NIGHTINGALES: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale
To focus on the well-nigh unknown family members of an icon is an audacious step for a biographer. And Gill's Nightingales does dwell in some measure on Florence's sickly, gentle sister, Parthenope ("Pop"); her stern, loving, society-minded mother, Fanny; her intellectually enterprising dilettante father, William Edward (amusingly referred to as "WEN" throughout). But never for a moment does the true focus ever seriously threaten to abandon the endlessly fascinating "Flo."
No, the true leap here is Gill's steadfast intentness on placing Nightingale in her full context, both familial and societal (which ceaselessly overlap) and her brazenly intimate approach to storytelling. We hear a great deal about Nightingale's family members, both nuclear and extended, an intelligent and industrious upper-class British family that didn't quite know what to do with this delightful tornado of a woman. Equally intelligent and driven (and, unsurprisingly, guilt plagued), Nightingale early on was given a strong dose of true intellectual freedom by her father and ever after chafed at the role life expected of her as dutiful wife and mother. Reflexively obeying her holy visions, she instead foreswore sex of any kind and threw herself into nursing and health-care reform, much to the embarrassment of her immediate family—and to the gratitude of the generations of emancipated women to follow.
The book is expansive, richly detailed, generous to a fault; Gill's skills may well set a new standard for the novelistic mode of biography. She attends scrupulously to the voluminous paper trail Flo left behind and frequently introduces her "I" to speculate, conjecture, argue, scold. Fortunately, Gill's knowledge of the era is so profound, her judgment so sound, and her narrative voice so cozy that it transforms this saint's life into an enveloping treat that serious readers will delight in plumbing. Photos not seen by PW. 50,000 first printing. Agent, Jill Kneering. (Sept.)