Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
Ruth Y. Jenkins
Rewriting Female Subjection: Florence Nightingale's Revisionist Myth of "Cassandra"
Ruth Y. Jenkins (Ph.D., State University of New York at Stony Brook) is an Associate Professor of English at California State University in Fresno. Her book, Reclaiming Myths of Power: The Victorian Spiritual Crisis and Women Writers, is forthcoming from Bucknell University Press. Her work has appeared in College Teaching, Minnesota Review, and is forthcoming in MELUS.
The significant impact of Carlyle's cry to work on Victorian culture has long been established in scholarship of that period. Transforming the question voiced by Bunyan's Christian-"What shall I do?" (17)-into a cultural call to preserve social and economic hierarchies, Carlyle became prophet to a conservative ethic, espousing the need to "Know thyself ... Know what thou canst work at" (Sartor Resartus 126). In concert with Carlyle's rendering of social and spiritual duty, which roughly translates into man's need to embrace and accept his position and the work apportioned to it, Sarah Ellis articulates its application to women, asserting that before "properly understand [ing] the kind of duty required," women must "clearly ascertain" their "position" (Daughters 8). She continues, inserting gender into her equation for determining one's duty: "As Christian women ... the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men" (8). Consequently, women's "Christian" duty, interpreted and articulated by Ellis, became accepting first one's social position and then one's inferiority to similarly stationed men.
The application of Carlyle's and Ellis's directives often meant difficult labor for the working classes, domesticated duties for women. The distinct spheres of activity that resulted from locating female duty in genderspecific responsibilities contributed to complicated patterns of behavior for women; they lived in a culture that revered an active life of good works and industry but defined and evaluated femininity by a passive model. Because of this doublestandard, the means by which and the scope in which women demonstrated their "moral discipline" and "hard work" were genderbound. Thus many women found themselves frustrated by a community that circumscribed their salvation-limiting their opportunities to answer Carlyle's cry to work in the same way as their male contemporaries. In short, women faced different standards for their salvation-social as well as spiritual.
One such woman was Florence Nightingale. As early as 1852 she records her frustration at gender-based restrictions upon social and spiritual empowerment in her fragmented, semi-autobiographical essay "Cassandra."1 Although Nightingale maintained a prominent place in Victorian England's popular imagination and an influential position in its War Office, little scholarship has addressed her life or writings outside that concerned with the history of nursing2. It is the purpose of this essay, then, both to reinsert Nightingale into the scholarship of Victorian England and, through an analysis of "Cassandra," to consider her understanding and interpretation of women's position (the significant realities of gender) in the context of the issues that dominated the prose of that culture-the relationship between the individual, work, and spirituality.
Influenced herself by Carlyle, Nightingale alludes to his doctrine of work in an 1843 letter to Julia Smith; here Nightingale describes Past and Present as a "beautiful book," quoting "Blessed is he who has found his work .... He has a work, a life-purpose: he has found it and will follow it" (Cook 34). Associating her desires for work with Carlyle's mandates, not Ellis' translation of them for women, Nightingale implicitly rejects gender as a limiting factor in activity. In "Cassandra" she exposes not only women's desires for alternative lifestyles but also the impossibility, in the dynamics of her culture, for women to answer Carlyle's directives3. Nightingale's allusion to the ancient, prophetic woman through the title of her work, "Cassandra," creates a powerful symbol for women, whose silenced voices could also hold truths4. Like the mythical Cassandra, who is punished with the gift of unbelieved prophecy for rejecting Apollo, women whose words may be ignored can still serve their cause-and God's-as prophets of the Truth. Strikingly, Nightingale reclaims one aspect of a "defunct" mythol- ogy-Cassandra as prophet-to inform and clarify her revisionist Christianity. Forcing a parallel between her culture's spiritual narratives and those now believed primitive, she implicitly challenges the infallibility of Victo)r rian institutionalized religion.
"The time is come," Nightingale demands in "Cassandra," "when women must do something more than the 'domestic hearth"' (52); "conventional life," she asserts, is "Passivity when [women] want to be active" (38). Analyzing the interconnected condition of England and woman questions in a spiritual context that accounts for women's pain and struggle, Night Ter ingale concludes that "the next Christ will perhaps be female" (53)5. By creating, in effect, a revisionist incarnation story, Nightingale reinterprets as the position of women in her culture by naming them Christian martyrs under patriarchal hegemony; consequently, now understood as prophets of the Lord, women with challenging voices and nontraditional desires be ,in- come elevated to sacred dimensions.
"Asserting in "Cassandra" that the "unity between the woman as in inwardly developed and outwardly manifested" no longer exists (50), Nightingale exposes the disparity between women's potential abilities and their opportunities for development and articulation. With the premise that "Women [have] passion, intellect, moral activity . . . and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised," Nightingale deduces a cultural, not divine, limitation on women: "in this cold and oppressive conventional atmosphere, [passion, intellect, and moral activity] cannot be satisfied"(29). In this way she echoes John Stuart Mill's argument that culturally inscribed restraints as opposed to innate inferiority—custom, not nature—subject and enslave women. Associating natue with the evidence of divine intent but reversing the traditional reading of that analogy, Nightingale locates her criticism of societal limitations on women in a spiritual context: restricting women's opportunities to develop and persue their talents is more than an affront to women; it is an affront to God. "What is this," she asks, "but throwing the gifts of God aside as worthless, and substituting for them those of the world?" (38). As such, she subverts not only the secular maxims used to circumscribe women's lives but also the allegedly sacred underpinning for conservative interpretations of women's role and place in society.
Nightingale develops this subversion of social assumptions further by suggesting that the family replicates her culture's self-serving appropriation of Christian values, reinforcing the need for a female incarnation as female. Analyzing how the nuclear family models the patriarchal hierarchies of her culture, she cites: "The family uses people, not for what they are, not for what they are intended to be, but for what it wants them for—its own uses. It thinks of them not as what God has made them, but as something which it arranged that they shall be" (37)6. By identifying the family's opposition to nontraditional women as heretical, Nightingale suggests that the patriarchal ideology that informs her culture's sociologcial dynamics—public and private—represents a misreading of divine intent. She continues this line of argument—that the family as well as her culture appropriate the divine for secular ends—by suggesting that even young men suffer if they wish to persue alternative lifestyles. The family, she asserts, has "too narrow a field for the development of an immortal spirit, be that spirit male or female. The chances are a thousand to one that, in the small sphere, the task for which that immortal spirit is destined by the qualities and the gifts which its Creator has placed within it, will not be found (37). Shifting the parameters of her argument to include nonconformist men as well as women, she enhances her credibility in order to avoid the tone of personal axe-grinding or the appearance of an insular agenda.
Nightingale claims divine authority to challenge the subjection of women through analogies that equate thwarted female desire and talent with God-given gifts. With this authority she criticizes the patriarchal model that informs her culture and challenges the transfer of sacred authority to secular agendas. Her culture may mirror the traditional Judeo-Christian paradigm with God as father, but it merely reflects the pattern, she suggests, not the divine intent or sacred mission. As such, Nightingale locates the cause of subjection in secular and clerical misreadings of God.
Moreover, Nightingale reinterprets and rewrites Christian doctrine, replacing patriarchal values with feminist ones. In her discussion of Milton, Christine Froula has described basic differences in male and female authority: patriarchal anagogy of history, which invests spiritual authority only in a few; the image of a male creator, which subordinates the visible to the invisible, experience to mediated knowledge, and silence to the word7. This paradigm can be applied to Nightingale's revisionist discourse to illuminate the central, defining differences between canonical doctrine and her own. In "Cassandra," she inverts the dialectics Froula identifies by privileging the visible, the spoken, and the multiple.
Nightingale delineates her theological beliefs by pointing to concrete evidence in the visible world to challenge invisible patriarchal abstractions. She asks, "What do we see? ... We see girls and boys of seventeen, before whose noble ambitions, heroic dreams, and rich endowments we bow our heads, as before God incarnate in the flesh. But, ere they are thirty, they are withered, paralyzed, extinguished" (36). With this comparison of seventeenyear-old boys and girls to "God incarnate in the flesh" and "the dreams of youth" to "proverbs," Nightingale elevates individual desire over abstracted doctrine. By doing so, she suggests that the acculturation of the young divests them of their authentic spirituality and places them in a corrupt world. And by identifying these repressed dreams as proverbs, Nightingale authorizes the dreams, not their suppression, by a patriarchal culture.
"Cassandra" continues to subvert patriarchal hierarchies by announcing that prophets were, and can be, abundant any time. She asserts that "it is a privilege to suffer for your race-a privilege not reserved to the Redeemer and martyrs alone, but one enjoyed by numbers in every age" (30). Identifying all who choose to struggle for humanity with the Redeemer, she again extends sacred power to those suffering for their spiritual beliefs, in contrast to the sharp limits of authority that institutionalized religion demands. Significantly, it is the suffering for this faith, and not that caused by the restraints of society, that empowers the individual. With this distinction, Nightingale challenges those who would condone, even explain, earthly oppression in a Christian context: that believers often suffer in the physical world, gaining their rewards in the next. Whereas Carlyle posits a doctrine of lowered expectations in Sartor Resartus, claiming that "the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator" (145) and Arnold instructs in "Empedocles on Etna" to "Nurse no extravagant hope" G. 425), Nightingale argues that such tactics privilege a patriarchal agenda and perpetuate its hegemony. While she does recognize the sacred tradition of the martyr's pain, she transfers its spirituality to the suffering of women. Rather than see that suffering as the cross women must bear, Nightingale reinterprets their agony as the result of a heretical culture, one that deters divine potential.
Nightingale, recognizing that enforced female silence advances a patriarchal ideology, pleads with women to regain a heightened sensitivity to their suffering: made numb from years of cultural oppression and repressed passion, women become mute; consequently, Nightingale cries for intensified pain, elevating speech above silence: "Yet I would spare no pang,/ Would wish no torture less,/ The more that anguish racks,/ The earlier it will bless" (29). Nightingale claims the martyrs' strength from suffering by invoking voice-giving pain to replace silent desensitization and rewrites the Christian martyr as female in patriarchal society. Thus, she again unites female oppression with that of the traditional Christian martyrs and encourages women to find strength, if not authority, from their pain. At the very least, she sees female suffering as a powerful reminder of women's subjection, one that should discourage complicity with a hegemonic culture.
Nightingale continues her subversion of her culture's appropriation of the Judeo-Christian narrative by distinguishing between man's and God's relationship to women. She argues that "conventional society, which men have made for women," forces women to "go about maudling to each other and teaching to their daughters that 'women have not passions"' (26). In contrast to this position, Nightingale believes that "Jesus Christ raised women above the condition of mere slaves, mere ministers to the passions of the man.... He gave them moral activity" (50). Women, she posits, who recognize their Godgiven passions but must suppress them in a patriarchal culture experience conflicts over rights and duties: "women... [are'afraid'] to say, Thy will be not done (declaring another order of society from that which He had made)," so they must suppress their natural gifts not simply to fulfill the duty of helpmate, but also to survive in a patriarchal culture (26). Consequently, Nightingale acquires not only the ability to challenge female subjection by identifying it as a human construct but also the authority to voice alternative social and spiritual dynamics by elevating female suffering to sacred dimensions.
Because Nightingale situates the conflict not between women and God but between man's appropriation of the divine and God, she recreates for women a benevolent Savior. When men threaten women with His wrath for patriarchally subversive behavior, Nightingale's image of God sympathizes with women: "Men say that God punishes for complaining .... They take it as a personal offense. To God alone may women complain, without insulting Him" (26). Women can complain, using Nightingale's logic, because their quarrel is not with God's but with man's injustice.
She details this injustice by citing differences between men and women who attempt to pursue their talents in society. Man, appropriating the divine, conflates complaining about patriarchal values with heresy. Nightingale exposes her culture's use of gender, rather than action or ability, to determine rights by hypothesizing that "Christ, if He had been a woman might have been nothing but a great complainer" (53). As a man, Christ could detach himself from his earthly family's demands and follow his sacred mission; a woman, Nightingale believes, who attempts the same would find herself accused of "destroying the family tie and obligation of home duties" (54). This difference signals to Nightingale not only the incongruity between divine design and man's interpretation of it but also the subsequent impossibility of women developing sacred talents in a patriarchal society.
Having revealed what she believes to be the human agenda informing female subjection, Nightingale produces an alternative doctrine: she creates a revisionist incarnation story that accounts for female pain and calls for women to prophesize this passion. Nightingale begins "Cassandra" by using the impersonal pronoun, "One," rather than "I" or "you," and rejects a simple autobiography, instead creating a mythic quality which allows any woman to be a prophet: "One often comes to be thus wandering alone in the bitterness of life" (25). Recognizing the necessary function of prophets and martyrs in the Judeo-Christian myth, Nightingale calls for women to serve as precursors for her revisionist incarnation. Through images of "premature birth[s]," which she identifies as potential prophets who take their own lives, Nightingale argues that the appeal of suicide is an imperfect panacea, displacing the importance of female suffering, aborting spiritual precursors, since "All may have to be suffered through again," and, consequently, delaying the new Christ's arrival (25).
Rather than accept a patriarchal interpretation of divine design that conflicts with her own desires, Nightingale reappropriates and rewrites the Judeo-Christian narrative of prophetic lineage and incarnation as female. Beginning "Cassandra" with the epigraph "'The Voice of one crying in the' crowd,/ 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord"' (25), Nightingale unites the mythologized "one" with a prophet heralding God's eventual incarnation. She continues to examine women's myopic pleasure in suicide, arguing that the pain and suffering women must endure reveal that they are indeed furthering God's intended plan: "Some are only deterred from suicide because it is in the most distinct manner to say to God: 'I will not, I will not do as thou wouldst have me do,' and because it is 'no use"' (41)8. Nightingale would conclude, however, that the suicide victim retreats from her sacred mission rather than resists worldly values. In charging women with such resistance, Nightingale expands upon the traditional belief that suicide is sacrilege: she equates suicide with female complicity in a patriarchal misreading of God. By paralleling the patriarchal oppression of women to the earlier Roman oppression of Christians, Nightingale not only elevates women's suffering but also reinforces through sacred parallel the absolute necessity to resist the temptations of silence and suicide.
In this context, Nightingale boldly asserts: "The next Christ will perhaps be a female Christ. But do we see one woman who looks like a female Christ? or even like 'the messenger before' her 'face,' to go before her and prepare the hearts and minds for her?" (53). How, then, will women finally be emancipated from their patriarchal prisons? Who will lead them out of their moral wilderness? In "A Note of Interrogation" (1873), Nightingale would return to this belief that Victorian England boasted no prophets or saviors when she asks, "Who is to be the founder, who the Bacon, of a method of inquiry into moral service?" (577). Like Carlyle seeking heroes, Nightingale searches for saviors who will advance humanity's condition. But unlike Carlyle, she would not necessarily look back to great men as "the modellers, patterns, and ... creators," but directly at women suffering under the dictates of a patriarchal culture (On Heroes 1)9. Unless women resensitize themselves and celebrate their pain, the new Christ, she argues, will never be born. Each suffering woman, then, like the unbelieved Cassandra, becomes one of the now missing "messengers" who could prepare the way for a female incarnation.
Echoing but reinterpreting key themes in Carlyle's prose, Nightingale's essay provides an interesting opportunity to contrast their understanding of the individual's relationship to secular and spiritual issues. A brief comparison of "Cassandra" and Sartor Resartus, in fact, should clarify how their apparently similar ideas and rhetorical strategies reveal significantly different interpretations of the individual's place in society-especially in the context of gender. Each pronounces the need for humanity to reject unholy alliances, but whereas Carlyle locates the threat in challenging the long-established values and hierarchies of his culture, Nightingale relocates the problem in the tacit or complicit acceptance of those same values. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle asserts that Teufelsdr6ckh's first important action is his "grim-fire eyed Defiance" of materialism (129); but while Carlyle directs this energy against Mammon, Nightingale directs her energies against the patriarchally-informed culture he sought to preserve. Both see work as a Godgiven mandate, the path to divine essence, but, as Nightingale asserts, women who feel compelled to work professionally have only "odd times" to pursue non-domestic activities (40).
The two works share rhetorical strategies as well. Both "Cassandra" and Sartor Resartus develop circuitously, forcing the reader to piece together the meaning. Carlyle first presents his editor's philosophy of clothes, moves to Teufelsdröckh's life, and then returns to his retailored sartorial philosophy; Nightingale accumulates fragments delineating women's experiencepassion, time, work, marriage, dreams, female prophets, and female Christs-reproducing in the act of reading the missing history of women's experience. just as Carlyle begins with and returns to a revised philosophical vision, Nightingale begins her essay with a consideration of women's suppressed, secular passion only to return to female passion, this time in a specifically sacred context, with Cassandra as a female Christ being crucified.
Most significantly, both authors claim divine authority for their competing directives, often reproducing the language and rhythm of the Bible. For Carlyle, God's plan for humanity exists, mirrored in a productive society; those who question such extant values or conventions are heretical, disobeying God: "Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh," Carlyle preaches, "wherein no man can work" (149). For Nightingale, those who do not challenge such conventions are the infidels, and she also appropriates sacred authority to overturn them: "Awake, ye women, all ye that sleep, awake! If this domestic life were so very good, would your young men wander away from it, your maidens think of something else?" (52).
Nightingale reveals the extent to which she subverts the conventions of "this domestic life" by presenting for the essay's final section a noncomplicitous woman in the dying Cassandra. Here Nightingale rejects conventional patterns of behavior: she celebrates "beautiful death!" and calls for "Wedding clothes instead of mourning"; although defying secular conventions, this interpretation of death as "divine freedom" is nonetheless quintessentially Christian (55, 54). Consequently, Cassandra becomes a new kind of Christian prophet and martyr: cultural restrictions destroy her talents and cause "a death ... [that has] taken place some years ago" (55). Considered within the contexts of power and powerlessness, the joy at this death is in sharp contrast to the counter-productive desire of suicide that Nightingale has earlier warned against. In this final section, Nightingale
declares: "Let neither name nor date be placed on her grave, still less the expression of regret or of admiration; but simply the words, 'I believe in God"' (55). This dying woman, finding neither joy in life nor a way to alter that fact, shocks her family by her exhilaration at death. She and others brave enough to recognize patriarchal oppression of her talents become messengers announcing the eventual birth of a female Christ, replacing the Judeo-Christian prophets of the male incarnation. And, as prophets, these women find divine authority to challenge their culture, regardless of their position in that culture. This Cassandra gains power-regains control over her life-by choosing death. Not motivated by complicity in her own subjection, Cassandra, in embracing death, refuses even to participate in the patriarchal options life would offer her, refuses even implicitly to validate those choices.10 This death should no more be read as a suicide than Christ's crucifixion; Cassandra, in effect, becomes the female Christ in her heretical culture.
By rewriting the incarnation myth, Nightingale demystifies her culture and re-enfranchises women into what she believed to be their rightful spirituality. Nightingale subverts a fundamental Western myth-that of God's incarnation as man-by suggesting God's alternative incarnation as woman. In doing so, Nightingale rejects a patriarchal model and creates a new, but not matriarchal, one that enfranchises all who use their God-given talents. For Nightingale, rewriting the incarnation myth in "Cassandra" explains not only female loss of power through male appropriation of the divine but also a female pursuit of power. Rejoicing in the pain brought about by struggling for a divine mission, women bear witness to a greater truth than that ascribed to by their androcentric culture. By naming each woman struggling against patriarchal complicity as a prophet to a female Christ, Nightingale engenders an image of God that empowers her challenges against her world. It is because of this re-visioned position between God and women that she can conclude "Cassandra" with "I believe in God" (55).
Polemic and revolutionary, "Cassandra" reveals an alternative voice and a challenging vision afforded scant attention in scholarship on Victorian prose. More than simply a manifesto for women's rights, "Cassandra" subverts the foundation upon which her culture bases female subjection: divine authority based on a patriarchal interpretation of the Word. By reclaiming such sacred power, Nightingale revises the fundamental narratives of Western culture to account for authentic female experience and to enable alternative interpretations of the natural and supernatural worlds. In this way, "Cassandra" suggests a more complex and less univocal relationship between the issues that define the Victorian period and the individuals who sought to understand them.
1 "Cassandra" was originally embedded in Nightingale's three-volume theological treatise Suggestions for Thought to Searchers After Religious Truth; it has been published separately, however, as an appendix to Ray Strachey's The Cause and as a monograph by the Feminist Press and, most recently, in Mary Poovey's edition Cassandra and Suggestions for Thought. Writing Suggestions, Elaine Showalter suggests, served as a kind of therapy for Nightingale, helping "her to work through her psychic turmoil" ("Florence Nightingale's Feminist Complaint" 399). Although authoring this text did provide Nightingale with a script for empowering her own life, "Cassandra" (and Suggestions) achieves significantly more for her-empowering and justifying her non-traditional desires.
2 'Considering the prominent position that history affords Nightingale, relatively little scholarship, with the exception of that concerned specifically with the health care profession, has been devoted to her. Sir Edward Cook's The Life of Florence Nightingale, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, and Cecil Woodham-Smith's Florence Nightingale consider her life; Mantripp's "Florence Nightingale and Religion," Tarrant's Florence Nightingale as a Religious Thinker, and my forthcoming book, Reclaiming Myths of Power (Bucknell), explore her spiritual beliefs; Allen's "Florence Nightingale: Toward a Psycho-historical Interpretation," Pickering's Creative Malady, and Showalter's Female Malady analyze Nightingale's invalidism; in addition, Showalter's "Florence Nightingale's Feminist Complaint" situates her life, writings, and beliefs within the limiting context of Victorian England. Martha Vicinus and Bea Nergaard's recent edition of Nightingale's letters, Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale, provides an important primary source for scholarship.
3 I Nightingale believed that God spoke to her four times in her life. Woodham-Smith identifies these occasions: her first call was on February 7,1837; she received her second call in 1853 before accepting her first post at the Hospital for Poor Gentlewomen in Harley Street; she received her third before going to the Crimea in 1854; and, she received her last call after Sidney Herbert's death in 1861 (13). See also Allen's "Florence Nightingale" for a psychehistorical interpretation of these calls.
4 I In "Florence Nightingale's Feminist Complaint," Showalter also discusses how Nightingale's choice of the Cassandra myth reflects issues contained within her life and discourse (410).
5 Nightingale was not alone during the nineteenth century in announcing a female Christ. There existed a movement that attempted to resurrect the female aspects of God, even to the extentof prophesizing a female messiah. BarbaraTaylor, in Eve and the New Jerusalem, provides a detailed account of this phenomenon (118-82). Similarly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, writing about the Shakers, asserts that the "female Christ is the theological expression of the androgyny of God and God's image" (111).
6 I Earlier in a private notebook, Nightingale considers such familial hegemony in a sacred context, writing that "There are Private Martyrs as well as burnt or drowned ones. Society of course does not know them; and family cannot, because our position to one another in our families is, and must be, like that of the Moon to the Earth. The Moon revolves around her, moves with her, never leaves her; the other side remains for ever unknown" (Cook 59).
7 For an expanded discussion, see Froula's important article, "When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing Canonical Economy."
8 I The realities of such struggles were present in Nightingale's own life: "My present life is suicide," she wrote, "In my 31 st year I see nothing desirable but death" (WoodhamSmith 58).
9 In A Literature of Their Own Elaine Showalter writes that "each generation of women writers has found itself ... without a history, forced to rediscover the past anew, forging again and again the consciousness of their sex" (11-12).
10 See Barbara Bellow Watson's extremely useful "On Power and the Literary Text" for an examination of these issues in Chopin, Woolf, and Lessing. See also Showalter's The Female Malady, where she asserts that "The ending of 'Cassandra' dramatizes the despair Nightingale could imagine as her own fate: Cassandra dies at the age of thirty, 'withered, paralyzed, extinguished"' (64). Although Showalter's study is crucial for reconstructing the complete history of Nightingale, I believe that her reading of Cassandra's death oversimplifies Nightingale's achievement in "Cassandra."
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