Florence Nightingale was for a time the most famous woman in
Britain if not the world. We know her today primarily as a saintly
character, perhaps as a heroic reformer of Britain s health-care
system. The reality is more involved and far more fascinating. In
an utterly beguiling narrative that reads like the best Victorian
fiction, acclaimed author Gillian Gill tells the story of this
richly complex woman and her extraordinary family.
Born to an adoring wealthy, cultivated father and a mother whose
conventional facade concealed a surprisingly unfettered
intelligence, Florence was connected by kinship or friendship to
the cream of Victorian England s intellectual aristocracy. Though
moving in a world of ease and privilege, the Nightingales came from
solidly middle-class stock with deep traditions of hard work,
natural curiosity, and moral clarity. So it should have come as no
surprise to William Edward and Fanny Nightingale when their younger
daughter, Florence, showed an early passion for helping others
combined with a precocious bent for power.
Far more problematic was Florence s inexplicable refusal to marry
the well-connected Richard Monckton Milnes. As Gill so brilliantly
shows, this matrimonial refusal was at once an act of religious
dedication and a cry for her freedom as a woman and as a leader.
Florence s later insistence on traveling to the Crimea at the
height of war to tend to wounded soldiers was all but incendiary
especially for her older sister, Parthenope, whose frustration at
being in the shade of her more charismatic sibling often led to
Florence succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. But at the height of
her celebrity, at the age of thirty-seven, she retired to her
bedroom and remained there for most of the rest of her life,
allowing visitors only by appointment.
Combining biography, politics, social history, and consummate
storytelling, "Nightingales" is a dazzling portrait of an amazing
woman, her difficult but loving family, and the high Victorian era
they so perfectly epitomized. Beautifully written, witty, and
irresistible, "Nightingales" is truly a tour de force.
"From the Hardcover edition.""
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