30 OCTOBER 1854
WHO IS MRS. NIGHTINGALE?
Many ask this question, and it has not yet been adequately answered. We reply, then. Mrs. Nightingale is Miss Nightingale, or rather Miss Florence Nightingale, the youngest daughter and presumptive co-heiress of her father, William Shore Nightingale, of Embley Park, Hampshire, and the Lea Hurst, Derbyshire. She is, moreover, a young lady of singular endowments, both natural and acquired. In a knowledge of the ancient languages and of the higher branches of mathematics, in general art, science, and literature, her attainments are extraordinary. There is scarcely a modern language which she does not understand, and she speaks French, German, and Italian as fluently as her native English. She has visited and studied the various nations of Europe, and has ascended the Nile to its remotest cataract. Young (about the age of our Queen), graceful, feminine, rich, and popular, she holds a singularly gentle and persuasive influence over all with whom she comes in contact. Her friends and acquaintances are of all classes and persuasions, but her happiest place is at home, in the centre of a very large band of accomplished relatives, and in simplest obedience to her admiring parents.
Why, then, should a being so highly blessed with all that should render life bright, innocent, and to a considerable extent useful, forego such palpable and heartfelt attractions? Why quit all this to become – a nurse?
From her infancy she has had a yearning affection for her kind – a sympathy with the weak, the oppressed, the destitute, the suffering, and the desolate. The schools and the poor around Lea Hurst and Embley first saw and felt her as a visitor, teacher, consoler, expounder. Then she frequented and studied the schools, hospitals, and reformatory institutions of London, Edinburgh, and the continent. Three years ago, when all Europe had a holiday on and after the Great Exhibition, when the highlands of Scotland, the lakes of Switzerland, and all the bright spots of the continent were filled with parties of pleasure, Miss Nightingale was within the walls of one of the German houses or hospitals for the care and reformation of the lost and inform. For three long months she was in daily and nightly attendances, accumulating experience in all the care and labours of female ministration. She then returned to be once more the delight of her own happy home. But the strong tendency of her mind to look beyond its own circle for the relief of those who nominally having all practically have but too frequently none to help them prevailed; and therefore, when the hospital established in London for sick governesses was about to fail for want of proper management, she stepped forward and consented to be placed at its head. Derbyshire and Hampshire were exchanged for the narrow, dreary establishment in Harley-street, to which she devoted all her time and fortune. While her friends missed her at assemblies, lectures, concerts, exhibitions, and all the entertainments for taste and intellect with which London in its season abounds, she, whose powers could have best appreciated these, was sitting beside the bed and soothing the last complaints of some poor dying, homeless, querulous governess. The homelessness might not improbably, indeed, result from that very querulousness: but this is too frequently fomented, if not created, by the hard, unreflecting folly which regards fellow-creatures entrusted with forming the minds and dispositions of its children as ingenious, disagreeable machines, needing, like the steam-engine, sustenance and covering, but, like it, quite beyond or beneath all sympathy, passions, or affections. Miss Nightingale thought otherwise, and found pleasure in tending those poor destitute governesses in their infirmities, their sorrows, their deaths, or their recoveries. She was seldom seen out of the walls of the institution, and the few friends whom she admitted found her in the midst of nurses, letters, prescriptions, accounts, and interruptions. Her health sank under the heavy pressure, but a little Hampshire fresh air restored her, and the failing institution was saved.
Meanwhile a cry of distress and for additional comforts beyond those of mere hospital treatment came home from the East from our wounded brethren in arms. There instantly arose an enthusiastic desire to answer it. But inexperienced zeal could perform little, and a bevy of ill-organized nurses might do more harm than good. There was a fear lest a noble impulse should fail for the want of a head, a hand, and a heart to direct it. It was then that a field was opened for the wider exercise of Miss Nightingale’s sympathies, experience, and powers of command and control. But at what cost? At the risk of her own life – at the pang of separation from all her friends and family, and at the certainty of encountering hardship, dangers, toils, and the constantly renewing scene of human suffering amid all the worst horrors of war. There are few who would recoil from such realities, but Miss Nightingale shrank not, and at once accepted the request that was made her to form and control the entire nursing establishment for our sick and wounded soldiers and sailors in the Levant. While we write, this deliberate, sensitive, and highly endowed young lady is already at her post, rendering the holiest of woman’s charities to the sick, the dying, and the convalescent. There is a heroism in dashing up the heights of Alma in defiance of death and all mortal opposition, and let all praise and honour be, as they are, bestowed upon it: but there is a quiet forecasting heroism and largeness of heart in this lady’s resolute accumulation of the powers of consolation, and her devoted application to them, which rank as high, and are at least as pure. A sage few will no doubt condemn, sneer at, or pity an enthusiasm which to them seems eccentric or at best misplaced; but to the true heart of the country it will speak home, and be there felt, that there is not one of England’s proudest and purest daughters who at this moment stands on so high a pinnacle as Florence Nightingale.