"I craved for some regular occupation instead of frittering my time away on useless trifles"
Whilst Florence wrote the above in 1852, many in lockdown Britain have felt the same through 2020 and into 2021. Our rationale, however, may be significantly different.
In a recent members lecture, Dr Greta Depledge, WEA tutor provided a window into the real life of Florence Nightingale whose life has often been simplified and glamourised through films and TV programmes.
Rightly known for her pioneering approach for nursing, she was also wrote passionately about what she saw as a waste of the talent and energies of half the population – women.
Florence, certainly made a big difference to nursing. While she is still portrayed with her lamp tending patients, her impact was the professionalization of nursing, giving it the standing it still enjoys in the UK today.
She railed against incompetence and negligence which resulted in poor sanitation and living conditions. She introduced proper hospital management, administration, stringent training and best practice.
Determination to contribute more
But her journey to make that difference was hard. She had to call in her aunt to persuade her mother of her need to learn maths as a child. She also got up early in the mornings to read medical journals before her family were awake to notice as they would prefer her to read light stories or listen to the gentlemen speak. She once wrote that, ‘the worst part of the day is when the breakfast bell rings’.
Whilst it may not be the breakfast bell that calls us away from our interests today, many of us will recognise the need to sneak away to find some space for ourselves – to get away from the job list that awaits us.
However, with furlough and the call to stay at home, these challenges have changed for many. For some, there is nothing but time, and for others even less as children have been ‘remote learning’ and requiring supervision, making the concept of stealing time for self-improvement seem even harder to reach.
For those of us who have found ourselves which much more time, but few opportunities, Florence would have had much sympathy. She wrote of the affect of boredom on her life, and for women generally in her era, “I see so many of my kind who have gone mad for want of something to do”.
In her papers, Florence draws a clear picture of her life,
“I have read Daughter at Home to Father and two chapters of Mackintosh; a volume of Sybil to Maman. Learnt seven tunes by heart. Written various letters. Ridden with Papa. Paid eight visits. And that is all.”
Whilst we might be jealous of her ability to take time for music and the simple ability to pay eight visits, given our current social distancing limitations, it is tangible how frustrated Florence feels in not being able to contribute more to society.
Now a commonly known fact – learning is good for your physical and mental health – Florence already wrote of the medical effects of boredom on her, reflecting on “Why am I starving, desperate, diseased on it’.
Advice for 2021
So, what would Florence prescribe us in 2021? Perhaps, with the ability to make choices about the way we use our time that was not available to her in the 19th century, she would encourage us to use the time to better ourselves, make a difference to the people around us, to be productive. For those with less time, but a desire to improve ourselves, she might continue to recommend waking up earlier. For all of us, no doubt, she’d be telling us to wash our hands.
Join WEA as a member for £15 a year to enjoy our weekly online lectures. Learn more by clicking here.