Clay-Footed Heroes

If your homeschooled children are much like mine, they’ve been imbued from an early age with a passion for reading. They’ll read anything you let them read – and smile and ask for more. And, oh, the things they learn and remember from good books, things that make you and I as parents only wish we’d had that kind of education growing up!

But if your a homeschooling parent much like me, you realize that a passion for reading is not enough, for the object of the passion must be, as just noted, good books. Not just any books. Good books. Books, say, about great men and women (and sometimes children, too) of the past. Books that feed the child’s soul with images of the True, Good, and Beautiful. Images they can store up in their memory, revisit, learn from, and, hopefully, as God gives the increase, imitate in their own lives.

My children devour books, and we do our best to make sure those books are good for the reasons just stated. But every so often, on a trip to the library, a book slips in that we, regrettably, haven’t vetted sufficiently and so the precise contents of which we don’t find out about until the children bring us questions because something they read confused them.

My children recently encountered such a book which quite suddenly turned from what seemed to be an inspiring story of black nurse in the Crimean War into a simplistic, emotion-laden tirade against one of the greates heroines of the time, Florence Nightingale.

The book in question is Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, by Susan Goldman Rubin. It tells the story of Mary Jane Grant, a mixed-race girl from Jamaica. From the start of the book (showcased by our library during Black History Month), much is made of Mary’s skin color and how proud she was of it and how from her early teens she encountered nasty people who judged her because of it. (You can see where this is going already).

Mary’s major interest beginning as a child was practicing medicine, a love she got from her mother, who trained her in such arts as she possessed. At 31, she married an Englishman, Edwin Seacole, who unfortunately died of sickness despite all her nursing of him in 1844. A series of events led to her becoming widely recognized in Jamaica as very knowledgeable in the healing arts. Yet all was not sweetness and light. Bravely battling bigotry all the way (it’s mentioned six times in 8 pages), she plied her healing arts in various places, at last ending up in Crimea in 1855, determined to set up her own convalescent home for soldiers dying more from disease than bullets.

It is while relating this process that the book begins its not-so-subtle attack on Florence Nightingale, noting that although she, a white woman, had little trouble getting into the War as a lead nurse, no one in authority wanted a “yellow woman” to do the same. Upon arriving in Constantinople, she met Nightingale, who, as the book has it, was extremely rude to Seacole and refused her services because of her skin color and certain medical practices she had (giving sickly soldiers swigs of sherry or wine-lemonade) which Nightingale said made Seacole a “woman of bad character.”

Nightingale, we are told (on a page picturing a compassionate looking woman-of-color confronting a prim, sour-faced white woman) flatly refused even to allow the exhausted Seacole a bed among the other nurses, since such “associations” were “absolutely out of the question” (a purported quote from a letter of Nightingale’s). Later on, Seacole was successfully treating many diseased men in Balaclava when Nightingale, recently arrived there, herself fell ill with a form of typhus. As the book has it, Nightinglae “was revolted by the idea” of allowing a woman-of-color to treat her illness with “quack” Creole medicines.

This is the final image of Florence Nightingale that we receive from Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield. Although at the outset of the account of the War, the book does mention that Nightingale is justly famous for pressing for greater sanitation in the sick wards, the overall effect given is that she was in reality just another nasty, privileged-and-prejudiced White Woman looking down on a member of an “inferior race” despite the latter’s clear competence in the medical arts.

What to say about this, especially since Florence Nightingale is often held up as a great heroine of reforming battlefield medical practices? I’m no expert on the Crimean War or Nightingale herself, and I’ve learned that Nightingale’s collected works, including numerous letters from which a more accurate picture of her person and work might be built, run to 16 volumes. A small bit of Googling (not recommended as a substitute for actual serious research, and I don’t represent my Googling here as counting for that) turns up that there’s been a fairly learned controversy for some years now over the Nightingale-Seacole rivalry. (National Geographic, for instance, isn’t quite as glowing in its account of Seacole’s medical prowess and motivations – but as I haven’t researched the topic, I can’t say myself.)

What concerns me – and I think what should concern you, homeschool parents, as well – is how this apparently very complex situation from the past is now being marketed to young children as a political weapon aimed at destroying someone justly famed as a heroine merely because she (might have) had some views on certain issues now considered sacrosanct by a palpably self-righteous segment of our degraded society. Here are some take away points in need of further consideration, then:

(1) There’s a subtle irony in a book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield attempting to destroy a major example of a strong woman making her own way in a male-dominated world. For Mary Seacole does this by orienting attention to skin color rather than merits, and so tries to use one strong woman to destroy another. In other words, the great cause of Women’s Rights, which otherwise needs all the heroines it can get, is in a book like this being summarily fed to the great cause of Racial Justice – and apparently the incongruity is not supposed to be noticed. Why ought it to be this way? Why not simply supplement acquainting children with the greatness of Florence Nightingale with also acquainting them with the greatness of Mary Seacole? Leave self-righteous, virtue-signalling, destructively cynical political crusades out of it entirely, thereby enriching the childrens’ store of images of greatness to imitate in their own lives.

(2) Should someone attempting to tear down a hero / heroine’s legacy need to demonstrate a thorough competence in all the relevant sources before being taken seriously? Consider that as noted earlier, there are sixteeen volumes of letters and other materials extant from Florence Nightingale. From what I have found, these are very expensive volumes (upwards of $90 each), and some run to over 1,000 pages. The book I’ve been referencing, Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, cites a few choice, seemingly damning phrases from Nightingale in reference to Seacole, but aren’t we entitled to ask for more context? Of course, it’s a children’s book, not a scholarly tome – but that’s all the reason to be eminently careful in the selection of material so as to not damage young minds and hearts. If all one read was this book, one would get a very negative picture of Florence Nightingale. But I wonder what’s in those sixteen volumes of original material of hers. What qualifications might we find about her views on race? How can we be sure this very obviously politically-motivated book, showcased during Black History Month, is accurately representing Nightingale’s views?

(3) And yes, what of selection? Owing to the overwhelmingly vast amount of historical material available on all manner of issues nowadays, every historian must select what to include, what to leave out, what questions to organize an account around, what directions to pursue an inquiry, and so on. It follows from this that no historical account will ever be “just the facts,” but will always be a relatively-accurate reconstruction of the materials used. It may be that other books on Nightingale have not emphasized racial issues in play during her era, and so we should acknowledge that they existed and be honest if we find them operating in a hero or heroine. But the answer to a selectivity that never tells children about a great person’s Flaw In Area X ought not to be a simple mirror-image selectivity that seeks to just destroy the great person, period, and inculcate in a child a dark cynicism that the world always has been only about prejudicial power relationships. Stories should feed the soul, not rot it.

(4) And from a Christian point of view consider this: the Bible, at least, is one book about ancient heroes that never scruples to tell us directly about the great flaws of the men and women it holds up as examples of faith. Whether Noah’s drunkenness or Abraham’s mistreatment of Hagar and Ishmael or Moses’ cowardice and anger or David’s adultery and subsequent indirect-murdering of the woman’s lawful spouse or Solomon’s massive idolatry or Peter’s reckless impetuosity, the Bible doesn’t present us with Ideal Heroes so that later we can be all shocked and become cynical when someone says, “But did you know that this ‘great hero’ was guilty of ____?” The upshot for my topic here is that even were we to discover that Florence Nightingale harbored views we now call racist and did treat a competent nurse in a rude and prejudiced way, we should just say, “Oh, so now we have direct evidence that she’s like all our heroes: a sinner in need of grace.”

In short, what I think a children’s book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield wants to do – encourage children to broaden their acquaintance with the world, get a larger, more holistic picture of the wonderful diversity of virtuous human examples they can imitate, is quite laudable and ought to be done more. Add new heroes to the stock of old heroes, and there’s so much more to celebrate! But there’s just no need for a vast project of cynical revisionist history that is only going to issue in a sort of reverse-bigotry against Whites, and really just hollow out kids’ souls by teaching them instead that all the older heroes were just Bad People Who Arbitrarily Got Power and Shamefully Oppressed Others.

Heroes are special people who do extraordinary things. But whoever said they aren’t humans just like the rest of us? Why should we be so astonished to find out that they, too, had feet of clay?