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October 23, 2004

Nursing a Cherished Myth

by Ron Hogan

First of all, let's hear it for bloggers Scott McLemee and Lizzie Skurnick, both of whom appear in this weekend's NYT Book Review.

Elsewhere in this issue, Miranda Seymour is quite happy to see a new biography of Florence Nightingale, and cites approvingly "the energy with which she set about reforming filthy, disease-ridden hospitals" while looking down upon those who suggest "her role as a hospital reformer was greatly overestimated," lumping such critics together with the pseudo-Freudian quacks who imagine all sorts of sexual proclivities on Nightingale's part. Lest we miss the point, Seymour further mentions "the fierce attention to hygiene that was the foundation of her reforming work."

But don't discount the naysayers so quickly. Terry Brighton, in his excellent account of the Charge of the Light Brigade (Hells Riders), has reason to discuss Nightingale's activities, and adds his voice to those who have suggested in recent years that Nightingale showed little or no concern for maintaining hygiene at the hospital she ran at Scutari, creating an unsterile environment that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of British soldiers--and that her subsequent zeal for reform was based not on a successful track record as a military nurse, but in self-recognition of the disastrous consequences of her failure, which had been suppressed by the British government as a face-saving gesture. This is pretty much the same tack taken in Avenging Angel, a Nightingale biography published a few years ago, though Brighton takes the additional step of highlighting the overlooked success of another nurse in Crimea, Jamaican emigré Mary Seacole, who'd been rejected when she volunteered to serve at Scutari and set up her own operation.

Obviously, nobody expects Seymour to write about Seacole in the space of a one-page review of a Nightingale bio; it's just an interesting story and one of the many reasons I think you should read Brighton's amazing book. So let's return to the big picture: By skipping over the details of Nightingale's actual career to focus on the early family drama and the later reclusiveness, Seymour--for all I know taking her cues straight from the biography--squashes any genuine consideration of the merits of Nightingale's reputation in order to preserve a pop legend at strong odds with the historical record. NYTBR readers frankly deserve better; if Seymour has good reason to dispute the revised evaluation of Nightingale's performance, she should have presented it.


hello. . . longtime stalker, first time commenting. I wondered what you, as a vigilant Book Babes watcher, thought of the Liesl Schillinger review of Susan Isaacs? I mean, of the fact of it? It seemed like a deliberate nod to the kind of democratic-demographic fiction the BBs are always espousing and crabbing the book reviews for not covering. Also seemed like the reviewer was trying mightily, and not quite succeeding, at containing her bile. . .

Posted by: emily at October 25, 2004 01:31 PM

Well, I don't know how much the powers that be were thinking of the Babes when they plugged that Isaacs review in, but I definitely think Liesl Schillinger's review was of a piece with the recent take on Nora Roberts by Elissa Schappell, only lnot quite as part because, as you observed, it's just one jab after another at how bad the book is. You can tell Schappell didn't exactly find her assignment high-quality either, but at least she made an effort to contextualize the book with regard to the Roberts phenomenon, not lump-judge it with what must have seemed like an inspired memory of "The Facts of Life." Interestingly enough, Dick Teresi in the very same issue showed how to hate on a book with style, finding the biography of Francis Galton bad on its own terms.

Posted by: editor at October 25, 2004 01:47 PM
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