On June 24th, 2013, RN.FM Radio’s airwaves will be graced with the presence of Enid Shomer, the award-winning writer who most recently published her first novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile. This fascinating and thought-provoking story is a fictitious account of the meeting in Egypt of a young Florence Nightingale and the French writer, Gustave Flaubert. This will be the first time that we discuss a work of fiction on RN.FM Radio, and we’re excited about the possibilities!
In 2012, Ms. Shomer wrote an article entitled “Why I Love Florence Nightingale (Now that I’ve Found Her)”. She begins:
The Florence Nightingale in my novel The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is a sassy, ebullient, and witty woman. But it took years of research to find this Nightingale, to liberate her from more than a century of wildly varied biography and opinion. Along the way I encountered distortion, myth, and lacunae on a grand scale.
Ms. Shomer conducted a great deal of research about this most famous nursing luminary, and we all know that stereotypes and iconography color our contemporary view of who she really was.
Initially, my ideas about Nightingale were based on popular culture and a single famous biography. From the former came the familiar if gauzy figure of the Lady with the Lamp—heroine of the Crimean War, and inventor of nursing. Then in college I read Lytton Strachey’s landmark volume Eminent Victorians.
She describes Strachey’s apparently ruthless biography of Nightingale:
Strachey was a stylish writer with a razor-sharp tongue who introduced a new kind of biography that combined psychological insight with sarcastic irreverence. His portrait of Nightingale, still taught as a modern classic, is more character assassination than biography. He portrays a ruthlessly ambitious harridan who managed to work at least one friend to death. In my opinion, Strachey did more to distort her reputation than anyone before or since.
From Freudianism to other Victorian and modern writers, Nightingale has been critiqued and lauded across the literary spectrum throughout the years. According to Shomer, she has previously been portrayed as “a hysterical hypochondriac, a conniving neurotic who used her psychosomatic illness for personal gain.”
In terms of myths regarding Nightingale health, Shomer relates that most scholars now agree that the seminal nurse’s poor health resulted from brucellosis, which she most likely developed in the Crimea from drinking raw milk or eating goat or lamb. Shomer adds:
I also encountered a strange myth. Many nurses I consulted thought that Nightingale died of syphilis. Nightingale lived to be ninety. I believe she was a virgin. She never wavered in her opposition to marriage because she knew it would mean the end of her independence and of her ability to answer God’s call to be of service to the world. The sort of paradox that appeals to the imagination, this myth is credible in part because it is true to nineteenth-century mortality rates. Syphilis claimed as many lives then as tuberculosis. It caused the death, in fact, of the other main character in my novel, Gustave Flaubert, who caught it from the prostitutes he patronized along the Nile.
According to Shomer’s research, Nightingale appears to have been “reckless and impulsive”, crawling alone “on her belly by candlelight through the tunnels of the Great Pyramid.” The intrepid nurse also insisted on remaining aboard her houseboat as the crew negotiated the dangerous Nile rapids at Aswan, rather than go ashore like other Victorian female travelers.
Shomer also insists that Nightingale possessed “crackerjack humor, which allowed her to clothe her candor in the elegant robes of witty repartee”.
Other accomplishments have also gone unsung, and Shomer reminds us of important deeds undertaken by Nightingale:
Few know that she pioneered the application of statistics to large populations and effectively invented Public Health. Her laboratory was the hospital at Scutari, the barracks of the British Army and, later, all of India, whose health care system she administered from her living room through powerful friends—Prime Ministers and cabinet secretaries. And although she did not subscribe to the germ theory, she instituted practices that had the same effect as if she had: scrupulous hygiene, fresh air, and downstream sewage treatment facilities. She cut the mortality rate of British soldiers in the Crimea by two-thirds.
The Nightingale I discovered and revived was not the dour and humorless figure so many of us associate with her name, but a vivacious rebel every bit the intellectual equal of Gustave Flaubert with whom she shares her fictional adventures in my novel. Both of them were geniuses who balked at the world but left it richer than they found it.
We hope you’ll choose to join us live on June 24th for a lively discussion regarding the life of Florence Nightingale and Ms. Shomer’s exhaustive research for The Twelve Rooms of the Nile. Your live tweets and calls are welcome, and the archived version and podcast will, as always, be available to you once the show has aired.
Also, please pay a visit Ms. Shomer’s website for interviews, articles, news, reviews, and to order your own copy of The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, which will soon be released in a paperback edition.