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 illness.
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.
About the Author
Gillian Gill, who holds a Ph.D. in modern French literature from Cambridge, has taught at Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale, and Harvard. She is the author of Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries and Mary Baker Eddy.
She lives in a suburb of Boston.
Praise for Nightingales…
“A dynamic and absorbing account, written in a lively and captivating manner, of a remarkable family and its even more remarkable scion, Florence Nightingale. Gill has used her sources to maximum effect, engaging the reader in a pacy narrative that brings that far distant ‘other country,’ the Victorian age, so vividly to life. I highly recommend it!”
–ALISON WEIR, author of Eleanor of Aquitaine
“Nightingales is wonderful. I will certainly never again dare to think of Florence Nightingale as ‘a lifelong spinster’ with an invalid’s need for noble self-sacrifice, but as a powerful woman who changed the course of the British government toward their own wounded forever.”
–NANCY MILFORD, author of Savage Beauty and Zelda
“Imaginatively conceived and elegantly written, Nightingales tells the compelling story of a family and an era with great style and flair. Even minor characters are wonderfully drawn and the tone is both intimate and erudite.”
–DIANE JACOBS, author of Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
“A beautifully written and nuanced portrait . . . Gill infuses her subject with rare vitality and untangles the strands of historical, social, and personal forces that determine the course of female life. This multifaceted approach challenges the myths surrounding Nightingale’s struggle for fulfillment, giving us a fascinating window into one Victorian woman that becomes a lens through which we can view ourselves.”
–SUSAN HERTOG, author of Anne Morrow Lindbergh
“Nightingales brilliantly captures the unique intensity both of individuals and an age. Gill vividly evokes the complex and fascinating interrelations of an exceptional family. She engages her reader at every step as we travel with the fiercely intelligent and charismatic Florence Nightingale on her remarkable life journey.”
–ANNA BEER, author of My Just Desire