Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

A partially fictionalized narrative, Jeannette Covert Nolan’s Florence Nightingale recounts a remarkable woman’s effort to find a calling worthy of her talents in an era when the social conventions of her class sought to preclude such independence. Sensitive, intelligent, cultivated, and the child of a caring, privileged family, Nightingale was nearly suffocated by the limitations of her environment. Not until her early thirties was she able to dedicate her abilities to what then was regarded as the inferior occupation of nursing.

The experienced, prize-winning author of more than fifteen books for young readers, Nolan has approached Nightingale’s life chronologically in twenty-two crisp chapters. While there are neither notes, nor a bibliography, nor other appendages, there are twenty-three adequate (if somewhat insipid) illustrations. The first seven chapters chronicle Nightingale’s restlessness within her cloying, although highly privileged, family environment. While Nolan fictionalizes her dialogues, she accurately conveys the sentiments in her subject’s own writings on her childhood and youth. Two subsequent chapters narrate Nightingale’s apprentice years, particularly her seminal experience in Pastor Theodor Fliedner’s institute for Protestant deaconesses in Kaiserswerth, Germany, and her response to service in the Crimean War.

Nolan’s seven central chapters are a story of the Nightingale that is familiar to the general public: the heroic figure who (with her thirty-eight associates) ministered to the sick and wounded in the Crimea from 1854 until 1856, in the process gaining international renown for the reversal of disgraceful conditions and unnecessary tragedies. Unfortunately, the stupidities that Nightingale encountered could only be dealt with in England. There, as Nolan recounts in two subsequent chapters, she resumed efforts through the Crown and government officials for the creation of a royal commission—informed by her evidence—to pronounce favorably upon a gamut of reforms concerning the health and related medical care of British soldiers. By 1861, with most of the changes that she sought having been effected, Nightingale, although disabled by a then mysterious illness, still sought the complete revamping of the War Office itself. Two final chapters recount the sadness amid Nightingale’s triumphs. Living as a recluse in her London house and usually bedridden, she witnessed the deaths of her closest relatives and dearest friends—Sidney Herbert among them—while she was showered with honors for her work before her own death in 1910.