Florence Nightingale is a 19th-century heroine, so it's not surprising to find a biography of her teeming with people, places, and family relationships, a real-life echo of period novels by Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Elizabeth Gaskell.
In "Nightingales," Gillian Gill's account of the life and times of this remarkable woman, 59 pages of genealogical history precede Flo's appearance. But these relatives are the context for her childhood, a period spent visiting different branches of her extended family and being given a superb classical and mathematical education by her father. Her liberal Unitarian parents were wealthy and well connected to the larger world of upper-middle-class British society and government.
Flo showed an early aptitude for the statistical work for which she was later famous: An inventory chart she created recorded the fruits and vegetables in the playhouse larder. At 9, she composed a list of daily goals to improve her moral character. By the age of 17, she was intellectually self-confident; she also reported hearing God calling her to his service and agonized about how to answer that call.
For their parents, the desirable next step for Florence and her older sister, Parthenope, was marriage. The Nightingale estate was entailed and could be inherited only by a male heir, hence the push to marry and produce a son. Two years of traveling in Europe gave the girls the polish needed for a London debut. Alas! No suitor appeared for plain Parthe until she was 40.
For Flo, two suitable possibilities were on hand, but after years of dallying, she said no to each. She wanted to do more with her life than follow the conventional path for Victorian women. Perhaps she could have become a successful writer. Gill says her letters home about Egypt constitute one of the masterpieces of Victorian travel writing.
Florence's goal, announced at age 25, was to "care for the sick in public institutions." She had read everything available about nursing, hospitals, and the condition of people in poverty, and she took every opportunity to care for the sick.
The chance to pursue her goal came at age 33, when she was asked to head the Institution for Ill Gentlewomen in London. Refurbished and reformed by Florence, the hospice became a model. Word of her work spread through the network of family, friends, and people in power, and she was invited by the government to go to Turkey in 1854 when the Crimean War was creating a health crisis for sick and wounded British soldiers.
The Lady With the Lamp revolutionized nursing and established sanitary standards that significantly cut mortality rates. After the war, Flo returned home, an invalid herself, but she continued to work and led two royal commissions that established healthcare standards in Britain and served as a model for other countries.
"Florence Nightingale became an incarnation of the values of the British people," Gill writes. "She personified courage, selflessness, determination, industry, initiative, tenderness, compassion. By a unique combination of events, Florence Nightingale had attained a unique power."
Gracefully written, Gill's account of her complex and contradictory subject flows well, despite its density of detail. The chapters describing the Crimean War and Nightingale's work are riveting. Flo receives the fine care she deserves here.
• Ruth Johnstone Wales is editor of the Monitor World edition.