VIKING £25 (647pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Florence Nightingale, By Mark Bostridge

Nursing her grievances

Why another doorstep biography of Florence Nightingale? Do we not already know enough about the mellifluously-named nursing pioneer? Who became a national idol for her work during the Crimean War, a fierce opponent of the War Office and the founder of modern hospital practice? Who looked like a demure Victorian lady but acted like a matron-who-must-be-obeyed?

We have known of the idol's feet of clay ever since Lytton Strachey unpicked her reputation in Eminent Victorians. We are hazily aware that her bitter attacks on the imprisonment of young ladies in idle family pursuits are part of feminist history. We cannot be interested in the ramblings by which she, like her contemporaries, strove to reconcile the Christian God with terrible suffering. However, it is a long time since the last full-scale account of the Lady with the Lamp (as she hated to be known).

She was named after the city of her birth – luckier than her sister Parthenope, born in Naples – to well-to-do parents who resisted her do-gooding ambitions. Her cousin Barbara Smith, by contrast, had an allowance which enabled her to establish a ragged school, run the first campaign for female suffrage, and co-found Girton College. But the Smiths were illegitimate, so the Nightingales did not mix.

Florence grew from a contrary teenager, with intense fantasies of herself as a leading social reformer, into a frustrated young woman, blaming others for the obstacles in her path, and a mature woman who demanded absolute support. "She not only drops me," noted her aunt, "but imagination has been at work, abusing me". She hated rivals, calling Mary Seacole a woman of bad character who promoted drunkenness, when brandy was one her own chief medicines – but did apparently contribute to the fund saving Seacole from bankruptcy in 1857.

She could be spiteful and selfish. Disagreements, according to Benjamin Jowett, produced a "terrible hissing" like "water on red-hot iron". Sickness, aggravated by "overwork in the cause of Florence Nightingale", and even deaths, were unforgivable betrayals.

But her successes outweighed all failings. With a very small team, she brought order, clean laundry and better catering to the infernal barrack hospital at Scutari, despite the military, who saw "the Bird" as a meddler. Back home, she gave up direct action in favour of political persuasion, backed by facts, figures and unladylike verdicts on opponents. Her targets grew in scope: re-organisation of Army medical services; nurse training at St Thomas's; village sanitation and land tenancy in India; maternity wards and workhouse infirmaries in Britain.

The Blue Books multiplied – parliamentary commissions into every perceived problem. Nightingale was empowered by the Victorian passion for statistics, which she demanded be collected. As every campaign group knows, unrelenting pressure is the key. It came from Nightingale's bedroom, whither she retreated, suffering from what has recently been identified as brucellosis, probably from infected goat's milk. The symptoms are recurrent fever with spinal inflammation.

From bed, she wrote incessantly: letters, memoranda, instructions, diaries, drafts, idiosyncratic moral philosophy. Over 14000 letters survive and her published writings will fill 16 volumes. Her epistolary style, Mark Bostridge observes, combines open impatience and ruthless urgency with layers of courtesy and humility, all suddenly swept up into melodrama and exaggeration.

As he also notes, her biographer is in danger of being buried under avalanches of material. The papers found everywhere at her death, inside piano stools, under sofas, behind coal-scuttles, are also obfuscatory, fogging the nature of her achievements. Historians have debated these, and Bostridge offers a balanced synthesis of previous scholarship, insisting that her strengths lay in management not medicine.

She held to miasmic theories that disease was generated from foul air even after the identification of pathogens and, by later standards, her nursing practice was sound but limited, to routine, fresh air and cleanliness – although she would have felt vindicated by our return to the last of these in the battle against superbugs. For the rest, she assisted reform, and outshone others owing to her fame.

On personal matters, Bostridge argues that Flo's mother was lovingly bewildered, rather than socially snobbish. The sublimation of passions into intense professional loves and hates is unprobed, and no judgement is made about Jowett's alleged proposal, when both were in their fifties.

Overall, the picture painted in such greater detail is not dissimilar from Lytton Strachey's vivid sketch. In the end, the legend is historically more significant than the life. Many women and men who have made comparable contributions to public and national affairs have been rewarded with no more than a DNB entry. As the centenary of her death in 1910 approaches, Nightingale, one of the few Victorians with continuing name recognition, is in a league of her own.

Jan Marsh's biography of DG Rossetti is published by Phoenix

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence