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"The Art of Biography" at Princeton University (with Prof. Annalyn Swan): Florence Nightingale


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ENG374: "Life Writing: The Art of Biography"
Spring 2013 | Princeton University
Prof. Annalyn Swan (Winner of 2005 Pulitzer Prize, Biography)

"As literary genres go, biography has always been something of a stepchild — and understandably so, for far too many people approach writing biography as a nuts-and-bolts recitation of a person’s life. But the best biography is as different from this pedestrian approach as Jane Austin is to pulp fiction. Great biography tells the tale with panache, while never straying from scrupulous historical and biographical research.

We will begin with excerpts from a collection of essays about the biographer’s craft that will serve as a foundation for the semester-long discussion to come. The class will then focus on intellectual, structural and stylistic analysis of different biographies and autobiographies. Each student will prepare one 20-minute oral presentation over the course of the semester and lead a class discussion on his/her presentation."

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"The Art of Biography" at Princeton University (with Prof. Annalyn Swan): Florence Nightingale

  1. 1. Florence Nightingaleas envisioned in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians Jeanette Beebe | ENG374: “The Art of Biography” | Princeton University Prof. Annalyn Swan (2005 Pulitzer Prize in Biography) 1860: Nightingale at age 40
  2. 2. “The Lady with the Lamp” She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals, and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow's face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds. – The Times report on the Crimean War Lo! in that house of misery A lady with a lamp I see Pass through the glimmering gloom, And flit from room to room. – "Santa Filomena” (1857) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  3. 3. Nightingale’s Two Cameos “THE LADY WITH THE LAMP” AN “EMINENT VICTORIAN” Cam-e-o (noun): 1. A piece of jewelry consisting of a portrait in profile carved in relief on a background. 2. A short descriptive literary sketch that neatly encapsulates someone or something.
  4. 4. The saintly, self-sacrificing woman, the delicate maiden of high degree who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to succour the afflicted, the Lady with the Lamp, gliding through the horrors of the hospital at Scutari […] But the truth was different. […] She worked in another fashion, and towards another end; she moved under the stress of an impetus which finds no place in the popular imagination. A Demon possessed her.” “Every one knows the popular conception of Florence Nightingale. “A Demon possessed her.”
  5. 5. Miss Nightingale: A Moody Personality “So quiet, so unassuming.” “As she passed through the wards in her plain dress, so quiet, so unassuming, she struck the casual observer as the pattern of a perfect lady, but the keener eye perceived something more than that […] the sign of power in the dominating curve of the thin nose, and the traces of a harsh and “A harsh + dangerous temper.”
  6. 6. Miss Nightingale: A Caustic Wit “Her sarcasm searched the ranks of the officials with the deadly and unsparing precision of a machine gun. Her nicknames were terrible. She respected no one. She fulminated against them all. The intolerable futility of mankind obsessed her like a nightmare, and she gnashed her teeth against it. ‘I do well to be angry,’ was the burden of her cry. “Deadly and unsparing.”
  7. 7. Miss Nightingale: A Socialite “She had a host of admirers and friends; and – to say nothing of her personal qualities – her knowledge, her tenacity, her tact – she possessed, too, one advantage […] she belonged to the highest circle of society. It was impossible to ignore Flo Nightingale. When she spoke, they were obliged to listen; and, when they had once begun to do that – what might not follow? She knew her power, and she used it. She supported her weightiest minutes with familiar witty little notes. The Bison began to look grave. It might be difficult – it might be damned difficult – to put down one’s head against “A lady.”
  8. 8. Miss Nightingale: A Willful Woman “There was one thing only which Miss Nightingale lacked in her equipment for public life; she had not – she never could have – the public power and authority which belong to the successful politician. That power and authority Sidney Herbert possessed; that fact was obvious, and the conclusions no less so: it was through the man that the woman must work her will. She took hold of him, taught him, shaped him, absorbed him, dominated him through and through. One has the image of those wide eyes fascinated suddenly by something feline, something strong; there is a pause, and then the tigress has her claws in the quivering “Tigress.”
  9. 9. Miss Nightingale: An Neurotic Maniac Her wits began to turn, and there was no holding her. She worked like a slave in a mine. She began to believe, as she had begun to believe at Scutari, that none of her fellow workers had their hearts in the business; and if they had, why did they not work as she did? She could only see slackness and stupidity around her. Dr. Sutherland, of course, was grotesquely muddle-headed; and Arthur Clough incurably lazy. Even Sidney Herbert […] Then for many weeks all business was suspended, [the Bison] had gout – gout in the hands, so that he could not write. “His gout was always handy,” remarked Miss Nightingale. “Slave in a mine.”
  10. 10. Miss Nightingale: A Professional The next two and a half years (1859 – 61) saw the introduction of the whole system of reforms for which Miss Nightingale had been struggling so fiercely – reforms which make Sidney Herbert’s tenure of power at the War Office an important epoch in the history of the British Army. The four Sub-Commissions, firmly established under the immediate control of the Minister, and urged forward by the relentless perseverance of Miss Nightingale, set to work with a will. […] A new era did in truth appear to have begun. “A new era.”
  11. 11. Miss Nightingale: A Psychopath “When she brought herself to realize at length what was indeed the fact and [that Sidney Herbert had failed], it was not in mercy that she turned upon her old friend. ‘Beaten!’ she exclaimed. […] ‘It is a worse disgrace…’ her full rage burst out at last, ‘…a worse disgrace than the hospitals at Scutari.’ […] When the onward rush of a powerful spirit sweeps a weaker one to its destruction, the commonplaces of the moral judgment are better left unmade. If Miss Nightingale had been less ruthless, Sidney Herbert would not have perished; but then, she would not have been Miss Nightingale. The force that created was the force that “A powerful spirit.”
  12. 12. Miss Nightingale: A Romantic Myth “…she had settled down in a small house in South Street, where she remained for the rest of her life. […] She remained an invalid, but an invalid of a curious character – an invalid who was too weak to walk downstairs and who worked harder than most Cabinet Ministers. […] She combined the intense vitality of a dominating woman of the world with the mysterious and romantic quality of a myth. She was a legend in her lifetime, and she knew it. She tasted the joys of power […] with the mingled satisfactions of obscurity “A legend.”
  13. 13. Miss Nightingale: A Helpless Hag When old age actually came, something curious happened. Destiny, having waited very patiently, played a queer trick on Miss Nightingale. The benevolence and spirit of that long life had only been equaled by its acerbity. Her virtue had dwelt in hardness, and she had poured forth her unstinted usefulness with a bitter smile upon her lips. And now the sarcastic years brought the proud woman her punishment. […] She was to be made soft; she was reduced to compliance and complacency. […] The thin, angular woman, with her haughty eye and her acrid mouth, had vanished; and in her place was the rounded, bulky form of a fat old lady, “A fat old lady.”
  14. 14. Works Cited Cook, E. T. The Life of Florence Nightingale. London: Macmillan. 1913. Volume 1, page 237. Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Santa Filomena." The Atlantic Monthly, November 1857; Volume 1, No. 1; pages 22-23. < m> Strachey, Lytton. “Florence Nightingale.” Eminent Victorians. London: Penguin Books. (1918). Pages 112 – 161.