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Imagine being a frost-bitten, ill-fed and ill-equipped soldier in the Crimea, 150 years ago. Officers suffer, too, for the army is stretched beyond capacity, so supplies and services are hard to obtain. Then a stout Jamaican woman arrives, with an attractive teenage daughter and a business partner. She erects an iron canteen store and supplies everything to lift the spirits and soothe the body: hot meals, wine, whisky, tonics and remedies.
Nothing is cheap in the Crimea, but Mother Seacole allows credit. Besides bringing creature comforts, as doctress and nurse she dispenses medicines to sick and wounded. During skirmishes and battles she tours the field hospitals. "A more tender or skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons," writes the Times correspondent. "I saw her at the assault on the Redan, at the Tchernaya, at the fall of Sebastopol laden, not with plunder, good old soul! but with wine, bandages and food".
Alexis Soyer, on his mission to reform army catering, was a frequent caller at Seacole's British Hotel, together with many "war tourists" coming to view the battlefields. When the conflict ended, however, Seacole was left with expensive and unsaleable stores. Back in London, she was obliged to file for bankruptcy. She came to court proudly wearing four medals awarded for kindness to the soldiery. Allowed two guineas a week to live on, she protested, "But I have got my washing to pay for". Military supporters rallied round, Punch printed an appeal, and Mary wrote or rather dictated her autobiography, the vividly conversational Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.
A minor celebrity of the time, Seacole returned after more than a century of oblivion to public attention as a pioneer nurse, "greatest Black Briton" and companion to Florence Nightingale on the primary-school curriculum. Penguin has re-issued her Wonderful Adventures (edited by Sara Salih; Penguin Classics, £9.99, 304pp) and, a couple of weeks ago, a hitherto unknown oil portrait went on show at the National Portrait Gallery, amid complaints that Seacole was being promoted to denigrate Nightingale.
They were not really competitors, but Nightingale's colleagues in London refused Seacole's application to join the nursing team, and the Lady with the Lamp loathed Mary. "I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole's advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question!)," she wrote. "Anyone who employs Mrs Seacole will introduce much kindness - also much drunkenness and improper conduct". Damningly, Florence also alleged that Mary's daughter Sally was fathered by a Colonel Bunbury.
Jane Robinson has gathered much new information for her enthusiastic biography. Many mysteries remain. Seacole's doctress mother kept a guesthouse in Kingston, but who was her Scottish soldier father? Under whose auspices did she make her first visits to Britain in the 1820s? More can surely be discovered about Edwin Seacole, who married Mary in 1836 and died in 1844.
Family tradition claims that his parents were Nelson and Emma, which cannot be true - but his middle names were Horatio Hamilton, and Mary inherited a ring given by the Admiral to his "godson".
Conjecture and fact tend to be confused in this book. The discussion of Caribbean history and racial attitudes is perfunctory. Mary's pre-Crimea exploits in Panama deserve proper investigation. Breezily endowing her heroine with emotions and motives, Robinson also gratuitously pours scorn on the "reams of academic ponderings" on her significance, which "obscure the real Mary Seacole". It's easy for a sympathetic biographer to believe she knows the "real" person; in this case, supposition sometimes outweighs evidence.
In her introduction to the very welcome Penguin edition, Sara Salih expertly analyses the rhetorical complexities of Seacole's book to explore the richness of her story. Traveller, entrepreneur, healer and woman of colour, Mary Seacole is a singular and fascinating figure, overstepping all conventional boundaries. Celebrations to mark the bicentenary of her birth (around 1805) start this month at St Thomas's Hospital, so long devoted to the memory of Miss Nightingale's nurses.
Jan Marsh's biography of D G Rossetti is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
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