Form and Content

Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale, 18201910 is an excellent example of the best combination of historical and biographical study. Woodham-Smith not only tells the life story of one of the great heroines of the nineteenth century but also effectively sets that story into the history of the period. The book follows Nightingale’s career from her struggles to become a nurse, to her enormous success in improving the care of casualties in the Crimean War, to Nightingale’s use of her hero’s status to orchestrate a campaign of sanitation and hospital reform for the entire British Empire.

Florence Nightingale is organized chronologically around the subject’s life. It lacks a table of contents and an index, and although broken into numbered chapters, it is really an almost seamless essay. This format does not, however, cause any problem with organization. Woodham-Smith has done a very effective job of integrating the events of Nightingale’s life with the history of the nineteenth century. The reader learns about this historical context almost as Nightingale found out about the world in which she lived; it is a particularly effective way for younger students to learn about a period.

Nightingale’s life breaks rather naturally into three segments. First, as a young woman, she became obsessed with the idea—she claimed to hear voices urging her on—of becoming a nurse. Young women of her class were expected to find full satisfaction in matrimony and motherhood, and any gainful employment was considered beneath them. Worse, nursing was a particularly disreputable...

(The entire section is 662 words.)