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.