callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

What I read in May

This will not be a list. There was re-reading and there’s a limit to how much you can say about Miss Read. With no library, no charity shops and no TBR pile (I seem to be the only person without one), I’ve become quite dependent on buying Kindle deals.

This year marks the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and I ploughed through Florence Nightingale by Mark Bostridge. I found it interesting but quite hard going. He emphasises her intellect and her understanding of statistics which helped her, after the Crimean war, to devise plans for reorganising health care for the military, for training schools for nurses and for preventing, rather than curing illness, through sanitary measures. She said that people were more likely to ‘die of hospital’ than of the illness that sent them there. Much of what she said remains relevant today. A truly remarkable woman, who saw nursing as a religious calling, she wanted nurses who had an almost nun-like devotion and was always disappointed when her best nurses got married and stopped working. She felt passionately that families stifled the ambitions of clever girls, who wasted their lives being polite in drawing rooms rather than doing something useful. This was true of the time but rather unfair to her own parents, who knew she was ‘different’ and tried to support her. She was lucky to have the right contacts but even so, it’s impressive that so many important men (like Sidney Herbert), treated her as an expert in her field.

My own introduction to Florence Nightingale’s life was in Girl comic, which had a weekly strip about famous and inspiring women. I seem to remember her in a blue dress (she always wore black), holding her famous lamp aloft. Here’s the Ladybird image, 1959:

This book promulgates many of the myths which Bostridge debunks, although it’s better than nothing for young children. Florence Nightingale was so much more than the angel of mercy of legend.

Lady Glenconner has often popped up on programmes about the royal family, usually talking about what it was like being one of the Queen’s maids of honour at the Coronation. Now, I gather, she’s become a big hit on chat shows. I’m not one for reading books about the royals, so I was surprised to find myself joining the legions of readers of Lady in Waiting who ‘couldn’t put it down’. The book is riveting and far more about herself than about the royal family.

Anne Glenconner was the eldest of three daughters of the Earl of Leicester, owner of the Holkham estate. Her parents were friendly with the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. There were shooting parties and the young Anne played with princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. So, from an early age, she was used to being around royalty. After a conventional upbringing and a ‘season’, she married Colin Tennant, later Lord Glenconner. He was fabulously rich and more than a little mad. He bought houses as other people might buy Mars bars, thought nothing of flying to India just to buy some clothes, and threw extravagant parties. Famously, he bought Mustique, a mosquito-ridden, poverty-stricken island in the Caribbean and turned it into a private playground for the super-rich. In spite of his erratic behaviour, his wife stuck to him for fifty-four years, only to find that she and her children had been left nothing in his will.

Her loyalty was not just to her husband but to her friend Princess Margaret, to whom she was lady in waiting for thirty years. At the start of the book, she says that she wanted to set the record straight after reading ‘that horrible book’, Craig Brown’s Ma’am, Darling, which I have read and found very entertaining. I’ve no reason to disbelieve any of Craig Brown’s stories of Princess Margaret’s unpunctuality, rudeness and ignorance but Lady Glenconner will only say that she could be ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’. She certainly demanded a lot of her lady in waiting, especially at the end of her life, but what her friend remembers now is her funniness and the times they would spend roaring with laughter.

No amount of money and privilege can protect people from tragedy and Lady Glenconner has had more than her share. The eldest son, Charlie, was a heroin addict when he was still at school. After years of failed treatment he eventually became clean and married, only to die of hepatitis C. The second son, Henry, after marrying, suddenly came out as gay and developed HIV, then AIDS. Some people shunned the family because of fear and the general stigma of the disease but Princess Margaret, a true friend, was unfazed by it. She visited Henry and other young men dying in hospital, chatted to them and made them laugh. All, as the author rather pointedly notes, without being followed about by photographers or getting any publicity out of it. As if the deaths of two sons weren’t bad enough, the third son, Christopher, had a catastrophic accident in Bolivia which left him in a coma for four months. Doctors told his mother that there was no hope, that he would be in a permanently vegetative state. This she refused to accept and, with teams of helpers, arranged a sensory stimulation programme which had been recommended to her by a doctor whose own son had been in a similar state. This worked and after years of rehabilitation, Christopher was able to lead something like a normal life, although still disabled. You have to admire her grit.

Now eighty-seven, Lady Glenconner looks wonderful for her age, still enjoys parties and travel, has written this best-selling book and is writing a murder mystery set on Mustique. She has overcome extraordinary difficulties, in her marriage and with her children. This is surely due to her attitude to life, which I imagine is one she shares with the Queen: just get on with it. What a tough old bird.
Tags: florence nightingale, lady glenconner

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