What Did Flo Know?

Those of us who watch Masterpiece Theatre on PBS have been treated this month to a new view of British life. Last year it was Downton Abbey that seized everyone’s imagination as we glimpsed the green lawns, spacious homes and lives of the wealthy, well-mannered women who lived there. Sure we saw the servants too, but even they spent their time in elegant surroundings. In the current series Call the Midwife we are introduced to the gray and grimy streets of East End London in the 1950s and to a group of women who spend their lives delivering babies in cluttered bedrooms. Women had to be tough to endure the endless hard work and discomfort of their lives, and that includes the midwives as well as the mothers. (Somehow the men in this series are all peripheral.) Even though the two dramas are separated by 40 years time, the class distinctions seem equally clear and jarring. It made me think of some of the heroines of England who have built bridges between classes, or at least made the attempt.

Florence Nightingale, the famous “Lady with the Lamp” who brought relief to suffering soldiers during the war in the Crimea and made nursing a respectable profession, is a familiar figure in Engraving of Florence Nightingale with a lamp in a hospital ward.history books. The image of Florence going through the hospital wards suggests a sweet, kindly woman with a yearning to take care of people, but Florence wasn’t like that. She had a burning need to do something with her life and yet her parents and relatives seemed determined to thwart her. It was Florence’s misfortune to have been born to prosperous but unimaginative parents who could not see that she was miserable with the role women were expected to play.

Instead of finding pleasure in decorative needlework, Florence loved statistics—of all things. The 1830s and 1840s, when Florence was a young woman, were the years during which England started collecting statistics about births, marriages and deaths. For the first time the government and leaders throughout the country were able to get a picture of what was going in the lives of the lower classes. The collection of numbers—statistics—was a contentious subject. Goethe had commented It has been said that figures rule the world. Maybe. But I am sure that figures show us whether it is being ruled well or badly.” Florence would agree with this, but other writers, like Charles Dickens, railed against the domination of facts and figures. In his book Hard Times, Dickens painted numbers and fact-based education for children as a false doctrine. His heroine Sissy, calls statistics “stutterings” and the author probably agreed with her. Dickens thought a worship of facts and numbers would stunt the imagination of children and spoil their lives.

Statistics did not spoil Florence’s life, although it would be many years before they became a powerful tool for her. I’ll continue the story of Florence Nightingale’s struggles in my next post.

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