'The hospital bedspreads at the London were blue-and-white check. Probationers were taught to ensure that precisely nine squares hung over the end of each bed they were making. When the squares did not align, Ethel Hope Beecher...Sister of Mellish Ward from May 1897 to December 1899, would strip the covers off the beds to humiliate the recalcitrant bedmaker.'
Sounds not unlike my humiliation at the hands of a ward sister some seventy years later, but that was the London circa 1898.
I wrote a great deal about the inspirational trails that Diana Souhami's book on Edith Cavell had led me down as I read it, though not about the book itself, but I think we may have already ascertained that I knew as much about Edith Cavell as could be gleaned from the 1939 film starring Anna Neagle coupled my 1970's sojourn at the London Hospital, so I was keen to find out more in that way that nurses always like to know much more about other nurses, and indeed the book is very simply dedicated 'to nurses'.
Born in the Norfolk village of Swardeston on 4th December 1865, Edith was the oldest child of the Reverend Frederick Cavell (to rhyme with travel), forty years old and married to twenty-six year old Louisa. Also born in that year Rudyard Kipling and W.B Yeats who would both go on to play pivotal literary roles through the years of the Great War, and who could have imagined that this baby, born into an ordinary family, would likewise become a name synonymous with that conflict too.
Brought up in an atmosphere of devout and rigid religious observance, Edith Cavell had little alternative but to embrace a life of piety, and one steeped in expectations of duty and service to others, though it would seem she did so with a glad heart. Working initially as a governess and proving herself to be a competent artist as well, in 1895 Edith decided to follow in her younger sisters' footsteps and train as a nurse, eventually applying and being accepted to train at the London Hospital in Whitechapel in 1896 under the legendary tutelage of matron Eva Luckes.
If you watched the TV series Casualty 1909 based around actual historical events at the London - a hospital sufficiently diligent about its record-keeping that a wealth of important research material now exists along with a fascinating hospital museum, then you may recall Cherie Lunghi playing the part of Miss Luckes. A year before Edith Cavell's arrival, the London had been the first hospital to establish what many of us in the 1970s still knew as PTS, Preliminary Training School, a period of induction that supposedly broke you into the ways of hospital life and nurse training gently before throwing you in the deep end.
'A pause on the threshold would give eager beginners time and opportunity to realise the importance of the new life and work on which they were about to enter, work that is taken up far too lightly at the present time by many sadly lacking the necessary vocation.'
(Miss Luckes quoted in Ministering Angels by Stella Bingham)
Eager beginners we were in 1972 too, though I think we had all thought it through quite carefully before sacrificing our feet and lumbar discs, to say nothing of quickly gaining hands that resembled those of a seventy-year old, and all for £12 a week.
Dedicated nurse and friend of Florence Nightingale, Eva Luckes ran her school of nursing as a centre of excellence setting the very higest standards. Standards that it may well have been nigh on impossible to match, and it initially came as quite a surprise to me to discover that Edith Cavell was not the bright star in Eva Luckes's nursing firmament. Ward reports are often highly critical and lukewarm with but rare glimmers of a hint of praise, frequently disparaging and uncomplementary, Miss Luckes clearly subjective and highly judgemental, a very hard task master and quite intolerant of any hint of a dedication any less than her own.
Well we've all been there, even student nurses as late as the 1970s were subject to that, so how much more severe was it likely to have been in 1896 at the birth of a recognised nurse training slowly being rescued from the clutches of a poor and disreputable level of disorganisation. I'm thinking back to Helen Rappaport's wonderful book No Place for Ladies about the nurses of the Crimean War, only fifty years earlier. Except perhaps, just perhaps, Eva Luckes viewed a nurse as self-contained and quietly confident and capable as Edith Cavell, and a woman not that much younger than herself, to be a slight threat? Not unheard of in any profession for someone in power to use that power as they choose. My own suppositions not Diana Souhami's and that's why she's the biographer and I am not, but those thoughts did occur to me as I read on. It seems Miss Luckes was often lukewarm in the references she gave Edith in her search for employment after her training, and it was that lack of a fulfilling post to which Edith felt sufficiently committed that seems to have been instrumental in her acceptance of the post in Belgium in 1907.
Edith Cavell's success at establishing a nurse training school in Brussels is exemplary, and as I read on I became increasingly aware of how I knew this book must end... and I couldn't quite believe that it would end as it surely does.
How could this kind, serious, gentle woman be led out on the morning of October 15th 1915, to be tied to a stake, blindfolded and shot as a traitor? Well, no more detail from me because it is that detail and the aftermath that makes for much more fascinating reading, but I will tell you this much... when I reached that point, the night before the execution, as Edith is left alone in her cell with the light burning so that she can be checked to ensure she doesn't commit suicide before she meets the firing squad, I had to put the book down and walk away for a few hours.
I was genuinely upset at the mere thought.
I walked in to see Bookhound,
'They are going to shoot her and I can't bear it...'
and he went and made me a cup of tea.
That's how upset I was and not a little angry at the inertia of the powers that be who clearly failed to intervene effectively on Edith's behalf and seemed to let it happen.
So a book that engaged me at every level. Diana Souhami carefully avoids many of the biographer's pitfalls as I see them, one of which must be that of constantly assuming you know what your subject 'perhaps might have done or thought' and the temptation must have been great. Edith Cavell was incredibly self-effacing, any letters that do exist seem to deflect the focus from herself onto others as she worries about them and asks after their welfare. And whilst copious quantities of Miss Luckes's written records and correspondence survive, very little remains of Edith Cavell's. For example all her hospital records, reports and diaries meticulously written about her work in Belgium were destroyed for fear of falling into enemy hands, so it cannot have been an easy task to build up a picture of a woman who consistently deflected the attention away from herself.
There are some wonderful little moments of discovery...the diary fragments found many years later stitched into a cushion belonging to Edith. Edith's faithful dog Jack who saw out his life with friends and is now stuffed and on display in the Imperial War Museum in London... I shall go and visit him next time. But above all I will, for all the arguments and mayhem over its construction, go and pay quiet homage at Edith Cavell's statue near Trafalgar Square too, because I have emerged from this book with a deepened respect and heartfelt admiration for a very courageous and dedicated woman.
I'm not sure you can ask for much more than that from any book.