Flight of the Wild Swan: A Novel

  • By Melissa Pritchard
  • Bellevue Literary Press
  • 416 pp.

Before she became a metaphor, Florence Nightingale was a woman.

Flight of the Wild Swan: A Novel

Saints, it turns out, may not be pleasant people. Mother Teresa stands accused of being a tyrant, and extreme humanitarians might simply be extreme egoists. Few women have been more sanctified than Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp and founder of modern nursing. The challenge of turning such a lionized figure into a compelling fictional character seems daunting, yet author Melissa Pritchard meets the task mightily in her latest novel, Flight of the Wild Swan.

When she is 7 years old, young Florence hears the piteous cries of an ensnared hare outside her wealthy family’s house. She disentangles the animal and finds herself deeply moved by the terror in its eyes, only to have the poor creature die, bloody, in her arms as she rushes home.

Her family’s sensible housekeeper naturally serves the hare for dinner. Though Florence’s sensitive older sister, Parthenope, is unable to eat the meat seasoned with blood sauce, Florence nibbles on the dish and finds it delicious. She wonders what is wrong with herself.

That question animates much of this engaging story. Florence is both deeply sensitive and coldly distant from others’ lives and feelings. She loves numbers and lists, a passion that develops into a calling as a statistician, and tells herself that “emotions are the enemy.” When they are both still children, her passionate sister objects to Florence’s pursuit of education, saying that Florence “pretends concern for the poor, but anyone with eyes can see she cares only for herself.”

Florence, though troubled by these allegations, is nonetheless convinced she answers to a higher power. As a teenager, she is caught in an immensity of light that opens a voice within her. She hears God: “You are to end the world’s suffering.” It is a call to service, she is certain.

Though she takes decades to find the road to that service, Florence is an acute observer of society’s hypocrisies. She is convinced that God loves the snakes as well as the men and judges the notion of human superiority to be a “cruel lie.” In Rome, as a companion to two eccentric friends, she sees a child starving in the street. Florence gives the girl a handful of coins, but once the child runs off, she chides herself for not having had the courage to do more, to truly alleviate suffering by bringing the girl home. It is, after all, Christmas Eve.

As Florence gradually develops the nerve to break convention and live her convictions, she finds herself more and more estranged from society. The structure of this clever novel highlights the disjunction she faces in her iconoclasm: Each brief chapter offers a snippet, sometimes from Florence’s perspective, sometimes from that of those around her. Some chapters are mere sentences in Florence’s diary, while others are letters to or from her. It’s an effective technique for making the woman crystalized as “the angel of Crimea” into a real person with contradictions and deep, dangerous ideas about how societies organize themselves.

Even Florence’s ideas about nursing were, at the time, dangerously subversive. In the story, one of Florence’s friends worries that she is so immersed in her nursing that she has grown indifferent to her appearance, “neither man nor woman.” The doctors resent her presumption and her observations on their inadequacies, but in the end, her work speaks for itself. The soldiers love her.

But still, the accusations of hubris haunt Florence. A competing nurse, one with much more deference to the existing hierarchy of doctors and bureaucrats, is horrified to find Florence “an unsexed creature of narcissism, self-regard, and icy ambition.”

This novel never explicitly answers the question of whether Florence’s personal sacrifices or shortfalls were, in fact, flaws. Author Pritchard instead offers us a moving portrait of a complex human with the courage to change the world and the heart to mourn her own losses as she does.

Florence lives long enough to see the invention of some of the first recording instruments, and at the end of her life, she speaks into a machine that etches her voice into a wax cylinder for all posterity. You can listen to it here, though it’s hard not to wonder just how accurate that nascent technology was.

But how accurate, either, are the folk legends and histories we receive through popular culture? Florence Nightingale dared to highlight the hypocrisies of her time and to subvert gender stereotypes. For her labors, history reshaped her into a paragon of sexless femininity.

This novel challenges that characterization. It challenges the very idea that a person can ever be one thing, one consistent thing, and instead asks us to see the messy heart behind the headlines. Flight of the Wild Swan is a beautiful accomplishment.

Carrie Callaghan is the author of the historical novels A Light of Her Own and Salt the Snow. She lives in Maryland with her family and four ridiculous cats.

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