Florence Nightingale at First Hand (review)
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Reviewed by
Lynn McDonald. Florence Nightingale at First Hand. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010. xv + 197 pp. Ill. $24.95 (paperbound, 978-1-55458-191-7).

"Why another book on Florence Nightingale . . . ?" are the opening words to the preface of this new addition to the Florence Nightingale library, and it is a good question (p. xi). "The Lady with the Lamp" has consumed reams of paper: what can this book have to say that has not already been said? The Contents Page suggests an answer: each chapter is dedicated to different aspect of Nightingale's working life, promising insight into areas of her work rarely discussed. As Vicinus and Nergaard have argued, "The nursing reforms for which Nightingale has been remembered have been labelled 'female' and appropriate for a Victorian woman, while her major contribution as a sanitarian and unofficial government advisor, work in the 'male' sphere, has been denigrated or forgotten."1 In this book, McDonald promises to avoid the pitfalls of past hagiographic work by presenting Nightingale in her own words.

Unfortunately, the author's tone belies this objective. She describes her book as differing "sharply from the large number of adulatory books portraying a self-sacrificing and brave woman," but adds immediately, "(both of which are true)"; and throughout she makes attacks on critical analyses of Nightingale's life and work (p. xi).2 If McDonald had used Nightingale's own words to refute such critics, a more balanced impression may have been made. As it is, the reader moves into the book with the author's attachment to her subject well established, her objectivity in question.

However, the book is a very useful guide into the world of Florence Nightingale. Each aspect of her work occupies a different chapter, making it easy to dip in and out according to the reader's interest. There are chapters on Nightingale and social reform, war work, nursing and midwifery, workhouse infirmaries, and India. This latter topic, rarely discussed in the literature, is of particular interest, [End Page 144] as is Nightingale's statistical work in public health. The discussion of her contribution to the Royal Commission into the Crimean War is well presented, while the section on nursing and midwifery avoids the usual heroic portrayal of Nightingale as sole reformer. It would have been more illuminating if her views of other reformers, such as Ethel Fenwick, had been illustrated by extracts.

As a whole the book conveys the breadth of Nightingale's interests, her energy, and the influence she held over powerful men in several government departments. There are some problems though. The book could have been enhanced by hearing more from Nightingale herself. McDonald wrote of Nightingale that "she . . . had more normal human qualities: a temper, a wicked sense of humour and considerable style" (p. 13), but little of this comes through in the selected extracts. In the letter to Ellen Eckblom, Nightingale opens, "I learn more from you than you can learn from me," betraying a surprisingly humble side to the woman; but such examples are rare (p. 105). It is still hard to see beneath the public façade Nightingale built around herself.

Dates are a problem: they are often not included in either the text or the reference, making the sequencing of events or contextualization of statements problematic. The book is almost devoid of references (apart from Nightingale's writings), so when claims are made, as in the example that Nightingale acted as Gandhi's mentor (p. 97), there is no evidence to back them up. An extended recommended reading list, providing context to Nightingale's life, is also missing.

At the end of the preface, McDonald writes, "If you want to read another book of sarcastic, sexist inference . . . this book is not for you. If you want to discover Nightingale as she was to her collaborators . . . this is" (p. xv). As an introduction to Nightingale and her writings, the book works quite well; as an exploration of the woman behind the image, it does not quite deliver.

Sue Hawkins
Kingston University London

Footnotes

1. Martha Vicinus and Bea Nergaard, eds., Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale: Selected Letters (London: Virago, 1989), 2...


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