Hidden letters shed light on the lady of the lamp

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The Independent Culture
An extraordinary cache of letters which reveal the clear-sighted and lively girl who became famous as Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimea, has emerged following the death of a distant relative.

Previously unpublished, the letters from the family archive include several written by Florence when she was as young as six. They give girlish accounts of court cases and illnesses but show little hint of the vocation she would develop in later life.

One, written to her Aunt Patty when Florence was aged six or seven, gives a wide-eyed but unsentimental account of seeing a man sentenced to transportation in 1827 - a penalty likely to result in his death.

"We have been twice to court, and once to the theatre for the first time at Winchester," it says. "In mr Borough's court, the criminal's court, we heard Snelgrove's trial, the man who lives at the farm. He has stolen beans of mr Eastted, of whom he is the servant. he was transported for 4 years. We also went to the cathedral ..."

The letter, estimated at up to pounds 3,000, continues: "Mr Brent is dead, and poor Maria is in great grief, and very ill. There are such a quantitty [sic] of apples, currants and raspberries here."

Florence does, however, reveal an ability to detect malingerers which must have stood her in good stead as a nurse. "Sir Charles Ibbetson has been here with his daughter Laura, aged 5, and his son Frederick, aged 7, and their governess, Miss Salisbury," she confides to her Aunt Patty. "Laura's ancles are so weak, that she is not allowed to walk about, though she can."

Florence's precision of character is also evident in a letter, estimated at up to pounds 3,000, to her cousin Hilary Bonham Carter.

"Miss Christie (who perhaps you do not know) sends her love, & deisres [sic] to be remembered to Miss Heath... Aunt Patty says, that if she had not been ill, she would have written to you, for she loves you very much... Miss Christie says that Miss Heath is your governess, but I say that Aunt Patty is. ..."

Later letters come from Florence in the Crimea. One estimated at up to pounds 600, asks a relation to tell a Reverend Mother that "poor Sister Winifred died on Saturday of Cholera after a few hours at the general hospital here - that everything was done that could be done. "Revd Mother can guess what pain this has given me, because I cannot pretend to say that, when a Superior chooses to bring thirteen women, where there is only room and occupation for not more than four, against all authority and advice but that of one RC priest, we consider such a death ensuing as a matyrdom but [rather] as a useless sacrifice."

The letters form a small part of the Clough Nightingale archive, which has been consigned to Phillips for auction on 13 June with a total estimate of pounds 120,000 to pounds 150,000.

The sale follows the death of its owner, Katherine Duff, who was related to Florence, and the great-niece of Arthur Hugh Clough, the Victorian poet who died in Florence in 1861.

Scholars of Clough will be intrigued to learn that many of the family papers are unpublished and apparently unknown. They include Clough's divinity and history schoolbooks from Rugby, originals of the poems he wrote for the 1840 Oxford University Newdigate Prize and letters of reminiscence written by friends following his death.

Clough showed enormous promise as a schoolboy and young man, but was tormented by religious doubt. He ended as his cousin-in-law's secretary and factotum - a job which Lytton Strachey disdainfully described in Eminent Victorians as "doing up brown paper for Florence Nightingale". Clough finally found fame as a poet after his death - even though many blamed Florence for working him into an early grave.