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Book club: Florence Nightingale, by Mark Bostridge

07 August 2020

Michael Wheeler recommends Mark Bostridge’s award-winning biography Florence Nightingale: The woman and her legend

THE paperback of Mark Bostridge’s ground-breaking biography, timed to mark the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, was published in the middle of a medical emergency, during which Nightingale Hospitals were created in days, and the Prime Minister had three nights in intensive care at St Thomas’, the original home of the Nightingale Nursing School.


The hardback dates from 2008, when the ailing Margaret Thatcher was herself becoming a legend: another woman in a man’s world who got things done in spite of bureaucracy. In a cartoon reproduced in this book, the Iron Lady is shown as the Lady with the Lamp.

Drawing on huge amounts of unpublished material, including previously unseen family papers, Bostridge throws new light on the most famous woman in the world in her own day, apart from Queen Victoria, and “one of the most iconic figures in modern British history”. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) still inspires controversy today, Bostridge suggests: “She has been honoured and admired, criticized and ridiculed. More often than not she has been misrepresented and misunderstood.” His aim is to separate the woman and her legend.

The Crimean War, in some ways Britain’s Vietnam, was the first to be reported in depth by war correspondents and on-the-spot artists and photographers. The horrors of the wards at Scutari and the new sanitary arrangements that Nightingale introduced rapidly became famous.

Less well known was the fact that her approach to nursing was far ahead of its time. She understood the importance of preventive medicine, for example; and her holistic methods, which included massage and psychological support, were related to her spirituality: she believed that a soldier had a soul to save. She was a natural administrator and statistician, inventing her own methods of graphic representation of statistics, like her colour-coded “coxcomb”, to get her urgent message across to a political élite in London who were tired of wading through long reports and tables of evidence.

Mark Bostridge, the author of Florence Nightingale, reissued to celebrate the bicentenary of her birthNightingale’s later life was that of an invalid: she suffered periods of depression and endured several serious maladies, including chronic brucellosis. But this invalid life was one of ceaseless, if physically contained, activity, and is as fascinating as the Scutari years. Her publications numbered more than 200, and not all of them related to nursing and the army. Recent research has revealed that she annotated her own Authorised Version of the Bible in English, French, German, Italian, Greek, and, occasionally, Hebrew: her father had taught her privately to such a pitch that she could hold her own with the leading scholars of the day.

The twin tracks of liberal Christianity and hospital administration were to shape her life. After the Crimean War, she corresponded for years with the theologian Benjamin Jowett, of Balliol College, Oxford, discussing how the Bible should be abridged for children. The result was The School and Children’s Bible (1873), edited by William Rogers, which is still in print today.

Florence was very much on the side of the liberals. Although nominally Anglican, her orientation was really more Nonconformist. She was sickened by the party squabbles of the Church of England, and held heterodox views on many aspects of doctrine, including a denial of hellfire.

So extensive was her correspondence with Jowett, and so close did they become spiritually and emotionally, that he wanted to marry her at one point, and may have even proposed to her. Noel Annan described how the friendship grew as Jowett annotated three vast volumes that she had written, Suggestions for Thought. “He was impressed by her vitality, originality, and by her caustic comments on the religious and social life of the day,” Annan wrote. “She corresponded with him and he wrote interminable replies.

“Then some instinct told him that if he continued to answer her requests and some of her commands, he would wear himself out — as indeed Clough and Sidney Herbert had done” (The Dons, Harper Perennial). Margot Tennant later asked Jowett whether he had been in love, and what Nightingale was like: “Very violent, my dear, very violent.”

I think that what she took from Jowett intellectually was a respect for Plato as a precursor of Christianity in his ideas about the real and the ideal: we live in a cave of materiality, and long for the perfect life of the spirit and the divine. Nightingale, who knew all about bedpans, was also an idealist in the sense of one who shared with Gladstone the understanding that “life is a great and noble calling, not a mean and grovelling thing.” Humanity, created to be somewhere between the animals and the angels, must aspire to that which is beautiful and true and perfect. For Nightingale, as for all Christians, that ideal is Christ himself.

As Nightingale is celebrated today, and a bicentennial window by Sophie Hacker is dedicated at Romsey Abbey, in her native Hampshire, we should remember the intellectual side of her long and distinguished life, as Bostridge does. In 1906, she became the first woman member of the Order of Merit: an honour reserved only for the truly outstanding figures in our national life. Every year, there is a service in her memory at Westminster Abbey, attended by many hundreds of nurses. When I was asked to address them a few years ago, I said: “The Florence Nightingale that I revere was not only the Lady with the Lamp, but also the lady with the book.”

Dr Michael Wheeler is a visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and former Lay Canon of Winchester Cathedral. His book The Athenaeum: “More than just another London club”, is to be published by Yale in September.

Florence Nightingale: The woman and her legend by Mark Bostridge is published by Penguin at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-0-241-98922-7.


  1. Nightingale’s relationship with Christianity changes over her life, but a recurring theme is her wish to serve God “without reputation”. Does she achieve this, do you think?

  2. Nightingale writes to a friend that personal relationships are “a hindrance on the path to true righteousness”. How would you respond to her?

  3. Bostridge describes Nightingale’s “epistolary world” as one of “black and white values with few intermediate greys”. Did such black and white thinking aid her or hinder her?

  4. How far is a biography like this the “true” story of Nightingale’s life? Is it possible to tell that story?

  5. In what ways, if any, do you think Nightingale’s Unitarian background affected her approach to religion and faith?

  6. In her youth, Nightingale laments the potential of family “as an instrument of repression and imprisonment”. Is this still the case for women today?

  7. Elizabeth Gaskell is disturbed when she discovers that Nightingale “does not care for individuals . . . but for the whole race as being God’s creatures”. Is this trait problematic, or helpful, for Nightingale?

  8. How does Nightingale reconcile her fervent faith with her equally fervent rationalism?

  9. The myth of Nightingale is distant from the reality. Does the myth remain important in its own right?

  10. Why was Nightingale suspicious of religious nursing establishments? Was she right to be?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 September, we will print extra information about our next book, Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan. It is published by Vintage at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-09-927708-8).


In Black Dogs (1992), Jeremy finds himself writing a memoir about the marriage of his parents-in-law, Bernard and June Tremaine. Interviewing them both separately, he tries to understand the reasons for the couple spending most of their lives apart, and explores the private changes that caused a young couple to become individuals with opposing views, unable to get along. In doing so, he explores (apparent) tensions between religion and science, and between emotion and rationality. The private story of the marriage is set against the wider context of European history from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War through to the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Ian McEwan is one of Britain’s best-known writers. Born in Hampshire in 1948, he spent much of his childhood overseas before returning to study English Literature at the Uni­versity of Sussex and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first collection of short stories received the Somerset Maugham Award, and he has since been given the Whitbread Award (The Child in Time, 1987), the Booker Prize (Amsterdam, 1998), and the W. H. Smith Literary Award (Atonement, 2001), among other accolades. His subject-matter is often dark and occasionally controversial, focusing on complex or abusive relationships and issues of sexual and moral politics. His first two novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981) were both adapted as films, the latter with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.



October: Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

November: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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