Florence scrutinised her appearance in the looking glass: auburn hair parted precisely and secured in a knot at the crown of her head; a cameo choker, which looked good above the cornflower-blue gown with ruffs of lace at neck and sleeves. Her brown eyes and sharp nose were not exceptional, but perfectly in proportion to the rest of her face. She would pass muster. Mr Richard Monckton Milnes was interested in her conversation rather than her looks, as he had demonstrated over their seven years of close friendship. And yet today she felt a frisson of excitement at the thought of seeing him.
She checked the clock and saw there was still an hour before guests would start to arrive at Embley for her family’s annual summer party. She should go down and inspect the table settings in the garden, but she hesitated. Would Richard repeat his proposal of marriage today? In a recent letter he hinted that he wished to be settled before his fortieth birthday, and she supposed that, at twenty-nine years of age, this was likely to be the last proposal she ever received. It was now or never.
When Richard Monckton Milnes, MP for Pontefract, had first asked her to marry him, two years earlier in 1847, she had tried to explain her reservations. “It seems to me that when women marry, the marriage becomes the centre of their life, and as such it is bound to cause disappointment because for men the same is not true: they carry on pursuing their ambitions, fulfilling their duty, being active and useful. But I too wish to be active and useful.”
Richard had laughed: “I admire you for your good sense, not your ability to arrange a bunch of flowers artfully. I want a wife with whom I can discuss the matters I will debate in Parliament. I want you.”
The words made her smile, but still she had doubts and she asked him to give her time, explaining that she wished to have a clearer sense of her own purpose before making such a commitment. To his credit he had waited patiently, riding regularly to visit her at Embley and writing two or three times a week – clever, insightful letters that always made her laugh. He was a gregarious, well-liked man, who numbered several other women amongst his acquaintance, and yet she seemed to be his favourite. Her cheeks flushed at the thought and she turned to go downstairs.
The menu included bouillon, creamed oysters, broiled partridges, fancy cakes, bonbons, and whipped cream piped inside spun-sugar confections. Fresh-cut flowers adorned each table: hollyhocks, snapdragon and freckled pansies. The weather was fair, with only a few white clouds meandering above. Florence straightened cutlery as she wandered round but her thoughts were elsewhere. “What if I just say yes? We could wed, set up home together, and then I will persuade him afterwards that I must work.” It was an enticing idea with much to recommend it…
She was interrupted in her reverie by a maid come to inform her that the first guests, an elderly, rather deaf couple had arrived prematurely, and she hurried to the door to greet them.
Half an hour into the party Florence was circulating amongst the guests when she sensed Richard behind her and turned to see his dear dimpled face and unruly olive-blonde hair. She grinned broadly and cried “You’re here!”
He was grinning too: “I wouldn’t have missed your party for the world. And we are blessed that the weather is much kinder than last year. How are you, my dearest, sweetest Miss Nightingale?” He took her hand and raised it to his lips.
The smile wouldn’t leave her face: “All the better for seeing you. Tell me everything. How was Paris? Did you see George Sand this time? Have you had any more irate readers complaining about your ‘scandalous’ book on Keats?” The previous year he had published Keats’ letters and had received sackloads of vituperous complaint from those who objected to the poet’s louche lifestyle and “unmanliness”, almost as if Richard himself were guilty of the same crimes.
“Which question shall I answer first?” He laughed, her fingers still loosely held between his. “Paris was divine; George Sand is utterly furious with Chopin for being the one to end their affair and she rants about him endlessly while claiming she could not care a fig; and I fear the opprobrium heaped on Keats looks set to overshadow the rest of my literary output combined.”
“That last cannot be true, sir. Your ballads are the nation’s favourites; each new volume is eagerly anticipated.” She suddenly felt self-conscious to be complimenting him. Ridiculous! Since they met at a dinner given by the Palmerstons seven years earlier their friendship had been characterised by frank exchanges of views. How silly to feel shy.
“Ah, you are most kind.” He released her fingers and accepted a glass of cordial from a waitress. “I have had little time for poetry of late as the famine in Ireland has been occupying my time. I am recently returned from another visit.”
She was concerned; a resurgence of cholera had been reported in the newspapers. “I hope you kept yourself out of harm’s way.”
“I was stricken by the depths of suffering these people endure on our doorstep, and the British government has utterly failed them. Landlords evict them in their thousands as they can’t pay the rent and the roads are lined with begging families, rags falling off their backs, little ones near death …” He shook himself. “But this is wrong of me. I must beg your pardon for introducing a distressing topic on such a glorious afternoon.” He paused. “Pray let me start again and compliment you on the beauty of your table settings. I think snapdragons are quite my favourite flower.”
“My goodness, that was a conversational leap,” Florence exclaimed. “I should very much like to hear about your experiences in Ireland. Perhaps we can talk at length once the guests are settled with heaped plates in front of them.” She glanced around. “There are a few people I must welcome.”
Richard winked conspiratorially. “Let’s say half an hour from now, under the gazebo. There is a matter on which I must speak with you.”
Florence found it difficult to focus on conversing with guests. Did that sound as though he intended to propose again? Should she accept this time? They were intellectually compatible; she certainly felt passionate about him, as he appeared to do about her; her mother approved, since he was well-connected and comfortably off; but would marriage curtail her determination to make a difference in the world?
Richard was serious when she arrived at the gazebo, bearing a small plate of bonbons for them to share. He motioned for her to sit beside him on the bench and couldn’t resist accepting a bonbon, which made it difficult for him to speak for a few moments, during which they gazed into each other’s eyes. She waited.
“You look radiant,” he told her at last. “I’ve been watching how gracefully you glide around the company and thinking that I would love you to be the hostess at my own gatherings.”
Florence felt her pulse quicken. “But your breakfast parties are already the talk of the town; it’s hard to see how they could be improved upon.”
“A woman’s touch improves everything about a man’s life, especially when there is also a meeting of the minds – such as you and I have.” He took her fingers between his and looked deep into her eyes. “You must admit I have been patient till now, but seeing you here, today, I find I cannot wait to renew my suit. Miss Nightingale, you have had plenty of time to consider my previous offers and I ask if you would please give me your answer. Will you make me the happiest man in the world by agreeing to be my wife?”
She could hardly speak. “I… you are so kind to me. I would be honoured…” She couldn’t finish the sentence she had intended before he leapt on her response.
“I thought we could marry in September just before Parliament sits, when everyone will be in town. It should be a lavish occasion, no expense spared. You like my London house, don’t you? If not, we’ll get another. Oh Florence…” He stopped and frowned at her expression.
“I may be busy in September,” she said. “I had hoped to visit a nursing school in Kaiserworth, in Germany. I think they could prove a useful model for us to follow.”
He was puzzled. “But why would you…? I don’t understand…”
She started to answer – “They provide free health care for the poor, subsidised by commercial services offered to the wealthy…” – but he was speaking at the same time “You would prioritise this over our marriage?”
Both stopped, confused, and Richard repeated his question with surprise and a tinge of harshness in his tone.
“Provisional arrangements have been made but perhaps…”
“Perhaps?” He leapt on the word. “Is becoming my wife of so little importance to you?”
Florence felt a fog in her mind and it alarmed her. She was used to clear and incisive thinking, to having strong opinions, and now she simply could not decide how to respond. “Of course it is important to me.”
“Which? Nursing or marriage?”
She spoke quietly: “Richard, I hoped not to be forced to choose.”
“I see by your answer that you have already made your choice. I am surprised that you would let a man dangle in hope for so long when your innermost desires have long been set in stone. It is most unkind – and that is a word I never expected to use of you. Perhaps I have been blinded by my ardour.”
She felt panic: how had the conversation taken this turn? “You are jumping to conclusions, sir. I have not turned you down – quite the contrary.”
“No. You are just ‘too busy’ to marry me. That offers an inkling of what I could expect from married life.” His cheeks had reddened and he rose to his feet. “I dare say you are too busy to talk with me just now. You have guests to look after.”
She was flustered. Why was he so angry? “Of course I’m not too busy to talk with you. Pray sit down. Let me explain myself.” Should she agree to a September wedding? But why could he not understand how much she wanted to visit Kaiserworth? He was regarding her with an expression of deep hurt. What could she say?
He spoke formally: “After seven years of friendship, and two years since I made my first proposal, you still have reservations. So there is my answer in a nutshell: I have been a fool to wait. Miss Nightingale, I will take my leave and let you enjoy the remainder of your party.” He strode away.
She leapt to her feet and hurried after him calling, “Please … wait.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw the other guests watching and slowed her pace. He opened the side gate and was gone without a backward glance.
Florence wrote to him that evening, trying to set out her position as eloquently as she could. She received a cool, formal reply. When they both attended a party in Paris the following spring, he extended the barest of courtesies and would not stop to talk. She was plunged into depression when she heard he had become engaged to Annabel Crewe, wasting little time in finding her replacement.
In later years, long after Florence became Britain’s national heroine, the lady with the lamp who took care of soldiers wounded in the Crimean War, she sometimes wondered what would have happened if he had suggested a wedding in August or October. Chances are she would have agreed.
To find out more about Gill click here, or pick up her new novel NO PLACE FOR A LADY.
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