In the drawing room of the House , underneath the copies of Richmond’s drawings of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte, we have a print of a popular engraving of Florence Nightingale with her friend Charles Bracebridge – both of them on horseback – which shows them in May 1855 on Cathcart’s Hill looking towards Sevastopol in the Crimea. This popular engraving was produced by Parthenope (Florence’s sister) and Lady Anne Blunt from a sketch by Selena Bracebridge. Selena was with Florence Nightingale and her husband in the Crimea although she wasn’t an eyewitness to the event portrayed in the picture.
So why is this image displayed in the House? What are the connections between Elizabeth Gaskell and Florence Nightingale?
I was recently lucky enough to attend a workshop run by Creina Mansfield and Frank Vigon through MANCENT – the Manchester Continuing Education Network – which made some of the connections clearer.
Both Florence Nightingale’s father WEN and her mother Fanny were born into Unitarian families, and they knew the Gaskells. In October 1854 – and struggling to finish North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell was staying at Lea Hurst, the Nightingale’s house in Derbyshire. In a very long letter to Catherine Winkworth written between the 11 – 14 October, she gives a detailed description of Florence who she had met there:
‘Florence is tall, very slight and willowy in figure; thick shortish rich brown hair very delicate complexion grey eyes which are generally pensive and drooping, but when they chose can be the merriest eyes I’ve ever saw; and perfect teeth making her smile the sweetest I ever saw. Put a long piece of soft net…round this beautiful shaped head, so as to form a soft white framework for the full oval of her face…and dress her up in black glace silk up to the long round white throat – and a black lace shawl on and you may get near an idea of her perfect grace and lovely appearance. She is like a saint.’
Florence was 34 when Elizabeth made this description and within days Parthenope Nightingale was writing to Elizabeth to tell her that Florence had been asked by the Government to lead a party of nurses to Scutari in the Crimea.
Elizabeth Gaskell, who did love to know all about people and who must have been excited to be in the thick of these historic events, wrote to Parthenope on 30 October;
My dear Miss Nightingale
I do so want to hear about you all. I know I have no right from recent acquaintance to expect to hear at such a time as this; so I don’t come as a claimant, but only as a beggar; but sometime,- in some odd leisure 1/4 of an hour would you mind writing a little about what I am so greedy to know.I pick up all the scraps I can out of the newspapers; but I think they only whet my hunger; and they tell me nothing, of course, about you and Mr and Mrs Nightingale, and I do so want to know about you all! The more I think about it the more it seems to me that all these steps in her life seem to have been ‘leading her on’ to this last great work…Don’t think I should have written to you, solely to worry you for a letter when you have so much to do & to think of – ( dear Miss Nightingale if it had not been for your careful performance of the quiet home duties she would not have been at liberty for what she s now free to do-) but I wanted to return you the formal thanks I render, not the less truly than formally, for my happy happy ‘pause of life’ at Lea Hurst.
She wrote to Parthenope again on 21 July 1855
‘Babies ad libitum are being christened Florence here; poor little factory babies, whose grimy stunted parents brighten up at the name…these poor unromantic fellows are made, somehow, of the same stuff as her heroes of the East, who turned their faces to the wall and cried at her illness.’
So enjoy the links between these two important and influential Victorian women – and maybe pick up a Florence Nightingale decoration when you visit the House!
Lesley, volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House