Florence Nightingale: Rebel in a Skirt
This post also appears at www.dashingduchesses.com
I find it very interesting that recent discussions on Dear Author and Romance Writers of America (See “Rocking the Mistorical, by the lovely Duchess Valerie Bowman) have focused on the concept of the “mistorical” and whether historical romance today does due diligence to the time periods about which we write. The usual argument against the accuracy of many historical romances is that the heroines some authors create are unbelievable because “upper class women of the day didn’t do that.” That, of course, being things like refusing to marry highly eligible young men. Or defying one’s parents expectations.
Florence Nightingale, however, did do that. All of that. Which is why I was thrilled to pull her out and dust her off for today’s blog with the Duchesses.
This English miss was born in 1820 and died in 1910, which 1) makes her a proper Victorian, and 2) places her squarely in the realm of my kind of historical. She is my favorite sort of heroine, one who was wealthy, well-read, and well-spoken. Better characterized as poised than pretty, she was sought out by her social peers, although over the course of her life she left a trail of frenemies due to her sometimes fractious nature. But perhaps most important, she was able to change the world, simply by being true to herself.
There have been numerous biographies written about Florence Nightingale and almost everyone knows she was a nurse, but few know what she actually did to achieve such long-reaching fame. One of the things she is best known for is revolutionizing–and making socially acceptable– the concept of middle and upper class women as skilled nurses rather than just family helpmates. It was apparently all right at the time to sponge-bathe one’s obnoxious brother, but God forbid you help an ailing stranger. Florence had other ideas.
Pushed by a strong sense of social rebellion and no small degree of religious fervor, she defied her family’s expectations and sought out her own medical training before taking herself into battle to confront and correct the horrors of the British military’s medical system. She brought order and comfort to the chaos of the British field hospitals during the Crimean War, where prior to her arrival more men were dying from disease than bullets. She was a tireless advocate for cleanliness and saved thousands of soldiers’s lives simply by bringing soap and water into the equation. During the Crimean War, she became known as “The Lady with the Lamp” because she would make the rounds late at night, checking on the needs of patients. When she returned to England, sick herself and no doubt as mentally scarred as any infantryman, she didn’t do so quietly. She came back a national hero, but instead of resting on her laurels, she used that fame to start the first nursing school in England and train other passionate women to carry on her work.
Ironically, these tremendous feats (which were carried out primarily during her thirties) could almost be marked as the middle-to-end of Florence’s social rebellion. Earlier in her life, before she embraced nursing with such passion, Florence was already known as a dissident. She wrote in her journal about her passionate belief that women should have the freedom and right to work, just like men. She turned down numerous proposals of marriage from excellent matches (although she strung several of them along quite merrily) because she was afraid of giving up this freedom. And she spoke her mind freely, often alienating friends and relatives in the process. But a mind like Florence’s refused to be silenced.
When historical authors write about great heroines, we often reach for strong-willed characters like Florence. Why do we gravitate toward women like her, if she was the exception rather than the rule? Because she was real, and because the characters we model after her serve as a bright, visceral reminders that women like Florence Nightingale helped pave the rutted road to equality. We write about women like her because conformity might have been more common during the time period in which Florence lived, but it was also deadly dull. A historical romance shouldn’t be only about historical accuracy. It should also be about extraordinary lives, and I am compelled to tell such stories even if they seem outrageous, and even if they make some people uncomfortable. Clearly the spirit that moved Florence to defy convention existed in other women of the time, just as we have our own contemporary rebels (Angelina Jolie, anyone?) to look to. In fact, I think Ms. Jolie-almost-Pitt would play Florence Nightingale to brilliance.
Now if only someone would get on with the screenplay already.
Those interested in an more enlightened review of Miss Nightingale’s life can read about her in “Nightingales” by Gillian Gill.