(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Biographies of Florence Nightingale have focused on her roles as the heroine of the Crimean War, the organizer of public health reforms, or the founder of modern nursing. What makes this biography different is its focus on Nightingale's multigenerational extended family and the intricate relationships within the Nightingale-Shore-Smith-Nicholson-Bonham Carter clan. Gillian Gill re-creates the Victorian era and the world in which Nightingale lived for modern readers and, in keeping with the subtitle of the book, The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale, depicts Nightingale's life as an engaging drama of the Victorian era, rather like a Jane Austen novel.

Gill begins the introduction in storybook fashion in 1849, when Nightingale is twenty-nine, with her rejection of Richard Monckton Milne, her suitor for more than six years. She cared for Richard, who was popular and well connected, but “she dreamed of becoming a nurse, of developing nursing as a profession for educated, dedicated, capable young women like herself, of making Britain a healthier, safer, happier place for all its citizens, of reassessing and rebuilding the whole system of health care in public institutions.”

Gill explores the serious financial and social consequences of Nightingale's decision. Her father, WEN, born William Edward Shore, had inherited the lands and estate of his great-uncle Peter Nightingale through an entail, thereafter taking the name of Nightingale. Florence's only sister, Parthenope, was a chronic invalid and unlikely to marry. With no prospect of a male heir in the family, the Nightingale assets (including two large estates—Lea Hurst in Derbyshire and Embley Park in Hampshire) could not be left to his wife or children because they were females. Upon WEN's death, the property would pass to his sister Mai, and after her death, to her son, leaving WEN's wife and two daughters without a home. The Nightingale entail and Florence's refusal to marry troubled the entire family.

The chief protagonists—WEN, Nightingale's doting father; Fanny, her mother; and her sister, Parthenope—could not understand her desire to enter nursing. Given the inferior social position of women and the low status of nursing in nineteenth century England, it was a radical notion for an upper-class, educated young woman to want to nurse. Ironically, the Nightingale family history and their social connections with the English aristocracy contributed to Nightingale's decision and to her extraordinary place in history.

Nightingale's mother's family, the Smiths, were a fascinating family of dissenters and Unitarians who were opposed to the Church of England and suffered social and political discrimination. Florence's grandfather, William Smith, was a prominent member of the merchant class from the industrial Midlands. In addition to his country home in Essex, he owned a London townhouse, had a library of more than one thousand volumes and an extensive art collection that included three works by Rembrandt and paintings by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Smith helped found the National Gallery. Even though it was not in his own financial interests, he was opposed to slavery and became a member of the House of Commons, where he was known as a strong abolitionist and advocate for civil rights for religious minorities.

The Smiths had ten children—five girls and five boys—and, by all accounts, were a happy family. They loved strenuous hiking holidays and were accustomed to braving the rough roads and travel conditions of the day. The Smith women were strong nonconformists and well-educated by the standards of the day. Nightingale was strongly influenced by her “Aunt Patty” (Martha Frances), the oldest child, and “Aunt Ju” (Julia), the youngest, who were radical spirits, independent early feminists, and unorthodox volunteers and activists. Although Nightingale was a conventional Victorian with reservations about her aunts’ fervent idealism, she too was a nonconformist and, like her Aunt Patty, was to become a confirmed spinster and hypochondriac. (Nightingale took to her bed after a debilitating illness in the Crimea and was a recluse for almost fifty years.)

Nightingale's Aunt Anne married a wealthy man, George Nicholson of Waverley. Another aunt, Joanna, married John Carter, who came into a large inheritance from his bachelor cousin John Bonham and became John Bonham Carter.

When William Smith suffered severe business losses and had to sell everything to meet his debts, his daughter Fanny was...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)