Heroines We Still Need

I have not been able to think much about blogging recently due to a variety of factors culminating in the wedding last weekend of my daughter. Not that I had much to do with the organisation of the wedding but families and family business, as one of my recent posts spelled out, should be (and are) central to academics and scientists just as much to workers in any other sphere. So, my brain has been elsewhere and not contemplating blogposts. Nevertheless, over the Easter break I did have time to do some reading and I came upon two interesting books to read – one for my Kindle, one in hard copy. It was only after I was well stuck into both I realised they were in fact by the same author: Mark Bostridge. And both books were about women who broke the mould in their own ways, but who had had to fight hard to achieve this, to overcome parental disapproval or mystification.

One should probably best be known as a statistician, although that is not how she is perceived or remembered in the public eye, the other had no claim to a scientific bent. The former studied the works of the French statistician Adolphe Quetelet and applied his ideas to the study of deaths in the army. The story of deaths from Prussian horse kicks, studied by Ladislaus Bortkiewicz and written up in his 1898 book The Law of Small Numbers validating the Poisson distribution is quite well known. Less well known is how Florence Nightingale applied statistics to demonstrate that military hospitals had many flaws and that deaths there were far commoner than elsewhere and not simply attributable to wounds sustained in battle. So, although the myth has it that Nightingale was ‘the lady with the lamp’, that was not really the most important part of her contribution. The Bostridge book (Florence Nightingale: the Woman and her Legend) makes all this very plain.

Indeed reading the book it wasn’t clear to me that Nightingale was in fact a good nurse at all, not the ministering angel of legend more a sharp administrator with the scientist’s determination to use evidence to influence decision-making. Cleanliness, good food and – almost above all, at least in her eyes – good ventilation were key to the transformation Nightingale was able to effect through her powerful coterie of political friends. Ventilation seemed of the utmost importance to her because she clung (at least through much of her life) to the miasmatic idea of infection.

Nightingale was well on in her 30’s before she managed to overcome her parents’ opposition to her doing anything other beyond being a docile, upper middle class lady who was expected to be content with social rounds and a little light visiting of ‘the poor man at his gate’ by an appropriately remote Lady Bountiful, as in the words of that Victorian hymn beloved of my primary school. Reading the descriptions of her early adult life, the misery of an intelligent woman being condemned to a life of pointless indolence, it is remarkable how much she was able to achieve once she kicked over the traces. It is hardly surprising middle class women in Victorian England were not able to accomplish much given the obstacles put in their way: they received little education or subsequent opportunity to use whatever intellect, great or small, they possessed. (As I wrote a while back, Mary Somerville – who knew and encouraged Nightingale herself – was to a large extent able to achieve as much as she did by disguising the hard work behind the social niceties of dinner parties and visiting.)

Vera Brittain was born more than 50 years later, by which time school education for girls was the norm, but doing much beyond that was still unusual. Her book, a Testament of Youth, apparently (according to Bostridge’s Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth) gave a misleading picture of just how hard she had to battle parental opposition to going up to Oxford. Nevertheless it was still not common even in families such as hers, where the boys were naturally expected to go to either Oxford or Cambridge, for girls to attend university. I read Testament of Youth many years ago, probably not long after it was reissued after nearly a 50 year gap by Virago in 1978. It was a book that had tremendous impact when it was first released in 1933, a book that put the woman’s view of the first world war in front of the public to counter the better known war literature of Siegfried Sassoon or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I remember reading it on a train and the man across the table from me looking at it and saying ‘just wait till you get to page XXX, that’s really heartbreaking’. And he was absolutely right. I guess at that time it was so popular it wasn’t such an odd thing for a stranger to say.

In many ways reading both books simultaneously was helpful, because it helped to illustrate how progress has been made – both between their own two lifespans, but also the century since then. Women may still be kicking against the traces, but they aren’t the same ones our predecessors fought against. However, I obviously should have read Bostridge’s co-authored full biography of Brittain rather than this recent, shorter one which focusses rather too much for my taste on the recent film production rather than on her life. Nightingale’s biography is exhaustive whereas the Brittain text I read seems just to be a resume of the longer book updated with some recent information and ancedotes about the production of the 2014 film of Testament of Youth.

We owe both women much, although not necessarily quite along the lines of popular opinion. We should not forget that Nightingale was far more than a lamp-carrier and that self-taught statistics formed a core part of her activity; Vera Brittain was ultimately an ardent pacifist and internationalist, who played her part in giving women – including her own daughter Shirley Williams – a voice. Time passes but we continue to need such heroes (or heroines if you prefer) who are prepared to fight to get their voices heard and to effect change.


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5 Responses to Heroines We Still Need

  1. Marie says:

    A beautifully written, thoughtful post as always. It is interesting how public perception of female heroes (more so in the past, but even in our times) tends to place undue focus on gender, and to place the filter of whatever qualities are presumed to be attached to that gender over any accomplishments. I read a BBC news article a while ago on British nurse Edith Cavell (I have managed to dig out the link http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-34401643), who suffered this fate after her execution by the Germans.

    To quote the article, “In the immediate aftermath of her death, the nurse was used heavily in the British propaganda drive – a campaign that sometimes obscured the real Edith Cavell. […] I think she should be remembered as a pioneering hospital matron and remembered as an intrepid war hero who, with great courage and guile, helped get soldiers out of the country to safety. […] She should not be seen as a victim.”

    I am interested to see Quetelet’s name mentioned. This is the second time I have come across it in the last few weeks. Part of his works are discussed in Todd Rose’s book The End of Average (in my view an excellent book, which I highly recommend), or should I say heavily criticised for the conclusions drawn from them and their resulting social impact. According to Rose, Quetelet seemed to believe that scientific principles could be applied to the study of society – and the consequences of this belief can still be felt in society today (the obvious one being the BMI which is still a household word).

    To quote Rose, “Quetelet followed the same line of reasoning with regard to humanity as a whole, claiming that every one of us is a flawed copy of some kind of cosmic template for human beings. Quetelet dubbed this template the ‘Average Man.’ Today, of course, someone described as ‘average’ is implied to be inferior or lacking. But for Quetelet, the Average Man was perfection itself, an ideal that Nature aspired to, free from error. He declared that the greatest men in history were closest to the Average Man of their place and time. […] As much as Quetelet admired the Average Man, he held an equal amount of antipathy toward those unfortunate individuals who deviated from the average. ‘Everything differing from the Average Man’s proportions and condition, would constitute deformity and disease,’ Quetelet asserted. ‘Everything found dissimilar, not only as regarded proportion or form, but as exceeding the observed limits, would constitute a Monstrosity.’ He also pronounced, ‘If an individual at any given epoch of society possessed all the qualities of the Average Man he would represent all that is great, good, or beautiful.’ […] Since Quetelet’s concept of the Average Man seemed to impose welcome order on the accelerating jumble of human statistics while simultaneously validating people’s natural urge to stereotype others, it’s little wonder his ideas spread as they did.”

    It is not hard to see how this sort of thinking, perceived to be validated by science, has implications for perceptions of every aspect of being human – including gender.

  2. Saoirse Dennen says:

    You misunderstand Nightingale’s belief in the miasmatic theory of infection. As Bostridge shows, she didn’t cling to this more than anyone else did in the medical and nursing professions before Koch’s discovery, and was in time converted to germ theory.Somewhere in the BBC archives online there is a brilliant discussion between Bostridge and Hugh Pennington in which Bostridge trounces Pennington’s somewhat arrogant assertion that Nightingale had out of date views on the subjcet.

    • As I said, she clung to the miasmatic theory through much of her life – that makes it obvious that I appreciate she came to accept the germ theory, but my reading of the Bostridge book was that she was slower than many to switch.

  3. historian says:

    Talking about hearing these women’s voices: here at the British Library’s site you can actually hear Florence Nightingale on a recording: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/voiceshist/flonight/

  4. Saoirse Dennen says:

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