Florence Nightingale Essay - Critical Context

Jeannette Covert Nolan

Critical Context

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.