Britain’s Second Most Famous Nurse

Susan Pedersen

  • Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami
    Quercus, 417 pp, £25.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 84916 359 0

Nurses are tough subjects for biography. Their ethos of compassion and, sometimes, self-sacrifice can lead to hagiography or – when times change – invite satire. It’s hard to forget Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale, her health broken by her exertions in the Crimea, issuing breathless directives on sanitary reform to the secretary of war, Sidney Herbert, and harrying him into an early grave. To save her poor soldiers, Nightingale had not spared herself; how, then, could she ask less of those enlisted in her cause? ‘If Miss Nightingale had been less ruthless, Sidney Herbert would not have perished,’ Strachey wrote, ‘but then, she would not have been Miss Nightingale.’

Strachey’s contemporaries were shocked, but his portrait said important things about the psychology of goodness. Strachey assumed, as we post-Freudians do, that self-sacrifice can have a complex etiology; that it can cloak ambition and drive; that it can be deployed (as Nightingale demonstrated) to galvanise the indolent and defeat the backsliding. Armed with their ethic of service and with the example of Nightingale bearding the generals in Scutari before them, nurses could and often did face down anyone – whether family members or army personnel – who challenged their authority over the patients in their care. In a world intolerant of ambition in women, nursing was the road to power.

Edith Cavell is Britain’s second most famous nurse. The 49-year-old matron of a Belgian nursing school, she was shot at dawn as a spy by the German occupation authorities on 12 October 1915. Her statue still surveys the pedestrians and taxis streaming down from St Martin’s Lane to Trafalgar Square; across the former empire (and beyond), streets, monuments, parks and a mountain – in the Canadian Rockies – bear her name. Her famous last words, ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough,’ spare her the opprobrium that settled on those who exploited her death to send more men to the killing fields.

Diana Souhami would like to rescue Cavell from the mountain of tosh said about her after her death, which ignored her values, exploited her execution and discounted the mature deliberation with which she made her choices. (The Bishop of London, for example, called this middle-aged professional administrator a ‘poor, defenceless English girl’.) In this respect she has written a revisionist book, but in all others Edith Cavell is an anti-Strachey, or perhaps a pre-Strachey, biography – a Victorian doorstopper, an irony-free zone. Souhami paints Cavell as a woman who was genuinely ‘good’, whose work rescuing stranded soldiers was an extension of her long-standing commitment to saving lives.

This is persuasive, up to a point, and if you can check your 21st-century sensibility at the door (who wants to be the cynic laughing at the death of Little Nell?), you will find this a rewarding, even moving, book. But Souhami is so keen to portray Cavell as ethically consistent that she explains away much that remains puzzling about her behaviour. The sheer narrative force of the story sweeps forward, as strutting cardboard Germans capture, interrogate, seek to intimidate but fail to break a woman motivated only by altruism. It is an engrossing tale, and in its persistent discounting of patriotism one for our time, but I would have liked more caution and more context, more acknowledgment of the ways in which we – like those who eulogised Cavell after her death – impose our own interpretation on her sketchily documented life.

There is quite a lot we can’t know. The family papers of the well-born and rich usually survive; those of provincial vicars often do not. From public records and a few letters, we learn that Cavell was born in 1865 in the parsonage in Swardeston, Norfolk, the first of the four children of Rev. Frederick Cavell and the housekeeper’s daughter whom he first sent to a finishing school and then made his wife. It suited him, Souhami writes, to have a wife who was entirely dependent and in no way his equal, but there are hints that Edith, who was taught at home and showed an early gift for drawing and languages, was not so easily dominated. She complained to her cousin of the length and tedium of her father’s sermons, and at 16 was caught smoking – an almost unimaginably rebellious act for a girl of the 1880s. Dispatched soon afterwards to the sort of boarding school that catered for clergymen’s daughters, she fell almost inevitably four years later into governessing, working first for another clergyman with four children and a frail wife, and then, while living at home, as a day governess for a well-to-do local family.

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[*] News of the atrocities spread quickly, becoming a mainstay of recruitment rhetoric and wartime propaganda. After 1918, the veracity of those accounts was questioned, but recent research has largely upheld the substance of the charge.