Florence Nightingale: Icon and Iconoclast

R. E. Foster sifts myth from reality in the life of the 'Lady with the Lamp'.

On 11 December 1855, a 189 foot screw-steamer became only the second iron ship to be launched at Hartlepool. The event was chiefly newsworthy, however, because it was named the Florence Nightingale. Barely a year previously her name was virtually unknown. Now, dressed as a nurse, her image appeared full length on the ship’s prow holding cup and handkerchief to minister to ‘a wounded soldier in a recumbent posture, looking with feelings of gratitude towards her by whom his wounds of honour have been attended’. Seldom in British history has the transformation from secular nobody to living saint been so rapid and complete. A century after her death, what are we to make of her?

Cash, Connections ... and Frustration 1820-1854

Florence Nightingale was born in the Italian city which named her in 1820. Her early life is nowadays popularly presumed to have been comfortably unexceptionable. In fact her father was a well-off Sheffield banker’s son who inherited a large fortune from a Derbyshire uncle. That he could afford to buy a second country estate of 4,000 acres, Embley Park in Hampshire, for £125,000 in 1825, proclaimed enormous wealth. Florence’s mother, meanwhile, was the good-looking and socially ambitious Frances Smith, a daughter of the notable reforming MP, William Smith.

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