Diametrically opposed to this, but possessing almost as powerful a hold on the public imagination, is the counter-myth originating in Lytton Strachey's famous debunking of Nightingale in Eminent Victorians. What continues to make this essay compelling reading today is the way in which Strachey is torn between admiration for Nightingale's dominating will and his desire to expose what he regards as the fundamental inhumanity of her power. His portrait of a woman who sublimates her sexual feelings in pursuit of power over men like poor harassed Sidney Herbert, Nightingale's collaborator in Army medical reform, was deliberately provocative and, for the generations raised on the storybook myth, genuinely shocking at the time of its first publication in 1918.
Subsequent variations on this counter-myth, increasingly frenzied in their attack, frequently infected with an unpleasant strain of misogyny and ever more extreme in the liberties they take with historical truth, have made Strachey's debunking look positively benign by comparison. The most outrageous example is the story, still prevalent among American nursing students, that Nightingale died from syphilis when, in reality, she expired from old age and heart failure. The strength of the Lady with the Lamp legend is such that for some, it seems, the only way to counter it is with something equally uncomplicated and one-dimensional. And so the pendulum has continued to swing backwards and forwards between the polar opposites of saint and sinner, in biographies, popular and scholarly, in fiction and on stage and screen. On the one hand, we have plucky Anna Neagle in the 1951 film The Lady with the Lamp, insufferably noble as she wafts down the corridors at Scutari. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the character bearing Nightingale's name in Edward Bond's surreal 1960s play, Early Morning. Bond's Florence Nightingale-the true heir of Lytton Strachey's - has a lesbian affair with Queen Victoria, who rapes her, disguises her sex by wearing a kilt and speaking in a bad Scottish accent and nurses soldiers by providing them with sexual favours.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to recovering Nightingale as an authentic historical figure is the astonishing scope of her interests and achievements and the sheer scale of the task, both to document them and to place them in a proper contemporary context. It should go without saying that Florence Nightingale was not simply a nurse and that even during the Crimean War she was much more occupied in managing her nursing staff, purveying the hospitals and dealing with bureaucratic incompetence than in nursing soldiers, but as she regularly tops polls to find the most famous nurse, it remains a point worth emphasising. It also throws into stark relief the essential difference between the wartime roles of Nightingale and the Jamaican-born Creole Mary Seacole, the only woman to challenge Nightingale's position as the archetypal Crimean nurse in the popular imagination in recent years. While Seacole indisputably possessed the far greater practical experience of nursing, dating back to her days of nursing cholera victims in Jamaica, Nightingale had been entrusted with the vital new experiment of introducing female nurses to the military sphere.
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