I am reading Mark Bostridge's biography Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. I got onto this new bio via a review in the WSJ, and it's my first serious exposure to Nightingale.
Bostridge is not an easy author to read - none of the elegance and focus of David McCullough. But I have persisted with Bostridge's book because Nightingale is a fascinating woman.
She is about 22 years of age where I am right now, and struggling with a call she believes she hears from God to do something about the nursing situation in England, a call which, if pursued, would defy convention. Beginning on page 85, Bostridge writes of Nightingale seeking the counsel of Samuel Gridley Howe, who, with his new bride Julia Ward Howe, visited Nightingale while the couple were in England for their honeymoon.
Bostridge writes that Samuel Gridley Howe was "well known" in Britain for his work in Massachusetts teaching blind deaf-mutes. Nightingale had read "the annual reports of the Perkins Institution and State School for the Blind, of which Howe was Director."
Nightingale wrote Howe after his visit, asking him whether it would be "unsuitable and unbecoming for a young Englishwoman to devote herself to works of charity in hospitals and elsewhere as Catholic sisters do? Do you think it would be a dreadful thing?"
Howe replies, encouraging her to follow her vocation: "Act up to your inspiration, and you will find that there is nothing unbecoming or unladylike in doing your duty for the good others . . ."
Apparently, most of the biographies of Nightingale stop right there, but Bostridge writes that Howe's encouragement of Nightingale became a "festering" issue between Howe and his wife, Julia Ward Howe. Finally, after 20 years of marriage, Julia Ward Howe
rebuked Samuel Howe for having encouraged Florence Nightingale, a woman of similar age herself, to pursue a career, when he would not even allow his wife to publish a book of poems. . . [H]e responded by saying that "if he had been engaged to Florence Nightingale, and had loved her ever so dearly, he would have given her up as soon as she commenced her career as a public woman."
Julia wrote a series of poems in tribute to Nightingale, including these lines in one entitled "Florence Nightingale and Her Praisers":
If you debase the sex to elevate
One of like soul and temper with the rest,
You do but wrong a thousand fervent hearts,
To pay full tribute to one generous breast.