Florence Nightingale's was one of the more remarkable lives of the century. She reformed the British hospital system, founded the profession of nursing, and instituted many reforms in sanitation.
Her parents were William Edward and Fanny Nightingale--he something of a dilettante, she a society woman. They were very wealthy; at one point Fanny rejected as a permanent home a house because it had only fifteen bedrooms.Their first child was Parthenope, the second Florence, the brighter and more remarkable, and the object of her sister's often possessive attachment.
Florence's early memories included fear that she was a monster, unlike other people (7). Self-conscious and intense, she came to dislike the social life around her. Her father spent much time educating his daughter. Her extended family was large; at age 14 she calculated that she had 27 first cousins and two dozen aunts and uncles by blood and marriage, a source of endless correspondence and discussion.
At age seventeen she believed she had received a call from God, the first of four (the second came before she went to the Hospital for Poor Gentlewomen in Harley Street, the third before she left for the Crimea in 1854, and the fourth after the death of Sidney Herbert, her partner in reform, in 1861), but this first voice did not suggest any definite action. Florence left to travel on the Continent with her family, and after her return she spent fourteen years of frustration before she began an active life, of which five years were spent in determing to be a nurse (then considered an unsuitable career for a gentlewoman, much less a woman of Florence's social standing), and nine years in conflict before her family (mostly her mother and sister) permitted her to leave them.
She became very fond of her cousin Marianne Nicholson, whose brother loved Florence; also she was cared for very lovingly when sick by her Aunt Mai, to whom she became attached. During this period she studied mathematics with intensity, a subject which she felt gave her "certainty," and a pursuit which Fanny had at first forbidden. Florence was distressed by the poverty around her, and in 1842 (44), decided to devote herself to caring for the sick in hospitals, then places of filth and stench. Her parents opposed, and for this she at first blamed herself (59), and became depressed and eager for death. Still she started to study for her new future in hopes her parents would relent, fell into trances from frustration, and feared she was going insane. During this period, too, she rejected an offer of marriage by the poet Richard Monckton Milnes (77).
A trip to Egypt failed to reduce her mental torments, and at age 30 she wrote in her diary (77-80) powerful passages of desire for some release in action; at last she visited Kaiserswerth, Germany for two weeks to inspect the hospital, and immediately afterwards felt well again and wrote "Cassandra," orignally intended as part of a longer work. She continued to struggle with her family and experienced illness (probably psychological) rather than rebel (86, 102). Even when her parents were willing to see her leave, Parthenope was unassuageable. In the end Florence left to visit European hopsitals, then became the superintendent of the Institution for Sick Gentlewomen, a role which she performed with enormous vigor, improving medical standards, and attending to the private comfort of patients.
In late 1853 England declared war on Russia, and a cholera epidemic broke out in the Crimea as a result of the complete absence of preparation for wartime conditions on the part of the British government. Conditions in the camps were horrible (132), and were publicized in England. Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of War, invited Florence Nightingale to go to the Crimea in command of a party of nurses, and she departed with 40 chosen nurses, all gentlewomen; female nurses had never been sent to government hospitals before, and shortages were acute, with no water, little sleeping space, and few blankets and medicines as the wounded flooded in. She equipped wards, ordered supplies, in part from her own private funds, and adjudicated quarrels among Catholic and Presbyterian nurses. In January 1855 twelve thousand men were in the hospital, eleven thousand soldiers in camp! Finally a government commission was ordered to investigate hospital conditions in the Crimea (204-206). Florence worked herself to exhaustion, and when Aunt Mai came out to help her, she burst into tears when she saw Nightingale's weakened condition.
"The Lady with the Lamp" was both very self-sacrificing and domineering of character; many who interacted with her recalled her unwillingness to compromise and her disregard of the personal needs of her subordinates. In later life she devoted herself unremittingly to the improvement of sanitary conditions in British hospitals in Great Britain and India and to setting high standards for the profession of nursing she had helped establish. That someone so firm-minded should have spent years in neurasthenic illness before acting on her convictions and desires is a testimony to the strong sanctions against public action by Victorian women, no matter how relatively privileged they might be in other ways.
"Cassandra" (written 1852 at the age of 32)
From what does the title derive? Do you think it is an appropriate title for its subject?
(It was originally written as a dramatic monologue to form part of a longer work, then rather oddly appended to her theological and ethical treatise, Suggestions for Thought to the Artisans of England.)
Who seems to be her audience (or her audiences)? Is this always clear?
What are stylistic features of this tract? What is gained by the use of questions and direct address to the audience? Does the speaker's relationship to the audience resemble that of the narrators of other prose works of the period?
What is its genre? Would you call it an essay, a dramatic rendering, or something of a mixed-genre work?
Were there other Victorian autobiographical mixed genre works of the time?
At what stage of her life was this written? Was its author's fate indeed that of the classical Cassandra? Do you think the writing of this monologue may have helped Nightingale decide on her future course of life?
Is the monologue's style appropriate to her topic? Is the narrative viewpoint always consistent?
From which works are her epigraphs taken? What is revealed by the fact that she quotes Emily Bronte's "The Prisoner"?
Is the essay organized in a progressive sequence?
Against what does the speaker of Cassandra rebel?
--male repression 26
--passionate restlessness 28
--deprivation of time and education 30
--superficial social life 33
--constant interrruptions 43
--emptiness of contemporary marriage 44
--constraints of courtship 46
--economic basis for marriage 48
Which of her plaints seem to be class based? Especially relevant to those in her age group?
Is she aware of any parallels to her sense of oppression?
To what earlier reformers or political figures does she allude? (Chisholm, Fry, Howard) What do these have in common?
What seems her attitude to contemporary religion? Are her positions orthodoxly Anglican, or does she adapt her religious views for personal ends?
Did others of the century adapt the notion of a female Christ? Why might this have seemed a reasonable association?
Can you see parallels between "Cassandra"'s world view and that of Carlyle, Tennyson or Arnold? (31, 36) That of Elizabeth Barrett Browning? With which writers of the period would she have shared a sense of the emptiness and hopelessess of the present time, and the need for useful work?
Which Victorian essayists, autobiographers and novelists were concerned with aspects of the problems she addresses?
To which historical/religious figures does she appeal as an ideal, and why do you think these were chosen? (Christ, Socrates, Howard)
How would you characterize the conclusion? (a mourning and a cry, 49) What is the significance of the scene of the dying woman? (55) Why do you think this is given in the third person, and what is the effect of this displacement?
How would you describe the general tone of this treatise? Does it contain elements of humor?
For what purposes was this work written, and who was its intended audience? Do you consider it to have been effective for these ends?
Did these ends include the desire to change contemporary attitudes toward women's proper roles, and if so, do you think her arguments would have been viewed as relevant?