Angel with a Plan

catherine-reef

Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion Books, 2017, New York, $18.99)

Long considered a founding mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale is best remembered for nursing British soldiers during the Crimean War and founding a nursing school after it. However, the “Angel with a Lamp” was also a fierce public health advocate. She argued for – and often obtained – improved medical care and living conditions for Britain’s standing army and better sanitation in India. Eventually, she became a national symbol, but she overcame societal prejudice and familial opposition to start her career.

In Florence Nightingale, Catherine Reef describes the famous nurse’s life and work. She discusses Nightingale’s accomplishments in their historical context, providing relevant information about Victorian society, medicine, and the position of women. Of special interest to Reef is Nightingale’s relationship with her sister Parthenope. Staid and domestic, Parthenope was an ideal Victorian lady – and everything Florence was not. However, Parthenope initially resented Florence’s adventures and career because they separated her from her sister. In this way, Reef explores how nineteenth-century gender roles constrained not only ambitious women like Nightingale, but also those who preferred a quieter way of life as it made them overly dependent on others. And although Reef paints an admiring portrait of Nightingale, she also relates incidents in which the ministering angel was dismissive or manipulative. Far from detracting from Nightingale’s image, these anecdotes suggest she needed a certain single-mindedness to do her work.

Inspiring and thought-provoking, Florence Nightingale is both an intimate portrait of a secular saint and a look at the world that shaped her. Like the best biographies, it asks why someone accomplished so much – and provides a nuanced answer.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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