Go back to article: A statistical campaign: Florence Nightingale and Harriet Martineau’s England and her Soldiers

Collaborating with Martineau

In addition to the Commission’s publicly distributed report, Nightingale had completed a ‘confidential report’ for the government, known as Notes on Matters Affecting the Health of the British Army. Never officially published, Notes featured the first appearance of the ‘Rose Diagram’.

It had not been well-received: numerous pamphlets and an anonymous paper (attributed to senior medical officials) were published refuting its contents (Small, 2010, p 2). Nightingale began to leak Notes, sending it to influential figures including the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, statistician Edwin Chadwick and, of course, Harriet Martineau.

On 30 November 1858, Nightingale wrote to Martineau, hoping to appeal to the latter’s interest in the military:

I know that you have been interested about our army matters and therefore, although an old story now, I venture to send you a copy of a ‘confidential’ report of mine to the War Office. It is really ‘confidential’ and no copy has been (or is to be) presented to the House of Commons. Therefore it is only for your own private reading that I send it, if you have still time, strength or inclination for this subject (Nightingale, 2010 [30 November 1858], p 993).

Nightingale’s report impressed Martineau, who called it ‘one of the most remarkable political or social productions ever seen’ (Bostridge, 2008, p 342). Thus began a fruitful collaboration and friendship.

The two women had much in common. Born in 1807, Martineau had, like Nightingale, been intellectually curious from an early age and was mostly educated at home. Her studies included classics, ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy and history. With an industrialist father, she was raised in relative comfort until the 1820s, when the family’s economic situation was severely reduced. Subsequently, Martineau was obliged to support herself financially; she quickly established herself as an author working in a diverse range of formats, including reviews, novels, biographies, how-to manuals, newspaper columns, essays and articles (Hoecker-Drysdale, 2001, p 76). Economic necessity aside, Martineau was passionate about writing; like Nightingale, she had a keen sense of vocation, writing in her autobiography:

Authorship has never been for me a matter of choice. I have not done it for amusement, or for money, or for fame, or for any reason but because I could not help it. Things were pressing to be said; and there was more or less evidence that I was the person to say them (Martineau, 2010 [1877], p 188; Hoecker-Drysdale, 2001, p 77).

A leader-writer of the left-wing newspaper Daily News, Martineau published extensively on social issues including women’s rights, the poor laws, and the abolition of slavery. She frequently chose to convey her ideas through fiction, weaving political arguments into a series of popular tales. Well-connected, she was closely acquainted with a number of political figures, including William Gladstone (Woodham-Smith, 1950, p 315 ).

Figure 5

Black and white full figure seated portrait photograph of Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale. Photograph by Millbourn. c. 1890

Prior to her collaboration with Nightingale, Martineau had been acquainted with the Nightingale family, though not Florence herself. Like many others, she had read of Nightingale’s endeavours in the Crimea in the press. She shared Nightingale’s commitment to empirical methods of observation – a cause she had championed in her 1838 methodology, How to Observe Morals and Manners – and had even written an article supporting a fund for Nightingale and her nurses in the Crimea (McDonald, 1994, pp 51–52).

Given these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that Martineau responded so positively to Nightingale and her cause. Their subsequent letters – which date as late as the 1870s – reveal a strong professional and personal relationship. Though the pair never met, their correspondence is warm and affectionate, with salutations moving quickly from ‘Dear Madam’ to ‘Dear Friend’, and closings from ‘yours faithfully’ to ‘yours truly and gratefully’ (McDonald, 1994, pp 206–207).

Martineau soon began to publicise Nightingale’s findings, carefully excluding confidential data, first in a series of articles in the Daily News, and ultimately in England and her Soldiers (Bostridge, 2008, p 342). She shared Nightingale’s outrage, writing in the Daily News on 11 February 1859:

There is no excuse for the loss of an hour when the lives of our soldiers and the military strength of the nation are in question… [N]ow that we have learned that military Hygiene is something different from the art of amputating limbs and treating dysentery or sunstroke, we shall be guilty of murder on a wholesale scale if we do not apply our new knowledge (Logan, 2010, p 248).

The book was very much a collaborative effort, as Martineau explained in a letter to Henry Reeve:

The book is to be mine, as to form, style, responsibility in every literary sense […] but F. N. is (at my request) to see the whole, in order to preclude mistakes of fact & to keep me informed of the latest movements (Bostridge, 2008, p 342).

Combining statistics with literature was not without precedent. Indeed, other authors had seized upon the new wealth of statistical data, both as a means of lending credibility to their stories, and to make political statements. This included Charles Kingsley, who used the 1843 ‘Report on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture’ in his novel, Yeast: A Problem (1848), and Disraeli, whose novel Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845) drew on reports including the ‘Reports of the Children’s Employment Commission’, the ‘Report from the Select Committee on Payment of Wages’ (1842) and the ‘Report on the Commission to Inquire into the Plight of the Handloom Weavers’ (1841) (Smith, 1970).

Like Disraeli and Kingsley, Martineau and Nightingale grasped that the lay reader was more receptive to statistical information in a literary format than in the government issued reports known as ‘Blue Books’ (Magnello, 2010, p 21). Indeed, Martineau notes in the preface to England and her Soldiers that ‘few persons read Blue Books; and very few have time to go through the mass of evidence collected by the various authorities who have reported on the state of the army’ (Martineau, 1859, p vi). Accordingly, the book was carefully pitched to appeal to a wide audience, particularly soldiers. It was also deftly presented so as to avoid censure. Nightingale outlined this strategy in a letter to Martineau:

I feel for two reasons that it is desirable to work up the instructional matter into a narrative by introducing the battles […] My two reasons are (1) that it will be impossible for me to gain admission into the regimental libraries for this book unless the instructional matter is disguised in narrative (no chaplain or inspector would sanction it); (2) that no careless person (and soldiers too are careless) would ever read it without the battles (Nightingale, 2010 [ 21 March 1859], p 1004).

This is not to say that Martineau and Nightingale’s message is hidden away or only hinted at, quite the opposite. The message – that infectious disease was deadly, preventable and all too rife in the army – is explicitly laid out. For instance, in this passage, Martineau plainly argues her point, with the assistance of Nightingale’s data:

Take any set of Englishmen of the same age, – say between 15 and 45, – and you will find the annual mortality 1 in 100 from epidemic and constitutional disease, from local disease, and from violent death collectively; whereas the deaths from those causes were, in our army in the East, nearly 23 per cent., – only 3 percent being from wounds in hospital, while more than 18 were from epidemic disease. The object of introducing this last illustration is to show how little the wounds received in action have to do with the soldier’s peril. The deduction of the 3 per cent. for shot, sword, bayonet, and accidents, leaves a mortality of nearly 20 per cent (Martineau, 1859, p 41).

Strikingly, the text of England and her Soldiers also goes some way to puncturing the popular myth of Nightingale as the untouchable heroine of the Crimean War (Small, 2010, p 150). This is not to say that Nightingale appears in a negative light. Indeed, she is described as a welcome and benevolent presence: ‘What a change it was when Miss Nightingale and the nurses appeared, with hands full of good things at the right time!’ (Martineau, 1859, p 214). Yet conditions at the Scutari hospitals where Nightingale was based are reported damningly, as they had not been in Nightingale’s public reports (Small, 2010, p 150):

…the ground within the Barrack Hospital square was wet, from being insufficiently drained; six dead dogs lay just under one ward window, and a dead horse 'for some weeks in the aqueduct!' […] the filth, vermin, and rats, alive and dead, under the wooden divans on which the men lay, were in themselves a sufficient poison (Martineau, 1859, p 191).

Nightingale thus appears, not as the ministering angel (Bostridge, 2008, p 342) valiantly healing all, but as a well-intended professional rendered helpless by government inefficiencies.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160504/004