Although she exposes Nightingale’s faults, Woodham-Smith seems to be sympathetic to her subject, which is particularly the case in regard to Nightingale’s youth. Anyone would be impressed with Nightingale’s determination to have a meaningful role outside the traditions of marriage and motherhood. That parents and society would try to prevent a young woman from pursuing such positive goals will seem almost incredible to many young readers.
This youthful determination seems, in Woodham-Smith’s mind, to culminate with Nightingale’s efforts in the Crimean War. It is a cliché to refer to Florence Nightingale as “the Lady with the Lamp,” the reference being to her practice of wandering the hospital wards late at night to offer comfort to the young men suffering from wounds. There was, however, virtually no means of easing pain available, and so the cliché was, in fact, symbolic of a kind of care that meant much more than it might in more modern times. Nightingale was legitimately a hero.
Woodham-Smith is noticeably less approving of the latter period of Nightingale’s career. Despite the enormous success of her efforts to improve medical care and sanitary practices, her obsessiveness makes her a much less attractive person. The author portrays Nightingale’s callous disregard to the devoted Herbert’s pain as simply inexcusable. The cause of the change in Nightingale’s personality is not clear. One has the sense, however, that...
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Woodham-Smith did not intend Florence Nightingale to be part of young adult literature. Nevertheless, younger readers will find it both accessible and useful. This biography anticipates the interest in the history of women that became prominent after the revival of the feminist movement in the 1960’s. In some senses, this work is better than much of the more recent studies because, rather than writing to serve an ideological purpose, Woodham-Smith chose an interesting and heroic figure because of the importance of that person’s life. Because Nightingale fought for many of the things that young women fight for in modern times, her biography belongs among current educational studies.
Florence Nightingale helped to open the modern historical study of women and nursing, and it contributed to an understanding of the Crimean War. Woodham-Smith’s discussion of Nightingale’s hospital reform efforts after the war was also a step toward making medical history less a technical subject and more a part of social history, which was an important and continuing shift of perception.