Florence Nightingale

(The below is a sort of boiling down of some of the notes I took reading a recent biography of Florence Nightingale. The biography itself was excellent, I literally marked about 90 different places that I wanted to go back and sketch notes from. If you'd like to learn more about her, I highly recommend it, it's by Mark Bostridge)

After a week on the Nile river, Florence Nightingale's dress was crawling. Sand, heat, slithered up and down with each movement, and despite the tortuous confinement to the cabin, vermin probably shared these chases. To Florence, the filth was secondary - or more, the filth was symbolic - it was the tenuous fingers of the shoreline reaching to her, the shore where she saw men live in hovels to low to stand up straight in, digging through the refuse the tourists dropped off to support a meager diet, killing and dying like animals.

The idea of this was horrific in the immediate, of course. Florence, more even than most men at the time, understood the effects of poverty on health: mental, physical and spiritual. She was a statistician, a woman who would write glowing letters of thanks when she received books of government figures from friends, a woman who, upon meeting a mathematician a few years after the trip to the Nile, played the part of an awed worshipper. The spread of souls dissolving slowly into their own filth was a series of figures, a math problem with a very definite final product - death, decay, degeneration, the transofrmation of man into beast.

But, for Florence, it was more than this, for Egypt, to her, was history itself, was a portrait of a lost cause of God. With a sense of religious universalism uniquely her own, Florence saw the gods and progress of the Egyptians as reflections of the same truths she learned in terms of Christ and the Abrahamic God: after visiting the Temple of Isis at Philae, Florence had snuck back alone, to lie her crucifix in the sandy floor of the chamber of Osiris. For her, the call of Shelley's Ozymandias wasn't destiny, it was a warning, a spur to strive and strive, so that the monuments of her day would not dissolve slowly into the earth of England, so that her people would not stoop down again, to pick at the refuse of a future struggle.

The overpowering presence of Egypt for Nightingale was in it's brown-ness, it's sterility. The weight of the endless, hopeless stretch of the Sahara fell on her through the narrow windows of her cabin, mile after mile. The ship itself they had named Parthenope, after Florence's sister - she embroidered a banner with her sister's name, and it flew behind them in long, neat greek letters - the banner can be seen today, I believe in the British Museum. She had sewn it in good earnest, for the love Parthenope and Florence felt for each other had an intensity we would normally associate with lovers, not sisters - Parthenope herself was to say one day "I never thought to marry any one but Florence". But by 1850, as Florence sailed up the Nile, the fire of her sister's love - a jealous love by all accounts - had burned her almost to the very sterility of the desert. The trip had been, in part, to escape her home: a doctor was to proclaim that Parthenope's love for Florence was so intense that the two needed to be seperated lest it disrupt her own health. And Florence's mother and father struggled with the genius of their daughter, struggling, continuously to understand how someone in such a comfortable position could turn from marriage, could become so upset at the social world, at the drawing room (she was later to refuse to have a drawing room in her home, declaring it an instrument of torture for women). But Florence was simply not capable of supporting the life she was born into.

"Unconsiousness is all that I desire. I remain in bed as late as I can, for what have I to wake for? I am perishing for want of food... Therefore I spend my days in dreams fo other situations which will afford me food...

Starvation does not lead a man to exertion, it only weakens him. Oh weary days, oh evenings that never seem to end. For how many long years I have watched that drawing room clock and thoguht it never would reach the ten & for 20 or so more years to do this. It is not the misery, the unhappiness that I feel so insupportable, but to feel this habit, this disease gaining power upon me - & no hope, no help. This is the sting of death."

Her 'dreams of other situations' were more than simply the fancy of an lonely mind - they were intense, physical experiences, and experience at once addictive and dangerous. She compared the habit to 'gin drinking', said it sapped 'her vital strength', spoke of dreams and moonlight giving her a "A queer feeling... not to be quite certain of which is true and which is imaginary." The feeling persisted, even in Egypt, which was to be an escape from all of the lonely boredom of home: she described her hazy dreams as she floated the torpid Nil as her 'enemy', the 'constant murderer of my thoughts,' and abused herself as she felt the quickening force of the ancient splendor tug at her soul, for '[dreaming] even in the very face of God', begging God to free her from the 'enslavement'.

The weeks crawled, she dreamt and melted into teh slithering stillness of the river, or the hazy cabin windows, of her own skin. She left to shore to look at great and ancient sites she'd read of all her life, and dreamily wandered back on the ship, forgetting even what she'd seen. She read page after droning page of novels aloud to her companions, to the maid even. And then, just before they returned to Alexandria, she heard the voice of God.

To her, this voice was dramatic, and very real - and this was not the first time she'd heard it speak. She first heard it on the 7th of February, 1837, when it came and told her that she was to do a great and holy work in the world, to bring men closer to God. This closeness was, to her, not faith, in the sense of the CAtholic mystics, not a surrendering or even a worshipping action. Sanctity, goodness, was the process of digging out and discovering the laws of God, and following them - and this did not mean the Ten Commandments. To her, evil was all that made misery in the world, and holiness was all that made joy. To her, there was more godly law in discovering the laws of sanitation than in praying for things to happen. An enemy would later describe her sneeringly as finding Christ in a drainpipe, and it is a description that was not only apt, but for her, likely a compliment. This mixture of mysticism and practical effort was the very soul of her life - and as a result, the banal and the impractical were the enemies of her existence. God had called her to do, not to chat, to marry, to entertain.

The call came again there on the Nile, and her letters, previously almost daily letters, ceased for two weeks. Her journals paint this period as a long, Jacob-like, wrestling with God. At the end, she wrote that she had 'settled the question with god,' that, in the spirit of her faith, she had worked out what she was to do, not simply submitted in blind trust. In the ensuing week - a whirlwind tour of Greece - she was strangely at peace, able to enjoy herself. She bought a pet - an owl named Athena which she kept frequently in her pocket. She made jokes. She bantered with locals.

The year then was 1850. Within a few years, the first 'modern' war would begin between Russia and Great Britain, over the seaports of the Crimean Penninsula. By 1854, she was walking the floors of the Scutari Barracks, holding a lamp out in the deeps of night as she nursed the decimated British army (notably, the only actual mention of her using a lamp in her Nurse's notes was to chase rats from the hospital). By 1856, she was one of the great heroines of humanitarian history, and for the next 50 years, she woulud loom large as one of the driving forces in the growth of nursing and public health.


Emily said...

You evoke this scene so vividly! Nightingale was such a fascinating person, wasn't she? Those addictive reveries of hers - VERY intriguing. Thanks for alerting me to Bostridge's biography.

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Jason Gignac said...

I was honestly surprised by the mystic bent in her character. I mean, I know the famous parts, and I knew she was practical, and all that, but the balance between statistician and theologist was really interesting and unique to me.

Julie said...

Obviously, there is little that I know of Florence Nightingale. You have intrigued me to find out more. There is so much more to her than the simple facts you learn about her in history. I've always appreciated her ambitions but now to realize the depth of her stuggles is genuinely captivating. I also find myself in wonderment about her unique character and those intense dreams of hers. So much to ponder.
Wonderful review!

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