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Eminent Victorians

by Lytton Strachey

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What is Florence Nightingale's role in Strachey's Eminent Victorians?

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The role of Florence Nightingale in Strachey's Eminent Victorians is that of an acerbic, driven woman who had little in common with the saintly reputation of "the Lady with the Lamp." Although personally unlikeable, Nightingale was, the author admits, an effective agent of reform at the British War Office.

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Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians is a book which has a reputation for tearing down the saints of the Victorian era from their pedestals and revealing them as all too fallible. It was published in 1918, not long after the end of the era it describes, and is clearly a reaction against the mental atmosphere of that time.

In Florence Nightingale, Strachey had a subject whose name was synonymous with good works and even saintliness. He never denies Nightingale's great achievements but depicts her as a rather bitter personality, unpleasant to encounter and intolerable to work with. Strachey presents his subject as completely devoid of personal life and feelings and obsessed with her work to the exclusion of all else.

Though he sees Florence Nightingale as a difficult, objectionable woman, Strachey's portrait is not primarily a criticism of her, but of the age in which she lived. He depicts Nightingale continually encountering stupid, self-satisfied politicians and army officers who would not have listened to a woman less stubborn and persistent than she was. Strachey's conclusion is that no normal woman could possibly have achieved the changes Nightingale did in such a sexist environment. Her influence at the British War Office was at least built on real progress in improving the conditions in military hospitals, whereas many of her male coworkers had achieved nothing in their careers and only obstructed her positive reforms.

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