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Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingaleby Gillian Gill
Absolutely fascinating biography of a brilliant Victorian woman, her times, and her hugely interesting family. Florence struggled successfully against all the conventions of her time and Gill tells her story with nuance, skill, and empathy. This is one of the best biographies of the year.
Synopses & Reviews
Florence Nightingale was for a time the most famous woman in Britain — if not the world. We know her today primarily as a saintly character, perhaps as a heroic reformer of Britain's health-care system. The reality is more involved and far more fascinating. In an utterly beguiling narrative that reads like the best Victorian fiction, acclaimed author Gillian Gill tells the story of this richly complex woman and her extraordinary family.
Born to an adoring wealthy, cultivated father and a mother whose conventional facade concealed a surprisingly unfettered intelligence, Florence was connected by kinship or friendship to the cream of Victorian England's intellectual aristocracy. Though moving in a world of ease and privilege, the Nightingales came from solidly middle-class stock with deep traditions of hard work, natural curiosity, and moral clarity. So it should have come as no surprise to William Edward and Fanny Nightingale when their younger daughter, Florence, showed an early passion for helping others combined with a precocious bent for power.
Far more problematic was Florence's inexplicable refusal to marry the well-connected Richard Monckton Milnes. As Gill so brilliantly shows, this matrimonial refusal was at once an act of religious dedication and a cry for her freedom — as a woman and as a leader. Florence's later insistence on traveling to the Crimea at the height of war to tend to wounded soldiers was all but incendiary — especially for her older sister, Parthenope, whose frustration at being in the shade of her more charismatic sibling often led to illness.
Florence succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. But at the height of her celebrity, at the age of thirty-seven, she retired to her bedroom and remained there for most of the rest of her life, allowing visitors only by appointment.
Combining biography, politics, social history, and consummate storytelling, Nightingales is a dazzling portrait of an amazing woman, her difficult but loving family, and the high Victorian era they so perfectly epitomized. Beautifully written, witty, and irresistible, Nightingales is truly a tour de force.
"To focus on the well-nigh unknown family members of an icon is an audacious step for a biographer. And Gill's Nightingales does dwell in some measure on Florence's sickly, gentle sister, Parthenope ('Pop'); her stern, loving, society-minded mother, Fanny; her intellectually enterprising dilettante father, William Edward (amusingly referred to as 'WEN' throughout). But never for a moment does the true focus ever seriously threaten to abandon the endlessly fascinating 'Flo.' No, the true leap here is Gill's steadfast intentness on placing Nightingale in her full context, both familial and societal (which ceaselessly overlap) and her brazenly intimate approach to storytelling. We hear a great deal about Nightingale's family members, both nuclear and extended, an intelligent and industrious upper-class British family that didn't quite know what to do with this delightful tornado of a woman. Equally intelligent and driven (and, unsurprisingly, guilt plagued), Nightingale early on was given a strong dose of true intellectual freedom by her father and ever after chafed at the role life expected of her as dutiful wife and mother. Reflexively obeying her holy visions, she instead foreswore sex of any kind and threw herself into nursing and health-care reform, much to the embarrassment of her immediate family — and to the gratitude of the generations of emancipated women to follow. The book is expansive, richly detailed, generous to a fault; Gill's skills may well set a new standard for the novelistic mode of biography. She attends scrupulously to the voluminous paper trail Flo left behind and frequently introduces her 'I' to speculate, conjecture, argue, scold. Fortunately, Gill's knowledge of the era is so profound, her judgment so sound, and her narrative voice so cozy that it transforms this saint's life into an enveloping treat that serious readers will delight in plumbing. Photos not seen by PW. 50,000 first printing. Agent, Jill Kneering. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] multi-generational family saga filled with public achievement and private love-hate relationships....An incisive examination of one loving but divided family's grappling with power, privilege, passion, and philanthropy in Victorian Britain." Kirkus Reviews
"[A]n informative and highly readable portrait of a charismatic if flawed woman and the well-connected family that at first stifled but ultimately fueled her public work....Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Imaginatively conceived and elegantly written, Nightingales tells the compelling story of a family and an era with great style and flair. Even minor characters are wonderfully drawn and the tone is both intimate and erudite." Diane Jacobs, author of Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
"Nightingales is a beautifully written and nuanced portrait of Florence Nightingale, one of the most courageous and accomplished women of the 19th century. Combining meticulous scholarship with a keen understanding of the individual psyche and family dynamics, Gill infuses her subject with rare vitality and untangles the strands of historical, social, and personal forces that determine the course of female life. This multifaceted approach challenges the myths surrounding Nightingale's struggle for fulfillment, giving us a fascinating window into one Victorian woman that becomes a lens through which we can view ourselves." Susan Hertog, author of Anne Morrow Lindbergh
"Nightingales brilliantly captures the unique intensity both of individuals and an age. Much more than a biography of a remarkable woman, Gill vividly evokes the complex and fascinating inter-relations of an exceptional family. She engages her reader at every step as we travel with the fiercely intelligent and charismatic Florence Nightingale on her remarkable life journey." Anna Beer, author of My Just Desire
"Nightingales is wonderful. I will certainly never again dare to think of Florence Nightingale as 'a lifelong spinster' with an invalid's need for noble self-sacrifice, but as a powerful woman who changed the course of the British government toward their own wounded forever." Nancy Milford, author of Savage Beauty and Zelda
"A dynamic and absorbing account, written in a lively and captivating manner, of a remarkable family and its even more remarkable scion, Florence Nightingale. Gill has used her sources to maximum effect, engaging the reader in a pacy narrative that brings that far distant 'other country,' the Victorian age, so vividly to life. I highly recommend it!" Alison Weir, author of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Florence Nightingale was for a time the most famous woman in Britain--if not the world. We know her today primarily as a saintly character, perhaps as a heroic reformer of Britain's healthcare system. The reality is more involved and far more fascinating. In an utterly beguiling narrative that reads like the best Victorian fiction, acclaimed author Gillian Gill tells the story of this richly complex woman and her extraordinary family.
About the Author
Gillian Gill, who holds a Ph.D. in modern French literature from Cambridge, has taught at Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale, and Harvard. She is the author of Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries and Mary Baker Eddy. She lives in a suburb of Boston.
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