminized the Lady with the Lamp in the mid-nineteenth century. Nightingale had used gender as a tool of self-presentation in the nineteenth century to great effect. Her admirers did the same, if not always as wittingly. In the twentieth century, many devotees molded Nightingale’s persona along similar lines. If this sort of maneuvering was predictable, it was also expedient. Nightingale’s death coincided with the hardening of the suffrage cause during the early-twentieth century. Many feminists adopted Nightingale in the wake of her passing. One admirer noted that she was “a great statesman, a great administrator and sanitarian, a strong-minded, firm-handed genius” (Holmes 2). The North of England Women’s Suffrage Society additionally sent flowers to Nightingale’s grave.
In this climate, reinvigorating the notion of Nightingale as the apotheosis of Victorian womanhood had great appeal, for both suffragists and their opponents. This strategy would have been attractive to suffragists who wanted to extend women’s influence from the domestic sphere, on the one hand, and to skeptics who wanted to confine it in the home, on the other. Nightingale’s “ideological work” extended in two directions: she was a paragon of domestic virtue whose accomplishments suggested the necessity of women in public; yet she exploited traditional gender norms to secure her place there (Bostridge 263; Poovey 4, 168). Citing her “absolute unselfishness,” the Times anointed Nightingale the “noblest woman worker of the Victorian era” (“Leader: Florence Nightingale”). Admirers noted that she displayed the gift of extending the “warm and kindly influences of woman” into public life (Billington). Many upheld Nightingale as the epitome of selflessness and generosity. The Manchester Guardian tribute observed that Nightingale had made “all her gifts subordinate to a very definite purpose of good to humankind” (“Death of Miss Florence Nightingale”). Others made a link explicitly to religiosity. During a memorial service held at York Minster on the day of Nightingale’s burial, covered in The Observer, the Bishop of Beverley described her as an exemplar of “true, practical Christianity,” the “ideal of what a nurse could be” and the closest approximation of the “ideal Christian woman” (“The Funeral of Florence Nightingale”). The notion that Nightingale represented the highest of Christian womanhood was a common refrain at the moment of her passing. She was attuned to the “individual needs and sufferings” of all around her (A. L). Finally, while she exemplified Victorian womanhood in her tastes and tendencies, Nightingale also displayed the gift of extending the “warm and kindly influences of woman” into public life (Billington).
When they remembered her, those who celebrated Nightingale as the avatar of true womanhood and as a saint-like subject offered up stories of her life. One former pupil of the Nightingale School, A. L. Pringle, gladly noted that Nightingale’s passing brought her life and “her great historical achievement home afresh to the general consciousness” (1). Young readers could learn about Nightingale’s exploits, while older readers could remember them. The Nightingale that was rendered in the wake of the old reformer’s passing hearkened back to the heroine of earlier days. Time and again, newspapers and hagiographies rehearsed the stories of an English girl born to wealth and privilege in Italy in 1820. She combined acuity for language and learning with sympathy for the sick and the meek. These capacities would be realized to great effect in the Crimean War, the defining moment in Nightingale’s life memorialized for its great heroism and staggering sacrifice. Nightingale’s task had been “nothing less than to save the British army,” as the Manchester Guardian reported. The cause made Nightingale into a martyr for the nation. As mourners understood it at the time, Nightingale had “saved the British army, but she had permanently ruined her health” (“Death of Miss Florence Nightingale”). In this and other renderings, the Crimean War assumed its place as the dramatic climax of Nightingale’s career, though it was followed by worthy reforms and important innovations, most notably, the opening of St. Thomas’ Training School, which appeared, in these accounts, as the redemption of nursing, and often its very invention. As these narratives show, the myths that circulated around Nightingale during her lifetime resurfaced in her death.
The public memorial to Nightingale played its own part in rekindling the myths of Nightingale’s youth, as it gave the nurses of St. Thomas’ Hospital and the veterans of the Crimea pride of place. In a fitting tribute, they were accompanied by representatives of the Indian Medical Service and by Chelsea Pensioners who had fought in past wars. Nightingale had not wished for a public funeral, but, in response to demand, the War Office planned a memorial service of monumental proportion at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The grand occasion allowed an audience of 4,000 to remember Nightingale in the metropolis on Saturday 20 August 1910, just a week after the great heroine passed away. St. Paul’s played host to upwards of one thousand nurses trained thanks to the innovations of Nightingale. As they remembered the Lady with the Lamp, the Manchester Guardian reported that those assembled sang the hymns that had been among her favorites, including “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” (“Miss Florence Nightingale”).
Nightingale would have found the private burial that followed more suited to her own tastes. Fittingly, her body was set to rest simply and quietly in the country churchyard at East Wellow, where her parents lay and where she had worshipped as a girl. As if to honor both Nightingale’s and the nation’s wishes, the funeral occurred on the very day of the London memorial service, with the plain wooden casket draped with a simple white cashmere shawl making its way via train from the metropolis of London to the village of Romsey. From there, a hearse flanked by representatives from regiments that had fought in the Crimea transported Nightingale through the quiet streets, where, The Observer reported, “blinds were lowered in the plain brick streets” and the “shutters were blackened.” (See fig. 5.) Afterwards, it would make its way across “some of the loneliest roads in England.” It was a small, quiet, and intimate affair, with “country-folk” who had gathered for the purpose of “mourning, as few in London could do, a familiar friend.” It was an occasion, moreover, that reignited the ties wrought in Nightingale’s youth as it recalled not just a life, but a world, that was no more. In the hearts of those farmers and cottagers who had assembled, Nightingale did not “belong to the nation,” but rather to them (“The Funeral of Florence Nightingale” 7). There was one among them who claimed a special relationship above the others. This was Mr. Kneller, the Crimean Veteran of Romsey, who had fought with the 23rd Regiment of Foot Soldiers. Kneller could not recall whether or not he had ever spoken with Nightingale, but he remembered Nightingale in her 1850s incarnation all the same. She had been “like a spark in the embers of his dwindling mind the apparition of the lady who came softly along the beds at light carrying in her hand a lantern” (“The Funeral of Florence Nightingale”). Such was the power, and the longevity, of Nightingale’s legend.
Coda: On Eras and Endings
Known and unknown, Nightingale and Kneller were both relics by the year 1910. The Crimean War was a thing of the distant past. Since then, the Cardwell Reforms (1870-1881) had sought to make the army more efficient, meritocratic, and reliable. This reformed army was tested, several times, most notably in the South African War of 1899 to 1902. The poor state of the men’s health on that occasion made it clear that there was still work to do to make the Army battle ready. This was, of course, a looming necessity in 1910. Military men, diplomats, and civilians were all too aware of the tensions that would send Europe and then the world into the global conflagration of World War I. There was, too, plenty of uncertainty in the Empire, with nationalist unrest brimming from Ireland to India (Burton). The mood at home was equally anxious, with militancy rising among women in the suffrage movement and workers in labor unions. As a young woman, Nightingale had served as a salve during the Crimean War. After her death, she managed to do the same.
Historian George Dangerfield once understood the years between 1910 and 1914 under the rubric of the Strange Death of Liberal England. In 1935, his immediate concern, in assessing revolts among the women, the workers, the Irish, and even the Lords, was to understand the decline of the Liberal Party. But, in seeking to do as much, Dangerfield chronicled a decisive departure from the nineteenth century, its values, and its orthodoxies. Looking back on the very moment that Dangerfield chronicled, Virginia Woolf expressed a similar sentiment in 1924 from the perspective of art and culture: “on or about December 1910,” she declared, “human character changed.” Woolf was not thinking about party politics; nor was she considering Nightingale. Her concern, instead, was literary character. Woolf castigated the Edwardians and the Georgians for their failure to depict character effectively and suitably for their moments. Victorian character she had understood as “clearly defined and coherent” (Stevic). Woolf yearned, similarly, for literary characters that might effectively represent her own age.
As if to anticipate Woolf and Dangerfield, the author of a pamphlet published in 1910 had suggested that the year of her passing was a watershed in history. This mourner joined in with so many others in sensing that Nightingale’s death marked not just the end of her own life that had been so robust, but also the termination of an epoch that was “gone by for ever” (Florence Nightingale: OM 7). Nightingale’s life had overlapped with the reigns of five monarchs. Having spent her girlhood under George IV and William IV and performed her life’s work during the sixty-four years of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), Nightingale lived her dotage as a subject of Edward VII and George V. As obituaries penned in anticipation of her death and afterward suggested, Nightingale rivaled royals for public affection and vied with Victoria as the exemplar of the age.
When did the Victorian age end? If we can take certainty from a date, we see that it came to a close on 22 January 1901, when the 81-year-old Queen passed away. This year marked the inauguration of the Edwardian era, when a decidedly modern monarch came to rule Britain and the Empire. But we might understand the epoch as shorter, or as longer, perhaps. In the early years of the academic enterprise of Victorian Studies, Maurice Reckitt argued that the age might best be understood as coming to a close in the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, that is, in 1887. The years after 1887 were powered by electricity, while those beforehand had been run by steam (Reckitt). More recently, Martin Hewitt, one of the epoch’s most vigorous defenders, has argued in the face of skepticism that the idea of Victorian Britain does make sense. He frames his defense not upon the recognizable integrity of a monarch’s rule, but instead around the discernable development of a set of “assemblages” (“Why” 397). Though Hewitt did not state as much, we might understand Nightingale at the heart of almost all of these elements of the economy, society, government, technology, and culture. Subsequently, Hewitt would divide the epoch into four discernible sub-periods, with its denouement around 1900. The end was marked not only by the South African War, but also by the death of Victoria. To borrow Hewitt’s words, this latter occasion unleashed “almost apoplectic nostalgia” as Britons remembered the beloved Queen (“Introduction” 40). A similar sense would arise ten years later, as another exemplary daughter of the nineteenth century passed away. Once again, perhaps reluctantly and belatedly, mourners said farewell to an emblem and an epoch.
In the facts of her life and in the myths that surrounded them, Nightingale was, without a doubt, an avatar of the age and a piece of common currency. Lytton Strachey, that trenchant critic of the Victorians, recognized as much. In his debunking efforts in the collective biography, Eminent Victorians (1918), where he studied the Lady with the Lamp alongside three other worthies of the nineteenth century, Strachey claimed, “Everyone knows the popular conception of Florence Nightingale” (135). Her life coincided with Victoria’s rise and end. Her myths were central to nineteenth-century Britain. Perhaps we might equally call the time of Victoria the age of Nightingale.
published September 2016
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
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I wish to thank Dino Franco Felluga and the two readers of this essay, whose critiques transformed my understanding of Nightingale as well as this piece. I am grateful too for the excellent editing by the BRANCH team.