Florence Nightingale's 20th Century Biographers

This paper was originally presented by Hugh Small at the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of the Florence Nightingale Museum, London, 7th September 2000.

Florence Nightingale has now been dead for 90 years, the same length of time she was on this earth. During that time, people who have written biographies of her are largely responsible for the way we see her and the values that we ascribe to her. Biographies of Florence Nightingale will always reflect the prejudices of the author and may describe apparently different women even though they stick to the truth. These prejudices are particularly evident in the work of her 20th century biographers.

One of the most interesting aspects of Florence Nightingale’s life is that it is better documented than perhaps any previous life in history. She came from a family that hoarded papers, and her sister married into a family – the Verneys – even more addicted to archiving family records. When Nightingale was twenty, the government reduced the price of letter postage dramatically and increased its reliability. This led to an explosion of private writing, and a huge quantity of Nightingale’s private correspondence has survived.

From about the same time, the government took to producing Parliamentary blue books in huge quantities in pursuit of “open government” – documenting in extraordinary detail the facts and opinions surrounding the Crimean War and other historical events. In the 1850s, the government repealed “taxes on knowledge” – taxes on paper, newspapers, and on advertisements which helped to finance the newspapers. Circumstance and family habits therefore placed Florence Nightingale at the beginning of a new era of industrial-scale historical documentation.

The sheer weight of the material brings the problem that no individual will find it easy to be familiar with all of it. Any biography, therefore, of a subject like Florence Nightingale will be selective as far as which facts are used, as well as differing in the interpretation the biographer chooses to place on those facts. I maintain that all of Florence Nightingale’s early biographers were clearly overwhelmed by the amount of material available as well as by the continued sensitivity of some of it.

Until the end of the 20th century I would claim there were only 3 people who might be credited with writing comprehensive and original biographies of Florence Nightingale. These were: Sir Edward Cook in 1913, Ida O’Malley in 1931 (whose second volume never materialised), and Cecil Woodham-Smith in 1950. By “comprehensive and original” I mean biographies that claim to have consulted the whole of the archives rather than relying on previous published biographies and histories, thus excluding Lytton Strachey and others. By “biographies” I mean books that aim to chronicle her life from cradle to grave, including the mental development in childhood, and thus I somewhat arbitrarily exclude works by for example Monica Baly and F. B. Smith.

The bias of the 1913 two-volume work by Sir E.T. Cook, is pro-establishment, pro-authority. Two examples of his censorship of Nightingale’s radical views are 1) he removed the passage from one of her letters where she complained that Queen Victoria was obstructing reform and 2) he claimed that she agreed with the Lambeth site for St. Thomas’s (chosen by the surgeons) whereas in reality she opposed it tooth and nail (see ref. 1).

Cook was a very erudite and literary man whose wide learning gave an understanding of the many different aspects of Nightingale’s own genius. (Cook also wrote a biography of John Ruskin, another polymath who wrote on everything from art to economics). But by trade Cook was a journalist, and a very political journalist. He was a militaristic, imperialistic liberal who fell out with other journalists on the newspaper where he worked because of his enthusiastic support for the Boer War. During the early days of World War I, Cook wrote a propaganda booklet justifying Britain’s involvement in the war, and he even helped to draft the diplomatic correspondence with the enemy (ref. 2). In the years leading up to the publication of his biography of Florence Nightingale, Europe was in crisis and anticipating the outbreak of a European war. There had been a scandal in 1908 when a newspaper published the details of the inadequate defences of the port of Dover, and this led directly to the Official Secrets Act of 1911.

In 1912, before war broke out and while Cook was working on Florence Nightingale the infamous “D” Notice Committee was implemented with no parliamentary discussion, enabling the Government to censor newspapers for the first time. One may assume that the journalist Sir Edward Cook did not oppose this reduction in freedom of the press, because in 1915 he was appointed joint manager of the government Press Bureau, and thus became officially responsible for directly censoring the nation’s newspapers throughout the war.

His attitude to secrecy makes him a strange choice as the biographer of a woman who had threatened to go to the public with her denunciations of official incompetence during the Crimean War. I think it is obvious that if, as I claim in my own book (ref. 3), she leaked her Notes on Matters Affecting the British Army to influential people in order to put pressure on the Government, Sir Edward Cook would not mention her motives in what he intended to be a favourable biography of a patriotic figure. As I have already shown in two instances, his censorship of Florence’s anti-establishment views was entirely in keeping with his background. Of course it was also in keeping with the times: a mention that Florence was privately critical of Queen Victoria on many occasions would have been difficult to explain to the public barely ten years after the revered Queen’s death. Also, the Nightingale family gave Cook exclusive access to the Nightingale Papers, so he wrote to please them. Or perhaps it would be more true to say that they selected a biographer whose philosophy coincided with theirs. As Monica Baly points out, they ensured that Cook exaggerated Nightingale’s early involvement with the Nightingale Training School, to publicise the School (in which they had a family interest) at a difficult period. The Nightingale family must therefore be considered as joint authors with Cook.

Cook’s encyclopedic work with its pro-authority bias has affected all other writers on Florence Nightingale who have not gone back to the original material. The next biographer after Cook who did go back to the original material was Ida O’Malley, who in 1931 published an account of Nightingale’s life up to the end of the Crimean War.

O’Malley was an early feminist, and what I found most insightful in her book was her treatment of Parthenope, Florence’s sister. O’Malley seems to regard both of the sisters as victims of the oppression of women, whereas other writers sometimes give the impression that Parthenope was put on earth expressly for the purpose of making Florence miserable. As O’Malley points out, Florence’s insistence on opting out of the family entertainment whenever it suited her increased the burden on her sister when their parents indulged their hobby of filling the house with distinguished but sometimes boring people who had to be treated to intellectual conversation. Parthenope was quite justified, therefore, in resenting Florence’s freedom and privacy and neglect of her family duty. I will come back to O’Malley’s – in my view rather neglected – biography in a moment.

The next and most famous biographer was also a woman, Cecil Woodham-Smith. The bias of Woodham-Smith’s 1950 work was anti-establishment, the opposite of Cook’s, and this is one of the criticisms made in a 1959 article by Greenleaf (ref. 4). Greenleaf’s article accuses Woodham-Smith of making errors of fact which tend to “throw a worse light on the authorities”. It also accuses her of copying large parts of Cook’s work without proper acknowledgement. Among the errors Greenleaf cites are Woodham-Smith’s statement that Lord Cardigan had testified to the Roebuck Committee that the army doctors were terrified of Dr. Hall, and her statement that Dr. Hall had written a letter saying that nothing was lacking in the hospital at Scutari (ref. 5). I shall analyse these two errors later.

I have hinted that Cook’s pro-establishment bias comes from his professional position as a jingoist journalist and newspaper censor. Woodham-Smith’s anti-establishment bias seems to have roots in her personal life. Quite apart from being given such an uncompromisingly masculine Christian name, she had an unusual early life. Her mother was Welsh and she was born in Wales, but her father was an Irishman descended from one of the leaders of the United Irishmen’s plot to collaborate with the French to free Ireland from British Rule. This Welsh-Irish union must have given plenty of scope for divided loyalties and rebelliousness in the child. Cecil Fitzgerald, as she then was, was expelled from school and then managed to get herself sent down from Oxford for (of all things) taking part in an Irish republican demonstration.

One of Woodham-Smith’s other famous books is The Reason Why, which examines the reasons for the Charge of the Light Brigade. Her explanation hinges on the family stresses in the relationship between Lord Cardigan, who led the Charge, and Lord Lucan (his hated brother-in-law) who ordered it. One of the criticisms made by Greenleaf is that in her biography of Florence Nightingale, Woodham-Smith has exaggerated the importance of Nightingale’s disagreement with her family. I would speculate that the strains in the author’s parental home may have led to some of her wild youthful behaviour as well as her theory that family stresses are important in history.

If, as the critical article by Greenleaf suggests, Woodham-Smith tried to make the authorities look worse than they were, it is paradoxical that in copying Cook she copied some of his pro-authority inaccuracies. This applies to the two I mentioned already: Cook’s censorship of Nightingale’s criticism of Queen Victoria and his pretence that Nightingale agreed with the site chosen for St. Thomas’s. These also appear in Woodham-Smith’s biography. It seems she did not research these incidents, the truth about which would have added grist to her anti-authoritarian mill.

Earlier I referred to two other claimed inaccuracies in Woodham-Smith’s book that do throw a worse light on the authorities. I had the idea to see whether she might have copied them from somewhere else, and sure enough I find that both of them come from the neglected but well-researched biography by O’Malley. It was O’Malley who said that Lord Cardigan had stated that the doctors were frightened of their chief, Dr. Hall, and it was O’Malley who said that Dr. Hall had stated that there was nothing lacking at the Scutari hospital (ref. 6). The article by Greenleaf more or less accused Woodham-Smith of making these facts up, but a comparison of her wording with O’Malley’s shows Woodham-Smith merely copied them and spruced them up a bit to make it look as though she was quoting original sources, and in so doing she distorted them. (This copying from O’Malley, previously unnoticed I think, is the only really new fact I am telling you today). Greenleaf must have been unaware of the O’Malley book, because Greenleaf says that one of Woodham-Smith’s few original revelations was the name of Florence’s male admirer Richard Monckton Milnes, who had been anonymous in Cook’s account. But O’Malley had already revealed Milnes’s name 20 years before Woodham-Smith.

This shows perhaps that Woodham-Smith was less guilty of falsification than her critics imply, but more guilty of plagiarism. Perhaps the Woodham-Smith biography should not be classed as an original biography at all, but more of a deconstruction exercise like Lytton Strachey’s essay in Eminent Victorians.

But if it is so inaccurate and derivative, why is it that Woodham-Smith’s biography has been so famous for 50 years, when the others from which it was largely copied have been forgotten? I would propose that the answer is that it suited the spirit of the times. In 1950, when Woodham-Smith’s biography appeared, the era of rejection of “family values” was just beginning. It was the era of R. D. Laing, the radical psychiatrist who believed that family pressures were at the root of many mental illnesses, and of popular books like The Primal Scream that encouraged people to believe that their parents had made them neurotic. It became almost fashionable to be a neurotic victim of an overbearing parent. The explanation that Florence Nightingale’s eccentricities were the result of family emotional abuse seemed quite acceptable, and excused some of Florence’s alleged bad behaviour.

Even more than that, this 1950 biography was so important that it may have helped the anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment wave to achieve momentum. It was one of the most celebrated books of its time, not just one of the most celebrated biographies. Although I was only seven when it was published, I remember the esteem in which it was held in the fifties and it was one of the very first adult books I read in my early teens. My father was very much in awe of the book. He was a general surgeon who was rather well known for his tendency to discuss literature over the operating table. In those days a consultant had a rather paternalistic attitude towards his house surgeons, and my father had a list of twenty or so books that he recommended his subordinates should read. One of the biographies was Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale. It was a common topic of conversation at dinner parties.

Woodham-Smith’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Florence Nightingale therefore had a wide circle of admirers and helped to make anti-establishment ideas resonate in many impressionable minds. Part of the impact must have been the feeling that Woodham-Smith put into it as a reflection of her own personal philosophy. The fact that its prejudices resonated with the emerging philosophies of the day must be part of the secret of the success of Woodham-Smith’s biography and also why its popularity is now fading.

So both Cook and Woodham-Smith, who have dominated our view of Florence Nightingale, had axes to grind when selecting facts and interpreting them. I can’t help concluding that nearly all biography is the product of authors who are primarily seeking to burnish their own reputation among the group of people that is important to them. In some cases they injure the reputation of their subject, even though their biography is supposed to be favourable. I believe this is true of Nightingale, because the false picture of her supposed success at Scutari during the war makes it appear that she scored an easy victory over a few bumbling authority-figures who can be conveniently demonised. This obscures the fact that the relative failure of Scutari was due to failings in British society as a whole, and Nightingale’s real victory was in changing that society root and branch after the war – a magnificent achievement.

Readable though they are, I hope you will bear in mind the limitations of both of the most influential biographies of Florence Nightingale. The petty prejudices and preoccupations of the rather unsatisfactory century that has just closed – jingoist patriotism, 1950’s pop psychology – must not be allowed to cloud our view of Florence Nightingale forever.

(1) Sir Edward Cook: The Life of Florence Nightingale London, Macmillan, 1913,   vol i. pp 330, 426
(2) John Saxon Mills: Sir E. T. Cook K.B.E. A Biography London, Constable, 1921
(3) Hugh Small: Florence Nightingale, Avenging Angel London, Constable, 1998
(4) W. H. Greenleaf: Biography and the Amateur Historian: Mrs. Woodham-Smith’s “Florence Nightingale” Victorian Studies, December 1959
(5) Cecil Woodham-Smith: Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 London, Constable, 1950, p 210
(6) Ida B. O’Malley: Florence Nightingale 1820-1856 London, Thornton Butterworth 1931, pp 271n, 280

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