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Women Theorists on Society and Politics

Interview with Lynn McDonald

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How did you discover Florence Nightingale?

I discovered Florence Nightingale in the course of doing research on women theorists in sociology (I am a sociologist). There are sections on her in my last three books, each longer than the last. Although she started off as being merely one of many women theorists I wanted people to know about, she soon came to be the best: the smartest and most dedicated, and she certainly saved the most lives. Even among great women writers she was the wittiest and most interesting. When I taught on Nightingale, students would want to write essays on her but the material was lacking - lots of books about her, but her own writing was scarce, especially in social science (books for nurses and children are in abundance though).

Why a Collected Works?

Some years ago I decided to stop complaining about the lack of availability of sources and produce a Collected Works. The project has grown enormously, although I always knew there would be a lot of material. We now have letters from more than 120 archives world wide. There is an international team of scholars (but more are still needed). There will be 16 volumes in print, but that’s only by being selective. The project in its electronic form will be far greater. The electronic publication (we’re not sure yet exactly what form) will make it possible for scholars to search the entire lot of published and unpublished material to find their special interests. Students will be able to write essays and theses on Nightingale without going to archives.

What was difficult in doing the research?

One of the difficulties of doing research on Nightingale is that everyone has an opinion on her (most without having bothered to read her original work). In her lifetime and for some time after she was on a pedestal: the heroine of the Crimean War, the lady with the lamp, the sainted founder of nursing. Then it became fashionable to dump on her. Victorian heroines, especially religious ones, went out of fashion. According to a recent BBC programme, Nightingale’s religious vocation, her famous “call to service” was a hoax, just a front for her own political agenda! Yet I have read her biblical annotations, sermons (never given in her lifetime), personal journal notes (if you don’t weep reading these you need a heart transplant), her comments on the medieval mystics, correspondence with missionaries, priests, nuts, etc. There will be 4 volumes on religion in the Collected Works, 2 in the first lot to be published this fall. People will be able to judge for themselves.

What did you enjoy about her?

One of the great things about working on Nightingale is learning how she linked everything together from statistics to mysticism. Her faith underlay everything she did, informing her approach to public health care and other social reform activities. God made the world and runs it by laws. It is our privilege to study these laws scientifically, with rigorous, quantitative research. We can then ascertain where to intervene for good, by doing so becoming God’s “co-workers.” Thus doing research and applying the findings to make the world better grow out of her religious philosophy. .br Nightingale is interesting to work on also because she had such a good mind and she read widely. She liked to read in the original - the Greeks in Greek, the Romans in Latin etc. She threw in observations from her reading, quoted hymns and poetry in letters to nurses. She wrote postcards in Italian.

What does your Collected Works achieve that other books don’t?

By doing a Collected Works, that is by looking at everything Nightingale wrote, we find out things that previous writers never saw and will contradict major interpretations that have been widely accepted (based on very partial readings of the material). The Nightingale that appears in these volumes is different in many respects from her usual portrayal, still a heroine (she did save lives), but more of an intellectual and more of a political activist also. Her relations with family were much more nuanced than normally portrayed, and her relations with women very different from the usual portrayal of her as hostile to women. Already scholars are beginning to use the material from the project to write new books on Nightingale.