Mary Seacole Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Seacole 1805-1881

(Full name Mary Jane Grant Seacole) Jamaican autobiographer.

Although during her lifetime Mary Seacole gained a measure of fame as a heroic nurse during the Crimean War, she earned lasting renown with her authorship of Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857). This view into the life of a humorous, self-reliant, and often strong-willed woman who traveled the world has been assessed as a challenge to many Victorian stereotypes about the proper role of women, particularly women of color.

Biographical Information

The daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Scottish military father, Seacole was born in 1805. From an early age she worked as an aide to her mother in the boarding house her mother ran for convalescing soldiers. In 1836 she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, who died shortly after their marriage. Thereafter Seacole's desire for financial and social independence led her to eschew marriage. While in her twenties Seacole traveled alone to many places, including the Bahamas, Haiti, Cuba, and England; later she traveled to North America and present-day Colombia. She was renowned for her medical skill, especially her ability to cure cholera and yellow fever victims, and in 1853 Jamaican health officials asked her to join them in combating a yellow fever epidemic. When the Crimean War broke out a year later, Seacole resolved again to help the afflicted. This conflict between Russia and an alliance of England, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire over the fate of present-day Turkey resulted in thousands of British casualties. Rather than suffering battle wounds, however, the majority of afflicted suffered from poor planning on their leaders' part. Malnutrition and poor sanitation led to outbreaks of such diseases as cholera and malaria. Although Seacole repeatedly applied to various aide organizations serving soldiers, her applications were denied due to racial discrimination. Yet after the determined and enterprising Seacole headed to the battlefield on her own, she was later universally praised for her bravery and compassion in treating the wounded. When the war ended suddenly in 1856, Seacole found herself left with many unusable supplies and in possession of a now virtually useless boarding house. Bankrupt, she relied on her many supporters in England, who held several well-attended fund-raisers in her honor. Because the war had taken its toll on Seacole's health as well as her finances, she found herself unable to successfully support her previous lifestyle. Determined to alleviate her financial troubles, she penned Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands in 1857. When it proved to be a popular success, she was able to live out the rest of her days in financial security. Seacole died in Jamaica in 1881.

Major Works

Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures is a narrative chronicling how a free Jamaican woman overcame social, racial, and economic barriers to forge her own identity. She considered England to be the only truly civilized society, and her narrative demonstrates her preoccupation with what it means to be civilized and how a lack of civility leads to societal ills. Seacole delves into the inhumanity of racial discrimination in nineteenth-century England, the Americas, and her native Jamaica. She compares the freedom ex-slaves enjoy in English colonies, however new, with the poor treatment of American slaves. She expects that due to the natural civility of the English, her fellow citizens will both recognize and reward her for her humanitarian efforts. While she exposes and rebuffs the Victorian constraints imposed on women, she does so in a sympathetic and agreeable fashion. Her book was enthusiastically received, and was reprinted within months of its release.

Critical Reception

According to Sandra Pouchet Paquet, a fair assessment of Seacole and Wonderful Adventures must include both Seacole's love of the Empire of England for its protection and its civility and her celebration of independence as a free Jamaican woman. The contrast between her indigenous nursing skills, her obvious independence, and her esteem for the supremacy of all things British are illuminated through the narrative and the artistic arrangement of the text. Seacole challenges the conservative boundaries of English protocol, especially those boundaries imposed on women, and in her narrative explores the adventurous and often heroic events in the same manner as her white male contemporaries. Seacole journeys across both geographical boundaries and social boundaries in a self-determining and liberated manner.

Although the recognition that Seacole sought faded quickly after her death, interest in her work was rekindled in the late twentieth century when scholars investigated her unusual position in British colonial society, her role on the medical front lines during the Crimean War, and her importance as an autobiographer whose writing reflects the prejudices of her era while demonstrating her ability to overcome the obstacles convention set in her path. As Seacole biographer William L. Andrews writes in his introduction to the Oxford edition of Wonderful Adventures, the narrative is “a special kind of success story in which a woman tries to reconcile her desire for economic independence and worldly recognition with a more socially acceptable role of being properly selfless and useful to men.” Cheryl Fish views Seacole's desire for travel and adventure as the desire to forge for herself a meaningful path in the world. While Catherine Judd focuses on Seacole's fashioning of herself as a Homeric epic hero, Paul Baggett discusses the conflict between the author's British and Creole identities, and Ivette Romero-Cesareo ponders her use of the maternal identity in her medical and entrepreneurial efforts.