The Flickering Lamp

16.09.20

Poems to Celebrate the Bi-Centenary of Florence Nightingale’s Birth

By Margaret Eddershaw

Last year I wrote a suite of poems, entitled The Flickering Lamp, to mark the bi-centenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale in 2020. This was to be performed in London in May this year at the Florence Nightingale Museum and St. Thomas’ Hospital (the building of which was funded by Florence). All proceeds from my performances were intended to contribute to the building of a health clinic at Ibba School, that would also be available to the local villagers. But ironically the corona virus overwhelmed the most famous nurse in the world – known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’.

So I decided to make a video for FIGS of some of the poems, since Florence Nightingale is an inspiring heroine for girls and her impact on nursing and approach to health is a timely reminder of our vulnerability during the pandemic.

Florence Nightingale was born in Florence on May 12th 1820. Her family was wealthy and they owned two country estates in England. Her parents were Unitarians and they favoured a classical education for girls. So Florence’s study included Latin, German, French and Italian, as well as Mathematics. As a young woman, she expressed the desire to become a nursing sister, but her parents forbade her to undergo training for an occupation they considered to be menial.

She turned down a number of marriage proposals, explaining that she wanted something more from life than marriage and domesticity. And so, in 1850, and despite the vehement objections of her parents, Florence enrolled as a nursing student at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses in Germany. The course lasted two years. When she returned to London, she began her nursing career at a Harley Street medical practice.

In October 1853, the Crimean War broke out between Russia on the one side and the allies, Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire on the other. And the main theatre of war was the Crimean Peninsula. Initially, no female nurses were deployed to the Crimea to support the allied forces, but late in 1854, Florence received a letter from the Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, a good friend of Florence’s family, asking her to organise a corps of female nurses to go to Scutari in the Crimea. Within a few weeks, she had organised the corps and it arrived in Scutari, in the thick of the fighting, in November. She would remain there for eighteen months – that would transform her life and utterly transform hospital nursing practice universally.

There are nine poems in the video, from the original suite of twenty. The poems are dramatic monologues, in which characters from Florence’s life, real and imagined, speak in their own voices. They include Florence, George, a soldier wounded at the Battle of Alma, Robert Robinson, an Irish soldier who was Florence’s assistant at Scutari; Queen Victoria, Florence’s mother, Fanny, and her god-daughter, Florence Shore. There are pictures, background sounds and a linking commentary. The video, about twenty minutes in length, is coming out in October and will be made available on the FIGS website.

Margaret Eddershaw, FIGS Trustee, September 2020

P.S. If you enjoy the video you might like to donate to the health clinic at IGBS and the costs of the nurse, equipment, and medicines.

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