A very big title for a very small book!
I must have walked past it umpteen times in the library. A small elderly hardback on a high shelf. But one day I ascended the library steps to look at something else the name of Edith Olivier caught my eye. I was charmed by her novel, The Love-Child, and I was charmed by her memoirs. and so I thought that this might be something rather special. I was right – it is!
It is a wonderful tribute to Edith Olivier’s friend and neighbour.
So who was Miss Emma Nightingale?
“She was one of those cultivated and country ladies to be met in most villages – supremely interested in local affairs, generous to the poor, stern to the evil doer, pardoning to the penitent. She was a leading spirit in all local activities – Church Council, Conservative association, Women’s Institute. Girls’ Friendly and Brownies. She also “lived her own life”, as they say, for she did not consider herself to be altogether of the village. She had moved in wider circles. During the summer Miss Nightingale still entertained at the weekend, in the little house put at her disposal by the Squire, those of the friends of her youth who were still alive. she was not well off but had never thought of taking in “Paying Guests”, and only a European war could have driven her to such a revolution.”
During a salvage week in 1942 Miss Nightingale arrived one afternoon weighed down with more than fifty cloth books. The journals she had kept all her life.
“Can you part with them ?” I asked. “Aren’t they valuable for reference?”
“Not now, I think. Everything is changing so much that we never need to refer to the past. It doesn’t apply. The last three years are the only ones that count, and even with those, the Council Clerk gets so many new instructions that the notes in my diary about what we did two months ago are now completely out of date. It has no value except as salvage.”
Miss Olivier saw that it cost Miss Nightingale something to surrender her journals , and asked if she might view her records of the war years. Miss Nightingale assented.
“I watched Miss Nightingale go down the garden path and through the little gate, and she seemed to be changed. She had lost something from her youthful walk. She had left a part of herself in my house with her diaries.”
Miss Nightingale died that night.
Sometime later Miss Olivier read the journals for the war years, and then she assembled extracts for publication in this book.
The emotions of this one woman speak, I think, for a generation. A generation who had lived through what they thought was the war to end all wars. Only to find out that it wasn’t.
She wonders if the world and the life that she knew has gone for good.
She feels a deep admiration and respect for a younger generation who are showing such courage and determination, and who are giving so much of their young lives to the war.
And, though she is loath to admit it, she is afraid of what the future may hold. A sign, she thinks that she is growing old.
But Miss Nightingale sets too and does her bit.
First she takes a lead in the welcoming of evacuees. There is complete chaos. two hundred children arrive. Then another two hundred. Then another. Where will they all go? Just as they are all settled, news comes that one group was misdirected. And off they go again!
Miss Nightingale is a shrewd and compassionate observer. And thoughtful. She takes pains to ensure that children are suitably placed and is acutely aware of how unsettled they must be. How different country life is, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells.
A social club is arranged for mothers evacuated with their children, to give them a space of their own, away from their hostesses, Two women in the same kitchen! Imagine!
In time though most of them drift back to London. But Miss Nightingale has many more house guests. Soldiers at first, and later refugees as well.
It comes as a shock having men in the house. And men sleeping in nearby rooms. they snore, toss, turn, and make all manner of noises in the night! Who knew?!
Miss Nightingale worries about them and takes pains to entertain them. she is a dab hand at arranging dances, parties, games and all manner of activities to divert them.
But it wasn’t all high jinks. One young soldier after getting rather carried away in the kitchen was sentenced by Miss Nightingale to write one hundred lines.
“Miss Emma Nightingale is always right.”
And he did it! So clearly she could be a bit of a tartar. But the portrait that emerges is of an perceptive, compassionate and practical woman.
Sadly Miss Nightingale did not see the war come to an end, And many of those she cared for did not have the chance to thank her. But she could not have a finer memorial than this lovely little book.