Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Lamp--Who's "Shrieking Aloud in Her Agony"

Florence Nightingale (departs for the Crimea, 21 October 1854)

There is perhaps no more unlikely spokeswoman for the horrors of nineteenth-century views of “true” womanhood than Florence Nightingale.* I say “unlikely” because I am assuming that many, if not most, readers are like me and still associate Nightingale with the carefully sanitized biographies they read when they were children. 

Florence Nightingale, c. 1860
Although I’ve been madly consuming newly published women’s biographies and histories during the last twenty years or so, Florence Nightingale remained “the lady with the lamp,” a saintly figure, the sheltered and pampered daughter of a wealthy English family who sacrificed marriage and motherhood in order to devote herself to ameliorating the sufferings of others. 

I am embarrassed to admit that, aside from dim memories of childhood books, the only clear image I had of Florence Nightingale came from the 1936 film The White Angel, starring the dark-haired Hollywood beauty, Kay Francis. It wasn’t until a very few years ago that I stumbled on the “real” Florence Nightingale and her angry, agonized essay, “Cassandra.” 

I should have known better, of course—the hint that there was something more to be known about Nightingale’s life was right there, all along, in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. “Among your grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” Woolf writes, “there were many that wept their eyes out. Florence Nightingale shrieked aloud in her agony.” Woolf adds a footnote here—“See Cassandra. . . .” But I had read past Wolf’s signpost, completely overlooking it. 

Once I heeded Woolf’s command (her use of the imperative, “See”!) and read “Cassandra,” I was forced to reassess my childish views of the saintly “the lady with the lamp.” 

Nightingale’s angry “Cassandra” was written before she was able to realize her goal of dedicating her life to meaningful work—it was written, in fact, when she was in the midst of the blackest despair. Born in 1820, the young Nightingale seemed to conform to the expectations of her family and her class, but when she was not yet seventeen, she experienced a kind of religious vision. 

She later described this moment of awakening: “On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service.” By the time she entered her twenties, still not sure what service God might have called her to, she rejected what she called the “useless trifles” of women’s lives. “What is my business in this world and what have I done this fortnight? I have read the ‘Daughter at Home’ to Father and two chapters of Mackintosh; a volume of Sybil to Mamma. Learnt seven tunes by heart. Written various letters. Ridden with papa. Paid eight visits. Done company. And that is all,” she wrote. 

She feared the emptiness of this kind of life—“I see . . . so many of my kind who have gone mad for want of something to do.” Expected to marry, Nightingale found no relief for her despair in the “conversation of all these good clever men” that should, she was told, “be enough” for her. “Why am I starving, desperate, diseased on it?” she wondered. 

She ultimately rejected marriage—to be married, she wrote, “would seem to me like suicide.” Equally objectionable was the kind of philanthropic do-gooding, visiting the poor and the sick, that was appropriate for women of her class. In 1845, she announced to her family that she had decided to become a nurse, but she had to overcome years of opposition before she could devote herself fully to her calling. Florence Nightingale was finally able to leave home in 1853, after her father settled the sum of five hundred pounds a year on her. (The parallel with Woolf here--a woman needs five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own--is uncanny.)

“Cassandra” was written between 1850 and 1851, just before those years of opposition ended. Although the first-person narrator of “Cassandra” is never identified with Nightingale herself, it is hard not to read the essay as a reflection of Nightingale’s own life—that is exactly what Woolf does, for example. 

The title of the essay alludes to the Greek Cassandra, to whom the god Apollo gave the gift of prophecy—but with the curse that no one would believe her prophecies. Although there is no reference at all to Cassandra in the body of the essay, the impassioned writer still seems to see herself as a prophet who is ignored. Is she also, like her Greek namesake, cursed? Is she doomed know what should be done but forever unable to do it? 

Following her suggestive title, Nightingale begins her essay with an epigraph adapted from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, an opening that certainly seems to emphasize the view that the writer sees herself as a prophet. The gospel opens with a reference to John the Baptist, introduced by a quotation from Isaiah: “I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” In Nightingale’s variation of the gospel verse, the “wilderness” of Isaiah becomes the “crowd” of nineteenth-century society: “‘The voice of one crying in the’ crowd.” 

But make no mistake—although she may occupy a space in nineteenth-century society, the narrator of the piece regards herself as isolated and deprived. She is “wandering alone in the bitterness of life without.” She writes that “such an one” might be tempted simply to sleep away her suffering like so many who “are not yet awake.” But “one alone,” like Nightingale, one who is both awake and “prematurely alive” to her suffering, “must wander out in silence and solitude.” She is fully alive and, like Cassandra, fully aware of the “evil” that others refuse to see, “and yet [she] has no power to discover the remedy for it.” 

Nightingale confronts her readers with a bitter question: “Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity—these three—and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?” In the first section of her deeply religious yet deeply despairing essay, Nightingale addresses fathers and mothers who consign their daughters to “the monotonous events of domestic life.” Denied any outlet for their passions, the daughters of these fathers and mothers “must act the farce of hypocrisy, the lie that they are without passion,” and find themselves trying, in vain, “to subdue the perpetual day-dreaming, which is so dangerous!” 

Nightingale believes that the dangerous fantasies filling young women’s minds are produced by the complete lack of any meaningful “interest” in their lives. And yet, even as she writes out of her suffering, this desperate voice crying out in the wilderness does not reject her suffering—in fact, as Nightingale observes, a life of suffering is far better than a life without it, for “out of nothing comes nothing. But out of suffering may come the cure.” 

Interestingly, middle-class women like Nightingale do have rooms of their own. In “Cassandra,” Nightingale focuses her attention on the “drawing rooms” of Victorian homes where women live out much of their daily lives. The drawing room is a feminized space, although men do join women there at times during the day, after dinner, for example. But men’s lives and work are carried on outside this domestic space, whereas women must spend their lives at home, confined to such rooms. 

In the second section of “Cassandra,” Nightingale shows how arid a desert the drawing room is. She accomplishes this by putting an imaginary man into the reality of this woman’s world: “If one calls upon a friend in London and sees her son in the drawing-room, it strikes one as odd to find a young man sitting idling in his mother’s drawing-room in the morning.” She carries her imagined scene further—“But suppose we were to see a number of men in the morning sitting round a table in the drawing-room, looking at prints, doing worsted work, and reading little books, how we should laugh!” 

But why, why, she asks, would this be so funny: “Now, why is it more ridiculous for a man than for a woman to do worsted work and drive out every day in the carriage? Why should we laugh if we were to see a parcel of men sitting round a drawing-room table in the morning, and think it all right if they were women?” 

The answer, Nightingale suggests, is that women are “never supposed to have any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted.” It is their “duty,” in fact, to be always ready, prepared to give up anything, at any moment, for “every trifler” who is “more selfish than themselves.” Women may be wasting their time on nonsense and trivialities in the drawing room, but that is only because they are always at someone else’s disposal—apt at any moment to be called away from whatever they are doing. 

“Women never have half an hour in all their lives . . . that they can call their own, without fear of offending or of hurting some one,” she writes, and “[s]o women play through life.” Their time “is of no value”; instead they “are taught from their infancy upwards that it is wrong, ill-tempered, and a misunderstanding of ‘a woman’s mission’ (with a great M.) if they do not allow themselves willingly to be interrupted at all hours.”

And so, to fill those numberless hours while they are waiting to be interrupted, women occupy themselves by “sitting in the drawing-room, saying words which may as well not be said.” They write letters to their friends. They busy themselves with needlework projects of varying kinds. They may play music or draw, but not seriously—such occupations are “only used by her as an amusement (a pass-time, as it is called).” 

The only escape from this stultifying routine, aside from the daydreaming that worries Nightingale, is marriage, but she rejects this as a plausible occupation for women. “Marriage is the only chance (and it is but a chance) offered to women for escape from this death; and how eagerly and how ignorantly it is embraced!” But women will find nothing in marriage but sacrifice—indeed, a “woman must annihilate herself” in marriage, Nightingale concludes. A wife must dedicate herself completely “to the vocation of her husband; she fills up and performs the subordinate parts in it.”

A man “gains everything by marriage”—a woman, nothing. “The intercourse of man and woman—how frivolous, how unworthy it is!” she writes. “Can we call that the true vocation of woman—her high career? Look round at the marriages which you know. The true marriage—that noble union, by which a man and woman become together the one perfect being—probably does not exist at present upon earth.” 

In her despair, Nightingale encourages women to wake up. As she nears the end of her essay, she addresses them directly, sounding not unlike Christine de Pizan addressing all womankind--present and future--at the end of The Book of the City of Ladies. “Awake, ye women, all ye that sleep, awake!” Nightingale writes, imploring women to think of accomplishing more than “nursing the infants, keeping a pretty house, having a good dinner and an entertaining party.” 

In rejecting marriage and traditional “family values,” Nightingale knows that she is challenging the fundamental institutions of her society. In the end, knowing that her analysis of these institutions might be rejected or attributed to a “womanish” tendency to “complain,” she takes a radical move, co-opting her critics by recalling the example of Jesus: “Was Christ called a complainer against the world?” she asks.

Nightingale builds to her radical conclusion by teasing out the implications of her question: “People talk about imitating Christ, and imitate Him in the little trifling formal things, such as washing the feet, saying [H]is prayer, and so on; but if any one attempts the real imitation of Him, there are no bounds to the outcry with which the presumption of that person is condemned.” 

In rejecting notions of “true womanhood” that limit women to their constricted lives inside the family and their subservience to family interests, Nightingale reminds her readers of Jesus’s own rejection of his birth family—his mother, his brothers—and his substitution of a “true” family: “Who is my mother? And who are my brethren? Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother” (Nightingale is paraphrasing Mark 3:33 and 3:35). But Nightingale knows how dangerous redefining “family” is for a woman: “But if we were to say that, we should be accused of ‘destroying the family tie,’ of diminishing the obligation of the home duties,” she observes. 

The final section of “Cassandra” shows us a dying woman, speaking to those who will mourn her and who will lament the “good” that she “might have done.” The dying woman knows that, in fact, her “talent” and her “gifts” will be missed—the world will “be put back some little time” by her death. But those losses have already occurred. Her physical death, in fact, is less than her real death, “which has taken place some years ago,” when she had “to sacrifice” her own individual gifts, which might have changed the world, to “conventionality.” 

The picture Nightingale paints of this dying woman is bleak: “My people were like children playing on the shore of the eighteenth century. I was their hobby-horse, their plaything; and they drove me to and fro, dear souls! Never weary of the play themselves, till I, who had grown to woman’s estate and to the ideas of the nineteenth century, lay down exhausted, my mind closed to hope, my heart to strength.” The bitter truth is that the dying woman is freed only by her death; “Welcome, beautiful death!” she cries. 

Several years after her return from the Crimea, in 1860, Florence Nightingale suffered a physical collapse. Like so many women, she was prescribed complete bed rest. As Monica Baly and H. C. G. Matthew write in their Oxford Dictionary of National Biography essay on Nightingale, her collapse may have been the result of a recurrence of the debilitating Crimean fever she had suffered in 1856, although it may also have been a cardiac problem of some sort. Others have suggested a calculated psychosomatic component to Nightingale’s illness, that it was perhaps “psychoneurosis with a purpose,” a “protective” mechanism by means of which Nightingale could avoid her family and devote herself to her work. 

The specific causes of Nightingale’s illness weren’t critical to its treatment, however, because whatever the source, the prescription for the peculiarly female diagnosis of hysteria was the same. As Baly and Matthew note, the “accepted medical wisdom was that excessive mental exertion on the part of a woman was unnatural and would lead to breakdown: the standard treatment was complete rest and quiet. Florence Nightingale took to her bed or couch because the doctors ordered it. . . .” 

But, while she spent the next twenty years as an “invalid,” seeming to accept her role as patient, Nightingale didn’t entirely follow doctor’s orders. She refused to give up her work. She knew that, without work, a woman’s isolation and inactivity would destroy her. And so, for the twenty years she spent in her “sickroom,” Nightingale carried on with her work, reporting on sanitation in India, involving herself with the training of midwives, recommending improvements in hospital design, and supporting reform in English workhouses. 

After the death of her mother in 1880—in other words, after some twenty years—Florence Nightingale rose from her bed, left her sick room, and re-entered the world. She certainly wasn’t as vigorous as she had been, nor was she actively involved in government service. Although she may have been “increasingly out of touch” with developments in public health care, she lived another thirty years . . . 

Conventionally dated to 1852, Florence Nightingale’s “Cassandra” was privately published in 1860, in the second volume of her Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth. It was not widely available until 1928, when it appeared as an appendix to Ray Strachey’s The Cause: The History of the British Women’s Movement. Nightingale’s essay is available in Myra Stark’s Cassandra, an Essay by Florence Nightingale. The text is also available in Mary Poovey's Cassandra and Suggestions for Thought by Florence Nightingale.

The 1936 film starring Kay Francis as Florence Nightingale, The White Angel, is not currently available on video or DVD, but you can occasionally catch it on Turner Classic Movies. I still enjoy it whenever it's broadcast.

There are many excellent biographies of Nightingale, but you might start with the materials available online at the website of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Most of all, though, follow Woolf's command: "See Cassandra!"

*This post has been adapted from Reading Women's Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing: A Guide to Six Centuries of Women Writers Imagining Rooms of Their Own.