Beneath Nolan’s chronological narrative runs the poignant story of a sensitive, intelligent woman’s plight in Victorian Great Britain. Young Nightingale was entirely free from calculated parental repressions. Indeed, her parents were doting and she was the object of considerable privilege. The family was wealthy and was received warmly in rich and titled society. Born in Italy during her family’s travels, in the beautiful city for which she was named, she herself as a child and young adult traveled widely, in the process becoming fluent in French, German, and Italian. Never formally educated, she nevertheless received a broad liberal education, including mathematics, from her father and from tutors. Moreover, even in England, she enjoyed constant changes of scene, moving seasonally from one estate to another. While Nightingale was asking plaintively, “My God! What is to become of me?” she acknowledged that “everything has been tried, foreign travel, kind friends, everything.” The reader may ask why, as her diaries indicate, she was so continuously unhappy and why she perceived her life as a slough of despond.
Through the course of her story—substantively a sound one—Nolan offers two intertwined explanations. First, Nightingale believed herself to be trapped by the very predictability of life in her family’s world. Traditionally, young women of her estate were prepared for propitious marriages. They produced children for heirs, ornamented their husbands’ households, and presided over what Nightingale de-scribed as the boring chatter of segregated drawing rooms, endlessly boring teas, and boring visitations. Second, the exquisitely sensitive Nightingale rebelled against her isolation from the sufferings of the...
(The entire section is 712 words.)
Many biographies for young readers ultimately seem to be mythologizing exercises. Although interest in their subjects is usually preserved, the authors of these books often strip their heroes or heroines of unpleasant human dimensions, the better to project a moral lesson or to stress a didactic principle. Thus, the subjects’ backgrounds are suffused with trials, but they are certain of their actions, interests, and goals. Steady in their pursuits, these figures overcome daunting obstacles, eventually triumphing and achieving fame. Their lives read like the simplistic biographical tracts of presidential candidates. Fortunately for the intelligence of young readers, Nolan’s Florence Nightingale manages to portray a character in evolution.
Nightingale, as her series of diaries revealed (and Nolan uses them effectively), was often torn by loyalties to family and to friends. Her decisions were often confused, and frequently her opportunities either sprang from the initiatives or sympathies of others or, such as during the Crimean War, arose by chance. Moreover, while Nightingale was admirable, she was not always lovable. Once a tender girl, she was transformed by time and events into an acerbic judge of others and a martinet with her friends and associates. Her rejection of the public’s interest in her and her reclusiveness were attributable to personal quirks as much as to professionalism or illness and, objectively, may have blunted the force of her cause. While Nolan avoids underscoring such facts, she allows them to surface, rendering a richer picture of her subject and an important and unusual approach to young adult biography.