Catherine Reef is the author of the new young adult biography Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse. Her other books include Noah Webster: Man of Many Words; Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life; and Leonard Bernstein and American Music. She lives in Maryland.
Q: Why did you decide to write about Florence Nightingale, and what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about her?
A: I can sum up why I wrote this book in three words: what a story! A privileged daughter in Victorian England feels compelled to go against the expectations of her parents and society to pursue a life in nursing.
Then, within a few years of embarking on her hard-won working life, she is placed in charge of nursing in British military hospitals throughout the Crimean War zone. Once there, she turns around a wretched situation, saves hundreds of lives, and goes on to elevate the profession of nursing.
Many, many books about Nightingale had been written for young children, but I saw that very little was available for adolescents and teens.
This was a shame, because there is so much in Nightingale’s story that will speak directly to them. What young person hasn’t felt misunderstood by his or her family or society? Who, while growing up, has not felt chosen for an uncommon destiny?
The image of Florence Nightingale that comes to mind for most people today is the one that was popularized in her lifetime: the “Lady with the Lamp,” the saintly, selfless woman tirelessly caring for convalescing soldiers.
I would not call this image inaccurate, but it is incomplete. Nightingale could be stubborn, unreasonable, and demanding. She had complicated relationships with the people close to her, including her sister, her friends, and a man she might have married.
Also, her Crimean War service occupied only a brief couple of years. She continued working to improve health care for Britons and establish training for nurses for many years afterward.
Q: What do her experiences say about the role of women in Victorian England?
A: Nightingale’s achievements tell us that the place of women in society was poised for change. We may look back on the Victorian period as a time of stodgy stability, but in fact it was an era of transformation.
In 1837, the year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Britain was an agricultural nation where people traveled overland by carriage, horse, or foot. Society conformed to a rigid hierarchy, with the monarch at the pinnacle, nobility below royalty, followed by the gentry, the emerging middle class, and the lower classes. People knew where they fit in.
Considered physically and intellectually inferior to men, a lady of the middle or upper classes lived for home and family and was educated accordingly. She was to be virtuous, gentle, selfless, and in need of a man’s protection. The only profession open to her was teaching, and she pursued it only if difficult financial circumstances forced her into the world.
By the time Victoria died, in 1901, Britain was an industrial leader. Railroads and factories had altered the landscape. Cities burgeoned with poor people displaced from farms and cottage industries. Darwin had forced a reconsideration of long-held beliefs. The wealth and power of the middle class were challenging the social order. And women were assuming a more public role and campaigning for the right to vote.
I don’t want to give Florence Nightingale more credit than she deserves for the expanded opportunities women were enjoying at the start of the 20th century, but she certainly was an inspiration to many.
Unable to endure a traditional woman’s life taken up by such trivialities as hosting dinners, choosing furniture, and hiring servants, she fought hard against her family’s resistance to pursue the path she felt called to follow. Her struggle led her at times to the verge of suicide, but she never gave up.
And what she went on to accomplish was remarkable. “The time is come when women must do something more than the ‘domestic hearth,’” Nightingale wrote in 1853. It was time to do away with the old order, and for a courageous, pioneering woman like Florence Nightingale to show what was possible.
Q: How did you research this book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: “Miles of sick and wounded men lined the corridors,” I write in Florence Nightingale as I describe the conditions Nightingale found upon arriving at the army’s Barrack Hospital, in Turkey.
When the book was still in manuscript form and I was reviewing the editorial comments, I saw that the copyeditor had tagged this sentence with a single-word query: “Miles?” A mile seems so vast when compared to a corridor; the copyeditor was actually asking, isn’t this an exaggeration?
It wasn’t. The Barrack Hospital was three stories high and measured roughly six hundred feet on each side. Its corridors were nearly that long. Each held tightly packed rows of suffering men lying in filthy bedding. So, yes, there were miles of them.
The extent of the suffering and mismanagement that the British Army tolerated in its wartime hospitals surprised me more than anything else I read about while researching this book.
My research always draws me to primary sources, to letters, diaries, articles in the press, and such. In this case I sought out primary material on the British army hospitals during the Crimean War. I looked at everything from Nightingale’s own writings, to the accounts of nurses and others working in the hospitals, to official reports.
Newspapers were essential to me. During the Crimean War, journalists for the first time were able to file their stories by telegraph, which meant that the British public was reading eyewitness accounts of battles just days after they were fought.
Members of the press also alerted readers to the realities of the Barrack Hospital: the lack of trained medical staff, shortages of basic supplies, men with battlefield wounds and dysentery crowded together and receiving no attention. Embarrassed into taking action, the government turned, incredibly, to a woman from a wealthy family who had managed a small hospital for gentlewomen.
Q: Of all the biographies you’ve written, are there some that have especially stuck with you over the years?
A: When we have spent a lot of time with people and have come to know them well, the things they said and did, their way of looking at the world, and the life lessons we have learned from them all stay with us after the relationship ends.
In a similar way, my biographical subjects remain with me after my books are written. I have strived so hard to understand them, and they have taught me about so much—about courage, persistence, happiness, sorrow, and human foibles—that they linger in my consciousness like old friends.
Because I write so often about creative people and therefore immerse myself in their work, I also come away with the broadened awareness that great art always imparts.
I would have to say that the most enriching book for me to write was E. E. Cummings: A Poet’s Life. My close study of Cummings’s poetry was pure joy. He was a playful poet but a profound one, and he was exacting in his use of language. I frequently call to mind his verses, and they make me smile or touch my heart. They renew my appreciation of his talent and gratitude for his life.
I grew quite fond of my subject while writing Noah Webster: Man of Many Words. Webster was a strange old fellow, opinionated, socially awkward, and apt to rub people the wrong way.
But he was also a loving husband and father, and he was a patient teacher, instructing the children in his schoolrooms and the people of his new nation with the same care. Of course, the dictionary he created was nothing short of wondrous. I simply couldn’t help liking him once I got to know him.
Jane Austen was born 17 years after Webster, but of all my biographical subjects she seemed the most remote. Her England emerged to me as much more foreign culturally than Webster’s America.
In addition, we know surprisingly little about Austen, who was just beginning to gain recognition as a writer when she died. We don’t know what she looked like or what caused her death. Neither do we know what she did for months at a time.
Yet she poured so much of herself into her novels and surviving letters that I came to know her as a bright, witty, insightful woman and the great writer that she was. I like to imagine how this inquisitive woman would react to my world, which would be as alien to her as hers was to me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Readers can look forward to my young adult biography of Queen Victoria in fall 2017. Victoria was such a character that she made writing this book fun. She was idiosyncratic and emotionally volatile, yet she was ramrod strong.
And what a story she gave me to tell! Imagine ascending to the British throne at the age of 18. Victoria had to learn her role as she went along, which meant that she made mistakes. This is true in life for all of us, really, but our mistakes don’t cause national scandals or get the government into a tizzy.
Victoria was also a partner in one of the most famous love stories of the 19th century. Her name and that of her husband, Prince Albert, are forever linked in the public consciousness.
Speaking of love stories, none is crazier, more romantic, and ultimately more tragic than that of of Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley. A 16-year-old girl elopes with a married man, children are born in and out of wedlock (one lives and most die), great works of literature are written, and all this happens before Percy Shelley drowns at age 29.
Percy Shelley has found a place among the great poets of the Romantic Movement, and we remember Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as the teenage author of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley is the focus of the book I am writing now. Teens and adults will be enthralled by her story, just as I am. The book will be out in 2018, and I can’t wait for you to read it!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I sometimes see my books described as useful references that are well researched, filled with information, and helpful for students writing reports.
I want them to be all these things, but I have written them with the same attention to style, narrative structure, and character development that can be found in quality fiction. I approach nonfiction as literature and consider nonfiction for children and young adults to be an art form.
So when you open Florence Nightingale, Victoria, or any of my other works, I hope you will say to yourself, “This is going to be a good book!”
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Catherine Reef, please click here.