Female Heroes: Mary Seacole (Orphan Monster Spy Blog Tour)

 When I was approached to do the Orphan Monster Spy Blog Tour, I'll admit; I was sceptical about the book. I'd seen it was for fans of The Book Thief (which I'd loved), so I decided to take the plunge. Let me tell you something: I couldn't be happier that I did. The book is absolutely phenomenal; I've never read a book quite like it. It's unique, in the best sense of the word. Sarah/Ursula (she's a spy, of course she has two names) is a bad-ass female, so today I'm proud to have Matt Killeen, author of Orphan Monster Spy, talking about one of his favourite female heroes.

You could be forgiven for not knowing who Mary Seacole was, so whitewashed has British history been, but the clip-notes oversimplification goes something like this: You know Florence Nightingale? Well, Mary Seacole wasn’t just the black Florence Nightingale. She was the real Florence Nightingale.

OK, so that’s not really accurate either. Florence Nightingale was a gifted mathematician and statistical expert, widely believed to be the inventor of the pie-chart – she wasn’t, but she perfected the polar area diagram. She was one of the first people to make a case for sanitation and good post-operative care as a necessity, even if, quite reasonably, she didn’t actually understand what was killing her patients. Her work did revolutionise nursing, healthcare and hospital design. She even laid the foundation for the NHS itself. She was quite a woman…but that compassionate, huggy-kissy, lady-with-the-lamp character – and the “angel” image that the nursing profession has struggled with ever since – simply wasn’t her. It was a largely media invention and a form of celebrity-building during an unpopular war.

If anyone was this mythical angel, it was Mary Seacole. A Scottish Jamaican with little of Florence’s privilege, she came from a family of healthcare practitioners. Her knowledge was handed down, then supplemented on her travels and she had dedicated her entire life to nursing the soldiers of the British Empire. She was also fearless. In 1850, she personally cared for people with Cholera, at a time when that was viewed as a good way of ending up dead.

As the Crimean War began, there was only one place she considered appropriate to be, after all the health of the British Army had always been her business. She volunteered to join Florence Nightingale’s team but was turned down – I can’t imagine why – but this didn’t stop her. She organised the funding herself, travelled to Russia and built the British Hotel in Balaclava which provided food, clothes, spare equipment and medical help to the soldiers, who called her “Mother Seacole”.

Was this all entirely altruistic? Some of her behaviour suggests otherwise. She would charge onto the battlefield on horseback, as the battle continued around her and tended to the sick and wounded. Mary was a traveller and adventurer. It might be suggested she was something of an adrenaline junkie. Did she exaggerate her own history? Possibly, but her myth was as based on the writings of returning veterans as it was on her own book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Was she a pioneer of nursing? Probably not, but most comparisons with Florence Nightingale do a disservice to both women, and some of the recent sniping in the media comes from a very Daily Mail kind of place.

Was Mary Seacole a bad-ass? No question.

Check out the other stops on the Orphan Monster Spy blog tour here:

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