CHAPTER VIII: Ministering Women
Honour to those whose words or
Thus help us in our daily needs;
And by their overflow
Raise us from what is low!
No account of the reign of Queen Victoria would be complete without some reference to the achievements of women, more especially when their work has had for its chief end and aim the alleviation of suffering. Woman has taken a leading part in the campaign which has been and is now being ceaselessly carried on against the forces of sin, ignorance, and want.
In the early years of Victoria’s reign the art of sick-nursing was scarcely known at all. The worst type of nurse is vividly pictured for us by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit:
“She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye, which she had a remarkable power of turning up, and only showing the white of it. Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. She wore a very rusty black gown, rather the worse for snuff, and a shawl and bonnet to correspond. In these dilapidated articles of dress she had, on principle, arrayed herself, time out of mind on such occasions as the present; . . . The face of Mrs Gamp—the nose in particular—was somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits.”
For a long time, though it had been recognized that the care of the sick was woman’s work, no special training was required from those undertaking it. Florence Nightingale did away with all such wrong ideas. In a letter on the subject of training she wrote: “I would say also to all young ladies who are called to any particular vocation, qualify yourselves for it, as a man does for his work. Don’t think you can undertake it otherwise. . . . If you are called to man’s work, do not exact a woman’s privileges—the privilege of inaccuracy, of weakness, ye muddle-heads. Submit yourselves to the rules of business, as men do, by which alone you can make God’s business succeed; for He has never said that He will give His success and His blessing to inefficiency, to sketchy and unfinished work.”
She prepared herself for her life’s work by years of hard study and ten years’ training, visiting all the best institutions in Germany, France, and Italy. She gave up a life of ease and comfort in order to develop her natural gift to the utmost.
Her opportunity was not long in coming. In 1854 the Crimean War broke out. Most of the generals in the English army were old men whose experience of actual warfare dated back to the early days of the century. Everything was hopelessly mismanaged from the beginning. In August the English and French allied forces moved against the fortress of Sebastopol, from which Russia was threatening an attack on Constantinople. Troops were landed in a hostile country without the means of moving them away again; there was little or no provision made to transport food, baggage, or medical stores.