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Beyond the legend of Florence Nightingale

NIGHTINGALES: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence NightingaleBy Gillian Gill

Ballantine, $27.95, 560 pp


Florence Nightingale's name conjures images of a saintly, selfless caregiver. Florence became famous because of her contribution to the development of nursing and the improvement of health conditions. But long before the Crimean War, before her name became synonymous with the profession of nursing, Florence Nightingale was a well-traveled, educated young woman who grew up in privileged British society.

The only expectation that was imposed upon her was one that she railed against vehemently: that she marry well and produce children, preferably a male heir.

Florence failed brilliantly to meet the expectations of society and her family, and in doing so she blazed a path for women interested in life beyond the drawing rooms of Victorian England. In Nightingales, biographer Gillian Gill (Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries) explores the early life of Florence Nightingale and the complicated dynamics of the enmeshed extended family with whom she lived and often struggled against.

Gill relies heavily on Florence's diaries and a voluminous collection of letters and notes exchanged among Nightingale family members and friends. Many of the details evoke the predicaments Jane Austen's fictionalized characters faced. There is worry about marrying the proper mate and producing male heirs, since women were barred from inheriting from their fathers.

Florence, who had her coming-out season the same year Victoria was betrothed to Albert, enjoyed the social whirl as a debutante but became bored with the tedium of socializing and leisurely pursuits and caused increasing concern within her family when she failed to marry before reaching 30. She declined proposals from admirers her family deemed suitable, remaining unmarried throughout her life.

Her growing interest in nursing and plans to travel to Germany to study nursing with Catholic nuns created an uproar among family members, most of whom found the idea abhorrent. The only women who worked in nursing at the time were mostly uneducated and considered to be morally loose and drunkards.

Gill's portrait of the Nightingale family suggests an environment rife with drama and pathos. Family members were inordinately involved in one another's lives and there seems to have been little privacy. Letters were routinely hand-copied and circulated among siblings, aunts and cousins. Florence's battle to achieve independence was epic for the era in which she lived, and her activities were closely monitored and widely discussed among all branches of her large family. Gill's detail of Florence's deft maneuvering to finally secure her family's blessing on her chosen path in life is fascinating.

Though she was resolute and achieved a great deal of success in pursuing her desire to strike out on her own, Florence was as quirky as her family of origin. She abruptly retired from public life in her late 30s and became reclusive, spending most days in bed and seeing callers by appointment only. She died at 90.

Gill's style is absorbing in spite of her randomly inserted first-person commentary, which tends to be abrupt and distracting, and some of the obscure mentions of far-flung relatives and acquaintances become tedious and too convoluted at times to follow. Nevertheless, the saga of the Nightingale family and the depth of detail of Victoriana is absorbing.

Lorrie Lykins is a writer who lives in Seminole.