Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Florence’s lost diaries

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth one of Britain’s greatest heroines - Florence Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp. She was also a lady of the diary, at least as a young woman. A few years back, one of her journals turned up, anonymously by post, to Claydon House, where Nightingale frequently stayed; and one of Florence’s biographers, Hugh Small, believes there are several more lost journals waiting to be discovered.

Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820, in Florence and named after the city, to an upper class British family. As a young woman, she shocked her family by spurning offers of marriage in order to become a nurse (which she believed God had called her to do), though her studies were initially blocked by her parents. While in Rome in 1847, she met and became friends with the British politician Sydney Herbert, who would later be instrumental in her career. In 1850, she entered an institution in Kaiserswerth, Germany, to train, and three years later was appointed superintendent of the Insitution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London.

The following year, in 1854 during the Crimea War, Nightingale was put in charge of nursing in military hospitals at Scutari, Turkey. There she set about starting to deal with appalling conditions of crowding, insanitation, and lack of basic necessities, as well as the hostility of local doctors. Not immediately, but within a year, she had managed to significantly reduce the death rates, though this may have been largely due to a Sanitary Commission, she had called for from Britain, which flushed out the sewers and improved the ventilation.

During her time at Scutari, she made three trips to the Crimea itself, was dangerously ill for a while, and was eventually given jurisdiction over all the army military hospitals. A report in The Times about her work led to the nickname ‘Lady of the Lamp’. However, even today there is still controversy over whether her theories as to the causes of the high death rates at the time were correct.

On her return to England in 1856, Nightingale campaigned for, and achieved, a Royal Commission on the Health of the Army. By this time she believed most soldiers in hospital were killed by poor living conditions, and was a strong advocate of improved sanitary living conditions. While still in Turkey, public interest in her work had led to the launch of a public fund which, by 1860, had sufficient funds to help Nightingale set up a training school for nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital (now part of King’s College, London). Around this time, she also wrote and published, Notes on Nursing, which sold well to the profession and to the public, and is now considered a classic introduction to nursing.

From 1857 onwards, Nightingale was intermittently bedridden and suffered from depression, though she continued to campaign for social reform, introducing trained nurses into workhouses, for example, and pioneering work in the field of hospital planning. In 1883, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria, and in 1907, she was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit. She died in 1910. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, the Florence Nightingale Museum (in London) website, or the Victorian Web.

Twenty years ago, a diary written by Florence Nightingale suddenly turned up - anonymously in the post - at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire - see the BBC report. This is now a National Trust museum, but is where her sister lived having married into the Verney family, the owners of the house, and where Florence herself often stayed. The diary had details of her eight-month journey across Egypt, France, Greece, Italy and Austria, ending in Berlin in 1850, but contained only mundane details. More interesting diary details had already been published in Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and “Visions” (State University of New York Press, 1997). The author, Michael Calabria, provides extensive notes and interpretations of the relatively sparse material. Some of this book is viewable at Googlebooks.

Hugh Small, author of Florence Nightingale, Avenging Angel, runs a website with many learned articles on the heroine. Earlier this year he published one on her diaries. It lists those of her papers which could be considered diary-like: a ‘commonplace book’ from 1836 with only facts and figures from her studies; a set of private notes on personal matters, dated between 1845 and 1860; the diary (as above) transcribed by Michael Calabria; a set of letters and travel descriptions for her family which formed the basis of Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile; and the 1850 diary sent to Claydon in 2000.

However, Small then says: ‘If you were to judge from the above, you would conclude that Nightingale did not often keep a diary during her first 34 years. But there is very strong evidence that the above list covers only a small fraction of the diaries that she left behind at her death.’ He points to a 1931 biography by Ida O’Malley - Florence Nightingale 1820-1856, A Study of her Life down to the End of the Crimean War - the full text can be consulted at Internet Archive.

O’Malley refers to several diary sources that have not been quoted directly by any writer since: an autobiographical text in French by Florence as a child in 1828-1830; journals for the following periods 1828-1831, 1837-1839, 1849-1850; and notes, fragments of diaries etc from 1845 onwards. And, according to Small’s analysis, the whereabouts of these papers is unknown. He concludes his article: ‘So keep your eyes open. We can only hope that in some neglected storeroom or attic there will one day be found a bundle of notebooks tied with ribbon, the little volume on top being a lined exercise book with pages 8½ inches high by 7 inches wide covered with large childish script: La Vie de Florence Rossignol, Première Volume.

Here are a few entries from the diary (as found in Ida O’Malley's biography).

22 January 1850
‘Sat long in the cold moonlight watching our approach to Philae and preparing myself for it. Moonlight walk on the island. Sitting on Philae by the temple of Isis, with the roar of the cataract, I thought I should see Him. His shadow in the moonlight in the Propylaeum.

26 January 1850
‘Yesterday I spoilt it all with dreaming. Disappointed with myself and the effect of Egypt on me. Rome was better.’

27 January 1850
‘Took my crucifix up before breakfast to lay it in the sacred dust of the chamber of Osiris.’

27-28 Janaury 1850
‘Farewell moonlight walk. All night with my head out of the window learning every line of the temples under the palms by heart. Sailed before sunrise.’

22 February 1850
‘Luxor before breakfast. Long morning by myself at old Kourna. Sat on the steps of the portico, moving with the shadow of the sun, and looking at the (to me) priceless view. God spoke to me again.’

7 March 1850
‘God called me in the morning, and asked me would I do good for Him alone without the reputation?’

12 March 1850
‘Very sleepy . . . Stood at the door of the boat looking out upon the stars and the tall mast in the still night against the sky (we were at anchor - they were all asleep and I could not go to bed) and tried to think only of God’s will, and that everything is desirable and undesirable only as He is in it or not in it - only as it brings us nearer or farther from Him.’

This article is a revised version of one first published on 13 August 2010 on the 100th anniversary of her death.

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