Doing it Better Than Mother

Liane Aukin looks at the private life of Florence Nightingale, and at how her strained relationship with her mother shaped her destiny.

'For every one of my 18,000 children I have expended more motherly feeling and action in a week than my mother has expended on me in 37 years.'

The Nurse has long been the butt of jokes and the object of sexual fantasies; the target of denigration as well as of idealisation. At one end of the spectrum she is Dominatrix, at the other - Angel. Current attitudes to nursing reveal the traces of old ambivalences about the function of nursing and the notions of femininity embodied in the figure of 'nurse'. Many of the ambiguities inscribed in the modern image of 'nurse' were enacted and deeply embodied in the life and psyche of the profession's founding figure, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).

Much has been written about Nightingale and every aspect of her life and influence must, by now, have been studied. Her contemporary biographer Edward Cook (1913) consolidated the honour in which she was held during her lifetime. He does not sanctify Miss Nightingale but exercises a courtly respect. Lytton Strachey wrote his famous monograph eight years after her death and injected life into what was becoming a mummified memory. He showed her warts and all, dedicated, powerful, and ruthless; more, he created a style of historical biography that legitimised the idea of interpretation. Cecil Woodham Smith gave a more detailed narrative in her 1950 account, and for the first time explored the personal and domestic relationships that contributed to her life. F.B. Smith (1982) tries to explode the myth by suggesting that she was a liar and manipulator attempting to conceal her own mistakes. There seems to be enough evidence to support almost any interpretation. However, to the general public she is still remembered as the Lady of the Lamp and she retains a mythic hold on the popular imagination. Despite the many other remarkable nineteenth-century women who devoted their lives to reform and social change none has succeeded in toppling her from her position as one of the most famous women in the world.

On her return from two years' nursing in the Crimea, Nightingale built on her extraordinary popularity and became a reformer and administrator of genius capable of terrorising an entire cabinet and set about the reform of the War Office and the Medical Establishment of the British Army throughout Britain and the Empire. She founded the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas's; was consulted by political figures in successive British governments and corresponded with many abroad; her statistical survey of sanitation in Indian rural life (1863), which she extended to a study of the injustices suffered by the indigenous population at the hands of a colonial justice system, was so thorough that each successive Viceroy came to be briefed by her before taking up office even though she had never set foot in the subcontinent. She spoke several languages, had a profound knowledge of theology, literary gifts and left a legacy of thousands of letters, notes and reports; her every waking hour was spent working for the betterment of the poor, the ill and in particular, the British soldier, 18,000 of whom she had seen die - it is reported that while in the Crimea, she sat at over 2,000 deathbeds. Back in London in 1857 she succumbed toillness - though no diagnosis was ever made and she lived to be ninety - and did this work over forty-five years from her room and increasingly, from her bed. Force of character and, the multiplicity of her achievements and talents place her in a class of her own. There is no certain way to explain the mystery of her genius, but can we attribute all her achievements to altruism?

In seeking to answer this question I want to place Nightingale in the context of the shift in female consciousness as reflected in the writings of women novelists in the early and mid nineteenth century. Many of their novels reveal a revolt not only against fathers but, more striking, against mothers. As Marianne Hirsh points out in The Mother and Daughter Narrative, (1989), the novels of Gaskell, Austen, Elliot and the Brontes offer three possible narratives for the Mother: the Dead Mother, the Comic Mother and the Ineffective Mother. Our reading confirms that the Dead Mother was by far the most popular option. Mothers were an obstacle that a daughter had to overcome in order to pursue her own story and the inadequacies of mothers in families were reflected in society at large where middle-class, educated women were denied the possibility of meaningful work, other than the exploited role of governess, and no public office not even within the Anglican church. For the majority of such women their days alternated between care of sick relatives, charitable works, idleness and illness. Only marriage offered a half escape from this fate. The fact that her own narrative must, like her mother's, end in submission and marriage must have struck a chill in the heart of many a young woman and Nightingale would seem to have dreaded that icy arrow early in life and determined to escape it. It is a tribute to her genius that she succeeded.

But underlying her heroic life lay painful relationships with her mother and sister and a bitter grievance that coloured and spoiled her relationship to many women who were close to her - Sigma Bracebridge, Elizabeth Herbert, her cousins Marianne Nicolson and Hilary Bonham Carter. Her continual complaint was that 'women have no sympathy'. For Nightingale they all appear to have fallen short of a feminine Ideal that she clung to throughout her life. She referred to her aunt, Mai Smith, who accompanied her to the Crimea and acted as housekeeper on their return, as the 'Virgin Mother'. But when Mai wanted to return to her family, whom she had not seen for two years, Florence was outraged and did not speak to her aunt for twenty years. Such reaction can be seen as pathological.

Florence Nightingale was born in May 1820 into a wealthy, middle-class family, a year after her sister, Parthenope (Parthe). Both girls were named after the Italian cities of their birth. In later life Florence wrote that as a child she had felt herself as 'monstrous' and was fearful of being seen in public. She had felt different and increasingly at odds with her family, in particular her mother Fanny. Florence was often lonely and struggled with powerful feelings of failure and of being a disappointment. In 1851 she wrote:

My mother is a genius ... She has the Genius of Order ... oh, dear good woman, when I feel her disappointment in me, it is as if I am becoming insane. When she has organised the nicest society in England for us &I cannot take it as she wishes.

The first disappointment for which she felt responsible may well have been her birth; the Nightingale estates were entailed through the male line. Florence's mother Fanny had married William Edward Nightingale (W.E.N.) in her thirties. When their second child was another girl it was accepted that she would not go on to produce more children and so, no male heir. W.E.N. decided to give both girls a classical education but Parthe lacked interest. The household divided into Parthe and Fanny in the drawing room and Flo and W.E.N. in the library. It seemed to Florence that Parthe was mother's favourite and both her mother and sister found her interest in sickness, morbid.

Fanny was a woman of great energy and a celebrated hostess, but in a household so well stocked with servants, housekeeping did not make enough demands of her. She encouraged William to have a political career and he stood as a Whig candidate for Andover but was so appalled by the corruption necessary to win a seat that he retired entirely from politics. Fanny, thwarted, turned her energies into launching her girls into society and making them good marriages. Much as she wished it otherwise, Florence could not accept the future her mother planned for her. In her semi-autobiographical story Cassandra (1853), in which she launches a blistering attack on mothers and asserts work as the only path to a woman's selfhood, she writes:

... the first thing in a good novel is to place the persons together in circumstances which naturally call out for the high feelings ... of the character ... the second is that the heroine has generally no family ties (almost invariably, no mother) or if she has, these do not interfere with her entire independence.

In the mid-nineteenth century nursing of the poor was performed either by nuns or women considered little better than prostitutes - the wealthy were nursed at home usually by other female relatives - and the conditions of the hospitals were filthy. When Florence announced in 1845 that she wanted to work at the Salisbury Infirmary, a horrified Fanny accused her of having been seduced by 'some low surgeon'. W.E.N. retired to the library, Parthe had hysterics and there were terrible arguments and scenes. Florence submitted and did not leave home. Then her decision in 1849 not to marry Richard Monkton Milnes, the most eligible bachelor in London who had pursued her for nine years, meant stormy scenes at home and Fanny now accusing her of 'godless ingratitude'. In 1851 while travelling abroad with her friends, the Bracebridges, she visited the Deaconess Hospital at Kaiserwerth in Germany and the Sisters of Charity in Paris and secretly studied new ideas in public health. Even in those days a thirty-year-old woman could be expected to leave home without parental blessing but Florence's letter home, while on this short stay at Kaiserwerth, touchingly reveals how much she needed her mother's approval. As a still dutiful, if mature daughter, she still tried to placate rather than confront. She writes to Fanny from Kaiserwerth:

Give me time. Give me faith. Trust me. Help me. I feel within me I could gladden your hearts which now I wound ... Give me your blessing.

Fanny refused. As much as Fanny tried to make Florence the daughter she wanted, so Florence continued to try and make Fanny into the mother she needed. The problem was further fed by Parthe's fainting fits and threats to die whenever Flo wanted to go away. Florence suffered depression and despair. In June 1851, having passed her thirtieth year (which she notes was the age at which Christ began his Mission), Florence at last appears to have made her resolve. She writes in a private note:

I must take some things, as few as I can to enable me to live. I must take them, they will not be given to me ... at present I am vibrating between irritation and indignation at the suffering I am in - and the absence of enjoyment I provoke in them [Fanny, WEN &Parthe]. It is impossible for any situation to go on well where one is at the bottom who ought to be either independent or at the top. I am at the bottom and ought not to be there.

Over the next three years Florence painfully tried to cease the struggle to win from Fanny the love and approval that appeared unattainable. She starts to give vent to her bitterness, observing in Cassandra:

In the conventional society which men have made for women and women have accepted ... they must act the farce of hypocrisy, the lie that they are without passion - and therefore what else can they say to their daughters, without giving the lie to themselves.

She levels her criticisms on the failure of mothers but there was often a sense of despair and sometimes a fear of madness in her tone as in this letter to Cardinal Manning at around the same period:

Oh, if mothers saw what I have seen, had watched as I have the downward course of the finest intellect and the sweetest temper, thro' irritability, nervousness and weakness to final derangement and all brought about by the conventional life of the present phase of civilisation, which fritters away all that is spiritual in women - they would curse conventional excitements as I do now, instead of rejoicing.

Over the years Florence had gained the friendship of people who were to be invaluable to her later in life, the most important of these being Sidney Herbert, Secretary at War in Lord Aberdeen's cabinet whom she had first met in the winter of 1847 in Rome. In 1853 Herbert persuaded her family to allow her to take a job as Superintendent of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances in Harley Street. A year later the Crimean War broke out and when it was reported that more British soldiers were dying of disease than by the bullet, Herbert asked Florence to go to Scutari. She left with a party of thirty-eight carefully selected women. William Russell's reports from the Crimea, published in The Times, made Nightingale into a national heroine, the first media created idol. She returned to England in 1856, a national heroine, having witnessed suffering on an appalling scale and seen the terrible cost of bureaucratic inefficiency and apathy. These experiences had a profound effect and undoubtedly stirred her powerful maternal feelings. Nightingale's letters from this date make frequent use of the simile of herself as a mother and the suffering British soldier as her child. Cook writes that among her files were found dozens of letter from the wives and families of the wounded or dead men, thanking and blessing her and addressing her as Darling Mother. A myth was already under construction. As Mary Poovey (1995) has written, the female domestic narrative and the masculine military narrative came together in Nightingale's person. A modest young woman of a privileged and genteel background had shown herself to be fearless, powerful and protective.

Back in England, she determined that the catastrophe of the Army Medical Service should never be repeated and she draws on maternal imagery to emphasise her strength of feeling:

I have had to see my children dressed in a dirty blanket &an old pair of regimental trousers &to see them fed on raw salt meat &nine thousand of my children are lying, from causes that might have been prevented, in their forgotten graves ... O my poor men; I am a bad mother to come home and leave you in your Crimean graves, 73 per cent in 8 regiments in 6 months from disease alone - who thinks of that now?  

From this time on she expressed a growing certainty that the world is peopled by children who need her help. She writes a long personal note in 1857:

Surely it is part of that work [reform] to tell the world what we have suffered and how we have been hindered in order that the world may be able to spare others. To act otherwise is to treat the world as an incorrigible child which cannot listen or as a criminal who will not listen to right.

That year, ill and racked by her Crimean experiences, Florence moved from the family home into rooms in the Burlington Hotel in Piccadilly and began her colossal work of reform. She had persuaded Queen Victoria to authorise the Royal Commission to investigate the role of the Military Establishment during the Crimean war. To her old Crimean confederates her rooms were known as The War Office and she herself as the C-in-C. Fanny and Parthe revelled in her celebrity, visiting her and planning their evenings of entertainment. Florence, in a letter to her life- long confidante, an Englishwoman, known as 'Clarkey', married and living in Paris, describes how they draped themselves on sofas indifferent to Florence, ill and immersed in work. This, she says, is a scene worthy of Molière, but behind her humour there was rage:

What is Motherhood in the flesh? A pretty girl meets a man and they are married. Is there any thought of the children? The children come without their consent even having been asked. For every one of my 18,000 children ... I have expended more motherly feeling and action in a week than my mother has expended for me in 37 years.

And in another private note that same year, 1857:

We hear it constantly repeated, nowhere are there such homes as in England - nowhere are there such mothers. I say too, nowhere are there such mothers.

She developed symptoms of breathlessness, palpitations and fainting. She was in a state of panic at the prospect of finding herself once again a hostage to her family and the inevitable conflict if she resisted. No diagnosis of her illness was ever made but the symptoms became worse whenever Fanny or Parthe arrived. Eventually an order was given that they were to be barred entry to her rooms. They were never to enter them again. Florence continued to correspond in polite, even affectionate terms, but did not visit the family home for over twenty years until her mother, weak and nearly blind, needed nursing. Fanny died in 1880, aged ninety-two.

From her return from the Crimea in 1856 until the end of her life, Florence lived as a recluse. She saw people singly and by appointment only. She supervised the trainings but rarely nursed. She had become a politician. Her evidence for the Royal Commission she wrote out by hand but she refused to attend the hearings. Instead, her findings were read out in court by a man (it took six hours to read them). But the power of her legend ensured that in the popular imagination Nightingale was still a Nurse and although rarely seen by the public - sometimes she was carried in a black curtained litter - she was not forgotten. Her invisibility seemed to contribute in great measure to her continued presence in people's consciousness. By contrast, when Queen Victoria retired to Balmoral to grieve over Albert's death the public felt hostile, as though they had been betrayed by a sexual mother who abandons her children, whereas Nightingale's prolonged withdrawal was experienced as devotion by a powerful, celibate and all-loving maternal figure. 

The creation of the professional nurse is her most lasting legacy. Her book Notes on Nursing was a best-seller. The student nurse came to join the soldier as her child. In Nightingale's mind the hospital is equated with home and the nurse with the maternal role. In earlier years in conversation with Elizabeth Blackwell (the first woman doctor to graduate in the United States whom Florence had met and befriended in 1851) standing on the terrace at the family home in Lea Hurst, Nightingale looked up at the house and commented what a good hospital it would make. In 1881, in a letter to a favourite young nurse, Nightingale despairing of the demands of her nurses and hospitals, continues with her maternal pre-occupation:  

I feel like a mother, all whose children are crying for food and she is agonised at having little or none to give them).

Having rejected the conventional Victorian model for family life Nightingale set about creating a powerful female hierarchy articulated in her ideas about nursing. They reflect her experience of growing up with a kindly but weak father and a remote, dynamic mother; she takes this model and perfects it. In her mind, the nurse is synonymous with Mother but one who is sympathetic, understanding and intent on helping the struggle of the patient/child against disease. She recreates the split between the study and the drawing room in the demarcation between the medical and the nursing professions, the former being the domain of the male, the latter of the female. Nightingale, of course, straddles both but maintains an outward compliance towards the doctor although secretly believing it is the matron who wears the trousers. In Notes on Nursing, she addresses every woman at home, stressing that the responsibility for health and successful child rearing, rests with her.

Nearly every woman in England has, at one time or another in her life, charge of the personal health of somebody, whether a child or invalid. In other words, every woman is a nurse ... if, then, every woman becomes a nurse ... how valuable would be the produce of her united experience if every woman would think how to nurse? [my emphasis] The art of nursing ought to include such arrangements as alone make what I understand by nursing, possible.

The template for the Nightingale Nurse is a powerful, nurturing mother, preferably one who is celibate - Florence despaired whenever one of her nurses left to be married - a Mother with gifts for organisation and housewifery, very like Fanny, but combined with the sensibility and sympathy of the daughter of such a mother. Unlike Fanny, the Nightingale Nurse is a woman who ensures an environment where healing takes place. The good management and moral rectitude of a middle-class mid-Victorian household are transposed from the private to the public domain. At the heart, stands the Nurse, disciplined, devoted and nurturing (it is worth noting that to nurse in its original usage means to suckle) - Nightingale's idealised picture of the mother of whom she felt she had been so painfully deprived, thereby proving, as she had boasted in earlier years, that she could do more in a week than Fanny in thirty-seven years. There is a poignancy about Florence's devotion to this mission; it suggests that although she felt herself an unsuccessful rival for her mother's attention, in her elevation of the nurse as a maternal figure par excellence, she was making both a declaration of triumph over the mother who she believed had withheld the love she craved and a final appeal for approval from a loved and hated parent.  

The art of nursing, as now practised, seems to be expressly a reparative process.

Nightingale's conception came out of a combined experience of being the 'monster' she had felt herself as a child and the angel she became in the eyes of the world as a result of her dramatic maturation in Scutari. Like many women of her time, moral standard bearing was her stock in trade but she paid a heavy price. Although passionate she was unable to have an intimate or sexual relationship with either man or woman although she evoked in many men, most famously the poet Arthur Clough and the statesman Sidney Herbert, a devotion that led them to sacrifice personal pleasure and ultimately their lives, in order to work for her reforms.

Nightingale felt herself as alternately the Loving Mother and the Abandoned Child but found a creative resolution using the nineteenth-century concern with motherhood as a repository for social idealism. Such idealism is inevitably shadowed by denigration and it is Nightingale's ambivalent feelings about her maternal image which we mirror in our ambivalence towards the nurse today, someone both revered and reviled, a figure who is both Angel and Dominatrix.

Further Reading:

  • Marianne Hirsh, The Mother and Daughter Plot (Indiana University Press, 1989)
  • Edward Cook, Florence Nightingale (Hodder & Stoughton, 1937)
  • Cecil Woodham Smith, Florence Nightingale (Book Club Associates,1972)
  • F. Nightingale, Suggestion for Thought ed: M.Calabria, J.Macrae, (University of PennsyIvania Press); Notes on Nursing (Duckworth &Co. Ltd. 1952); Cassandra in The Cause ed. Ray Strachey (Virago, 1988)
  • Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (Bloomsbury Press, 1988)
  • Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (University of Chicago, 1995).
  • The Florence Nightingale Museum, 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7EW. Telephone: 020 7620 0374.

Liane Aukin is a playwright and psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her essay 'Florence Nightingale and the Myth of the Virgin Mother' appears in Free Associations (2003) Vol10, Part I (53), published by Karnac Books.

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