Florence Nightingale in ‘Eminent Victorians’: A Study of Characteristics and Meaning

Strachey, in ‘Eminent Victorians’ reflects on the character of infamous historical heroine Florence Nightingale to cast the past lives of ordinary citizens, primarily women, as unsatisfactory and unfulfilling, and through this negative depiction of Victorian England, the author is able to uphold perceptions of the 20th century, through contrast, as a period of female liberation. Strachey’s presents the female form in Victorian England as one defined by social expectations, perhaps marking it as ‘high art’ for the influence others had in shaping the way in which it was perceived. Whilst the singular female protagonist- Florence Nightingale- may be used by the author to symbolise the upcoming 20th century female revolution of feminism, it could be argued that her desire to reject all social expectations of her characters perhaps acts as a warning of the dangers of radical female individualism.

Throughout the prose, Strachey presents the identity of the protagonist as utterly defined by both external social influences, and public perceptions of how she should behave. There is a semantic field of spirituality which filters through the verse, portraying religion, for the Victorians, as a guiding force throughout life, and this is made particularly evident through the rhetorical question ‘What was the secret voice in her ear if it was not a call?’: here, the author suggests a complete disruption of female identity, as her ‘secret’ mental thoughts are attributed to divine force rather than her own personality, and the series of exclamttives- ‘Ah! To do her duty in that state of life unto which it had pleased God to call her!’- further present the path of her life as chosen by forces other than herself, in contrast to the increasing force of feminism post-WW2 which saw many women begin to make more decisions in how they lived. In light of this context, Strachey’s presentation of Nightingale as confined not only by religious force, but by social influences, particularly portrays how ‘human character changed’ during the early 20th century through juxtaposing the later religious and social liberation of women.

Despite the primary topic of the analysis being Nightingale herself, Strachey begins the first two paragraphs in reference to other characters, to mirror the great extent to which public perceptions shaped our own view of Nightingale. The first paragraph opens through stating that ‘EVERY one’ knew the women as ‘saintly, self-sacrificing’, and the sibilance paired with the capitalisation of the first word is used to mirror the passivity of females in Victorian England, with the setting of ‘the horrors of the hospital’ further presenting the character as literally entrapped within the walls of the building, to mirror the limitations placed on Victorian females. Whilst that author continues to claim that ‘the truth was different’, the next paragraph similarly opens in reference to the social surroundings of the figure (‘Her family was extremely well to do’) and then progresses to name catalogue of locations, from the ‘New Forest’ to ‘London’: whilst the form of syndetic list here may work to portray the character as possessing more freedom than first presumed as able to move from location to location, reference to Florence herself within the list is absence, thus suggesting that these were choices made for her rather than decisions made by herself. Indeed, whilst the passage is concerned with the character of Florence Nightingale, the third-person narrative in addition to the date of the novel as years after her deaths further presses limits on the character’s own voice and perspective in how she is perceived, yet, nonetheless, emotive language used throughout the passage suggests a character struggling against social limitations: it is this multi-layered perspective of the female condition that perhaps deemed critics to label the novel a ‘high literary art’ through presenting both the oppression of victorian women and eventual escapism from this situation.

Nonetheless, the author foretells of a future in which females enjoy further liberation through characterising his protagonist as a proto-20th century feminist, and yet this excessive freedom is progressively portrayed in a negative light. Strachey states that ‘the dream of her life had been shattered’ which suggests Florence’s intellectual awareness of her fate as a Victorian women, and desire to not remain submissive to men, which might be seen as a warning to women and indeed all citizens of 20th century Britain to seize opportune and chance, and follow their dreams- a common motto of rising economics of capitalism. Indeed, this is again made evident in the declarative ‘But no! She would think of nothing but how to satis that singular craving of hers to be doing something’, in which the italicised verb paired with the opening exclamative might be read as an encouragement to modern readers to ‘change’ perceptions of the human condition through refusing to act on others terms. Nonetheless, the presentation of Nightingale as utterly adverse to the confinements of domestic life, from the ‘reading to her father; to the ‘china to look after’, may suggest a radical subversion from prior female submission to a complete rejection of household life: the erratic syntax and emotive language used by the author to describe this mindset might be read as a warning to 20th century women not to abandon their duties towards family and the household due to increased reliance of electrical appliances used to ease household chores, labelled by the author as ‘demon[ic]’, perhaps foretelling the chaos of a near future in which ‘Europe would [socially] go up in flames’.

Overall, in this extract of ‘Eminent Victorians’, Strachey explores the effect of social influence on the female identity, whilst also considers various consequences for future female liberation: whilst the prose might be read as a celebration of 20th century female freedom, it is made evident, through characterisation of ‘Florence Nightingale’, that the author is concerned with a future in which the absolute freedom of women is proven to be destructive through underpinning the very fabric of society and ‘chang[ing] human character’.