Nightingales : The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale
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.
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September 12, 2005
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Excerpt from Nightingales by Gillian Gill
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.