Edith Cavell, by Diana Souhami, Quercus RRP£25, 417 pages
The British nurse Edith Cavell worked as part of a Belgian resistance network during the first world war, operating from the training school she had been recruited to set up in Brussels in 1907. The Germans had turned her school into a Red Cross hospital, where she and her nurses treated German soldiers as well as French, Belgian and British. Cavell was asked to help injured British soldiers by resistance leaders who were members of the Belgian aristocracy. She hid soldiers in the hospital, and provided false papers, guides and safe houses en route to Holland.
The school, however, came under increasing scrutiny and suspicion until Cavell and several of her colleagues were arrested. She was tricked into making a false confession; a hasty trial followed, conducted in German, culminating in the death sentence. A series of diplomatic blunders and a lethargic response on the part of the US ambassador in Brussels were insufficient to divert proceedings and Cavell, along with her colleague Philippe Baucq, were executed at dawn on October 12 1915 at the national rifle range outside Brussels.
Almost as soon as the shots rang out, Cavell’s legend exploded on to the pages of the national and international press. Her death provoked anti-German propaganda which, along with the sinking of the Lusitania, is often cited as a catalyst for bringing the US into the first world war. Her heroism, however, could not have been predicted from her life before the war.
In this biography there are two Edith Cavells. The first is the dutiful daughter, the reserved governess-turned-nurse brought up in a repressive late Victorian household in rural Norfolk. Diane Souhami heroically struggles to find daring incidents in a life largely dedicated to service to others. Cavell’s most radical act of rebellion seems to have been being caught smoking in her father’s study at 16.
How do we reconcile that first Edith with the clever, conniving resistance worker who remained in Brussels when she knew danger threatened to engulf her? Was she a naive victim of circumstance, or was it an abiding sense of duty which drove her to identify with the injured and defy the authorities? Edith Cavell left few traces of her thinking and activities but Souhami has gleaned fresh evidence sourced from archival repositories at the Wellcome Collection and the Royal London Hospital.
Souhami deftly demonstrates the trials of making a living as a nurse and cleaving a career in the expanding world of “white blouse” labour in the late 19th century. The cameo of Cavell’s career is one of the great strengths of the book. Patronage was essential to gaining posts and, significantly, Cavell did not excel in her chosen field, where her natural reserve and diffidence seem to have worked against her. Souhami paints a portrait of the hospital and nursing culture as capricious, cruel and precarious.
Belgium was kinder to Cavell. She was admired as a leader and teacher and seen as a progressive force bringing the gospel of Florence Nightingale from Britain to free Belgian nursing from its religious shackles. However, unlike that other wartime heroine, Edith Cavell had to earn her living. Mixing with the Belgian aristocracy, she had the patronage she needed to succeed in her new niche.
The events leading up to the trial are atmospherically evoked: you feel you are alone with Cavell in her cell. Like Nightingale, Cavell was fascinated by the medieval monk and mystic Thomas à Kempis and his emphasis on the inner life. It may have been her faith and, ironically, those very British characteristics of self-containment, self-control and dignity in the face of adversity that helped Edith Cavell to be not only the perfect nurse but perfect resistance fighter and spy. Edith Cavell remains an enigma but, thanks to Diana Souhami, she is now an even more fascinating one.
Anne Marie Rafferty is head of the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing, King’s College, London