Florence Nightingale, 1896–1910 Critical Essays

Cecil Woodham-Smith


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Although she exposes Nightingale’s faults, Woodham-Smith seems to be sympathetic to her subject, which is particularly the case in regard to Nightingale’s youth. Anyone would be impressed with Nightingale’s determination to have a meaningful role outside the traditions of marriage and motherhood. That parents and society would try to prevent a young woman from pursuing such positive goals will seem almost incredible to many young readers.

This youthful determination seems, in Woodham-Smith’s mind, to culminate with Nightingale’s efforts in the Crimean War. It is a cliché to refer to Florence Nightingale as “the Lady with the Lamp,” the reference being to her practice of wandering the hospital wards late at night to offer comfort to the young men suffering from wounds. There was, however, virtually no means of easing pain available, and so the cliché was, in fact, symbolic of a kind of care that meant much more than it might in more modern times. Nightingale was legitimately a hero.

Woodham-Smith is noticeably less approving of the latter period of Nightingale’s career. Despite the enormous success of her efforts to improve medical care and sanitary practices, her obsessiveness makes her a much less attractive person. The author portrays Nightingale’s callous disregard to the devoted Herbert’s pain as simply inexcusable. The cause of the change in Nightingale’s personality is not clear. One has the sense, however, that...

(The entire section is 425 words.)