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An insightful look at Nightingale's roots

Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale, By Gillian Gill, Ballentine, 535pp, illustrated, $27.95

Almost as soon as Florence Nightingale left England in 1854 to serve as superintendent of nursing in Turkey during the Crimean War, her legend began to take shape. The British press rhapsodized over her heroism, compassion, and purity. By the time the war ended, in 1856, she had become the most celebrated woman in Britain, if not all of Europe, lauded everywhere as the embodiment of selfless service. Yet though the image of the Lady with the Lamp has endured, it has been battered, most famously in Lytton Strachey's 1918 "Eminent Victorians."

Nightingale's achievements as a nurse and a public-health reformer, and the abundant writings she left behind, have made her an irresistible subject for historians and biographers. Gillian Gill's "Nightingales," emphasizing Nightingale's difficult relationship with her unconventional family and her quest to pursue her calling, comes as a magnificent addition to this literature.

Gill brings sympathy, insight, and a novelist's sense of drama to bear as she explores her subjects' actions, motivations, and struggles. At times she seems to be conversing with other Nightingale scholars, challenging standard views and offering fresh perspectives, but never in a dogmatic way. Perhaps Gill's greatest strength is her respect for the complexity and mystery of her subjects.

In Gill's account, Nightingale and her relatives, friends, and followers each has a mix of strengths, flaws, and oddities; we see how all of these, along with the circumstances of time and place, influence how their lives unfold.

Nightingale's family helped make her career possible, imposed obstacles, and ultimately supported her and her reform activities; at turns, she could be devoted or cruelly rejecting. The family was wealthy, socially prominent, and enlightened; both parents came from families of Unitarians, many of whose members had a lively interest in philanthropy and reform.

Home-schooled by their father, Nightingale and her sister had a stellar education as well as many opportunities for travel and culture. Nightingale blossomed into a first-rate student, bold and inquisitive, appearing on her way to a life as a teacher or a scientist. But her family -- her mother in particular -- and social norms dictated that she set her sights on balls and parties, suitors, and, for good measure, part-time charity work.

Concerned for her marital prospects and future security, the Nightingales were bewildered by her preoccupation with tending sick relatives and neighbors, resentful that she seemed to place work before home and family. For her part, Nightingale from an early age felt burdened by a sense that she was different: Though brilliant and admired, she craved solitude and was beset by troubling spells of what she called "dreaming."

At 17, she experienced a vision, which she interpreted as a call to service from God. Increasingly, she sought to subdue her worldly passions, to lose herself in work, and to acquire, through dogged study, the skills and knowledge needed for nursing, still a backward profession in mid-19th-century England.

Gill gives ample treatment to Nightingale's Crimean experience. Facing resistance and wretched conditions, Nightingale championed sanitation, proper supplies, and good nutrition. She tended the sick and wounded based on need rather than rank, and she was unstinting in her care. Gill concludes by exploring Nightingale's puzzling retreat into invalidism in the late 1850s, even as she continued to work strenuously from her bed on behalf of hospital reform and nurses' training.

Gill calls Nightingale "a bona fide heroine," and it's hard to disagree. Nightingale was enormously brave, capable, and effective, but her valor hardly makes her the saintly figure of legend. Gill neither idealizes nor denigrates Nightingale's character and accomplishments.

She helps us understand Nightingale and her family, not by pinning them down, but by transporting us into their world and portraying them in their variety and fullness. Describing Nightingale's mind as a "large, rich, wild, volcanic territory," Gill brings out the many contradictions in her personality and reveals how goodness can be complicated -- and interesting. By the time we finish reading Gill's work, we fully share her fascination with this formidable and enigmatic woman.

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