I’ve been doing well on my resolution to read more non-fiction this year. In January I reviewed Eva Hoffman’s ‘Lost in Translation,’ February took me into outer space with Michael Collins’ ‘Carrying the Fire‘ and I was bowled over by Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Perespolis‘ last month. Now it’s April though, and I think I have a winner. With all my high hopes for ‘Wild Swans’ and the writing of Casanova and Abelard and Eloise, I’d be very surprised if I read a more enthralling life story this year. I started the book knowing a little about Seacole’s life, but with no idea what superb company she was. If, like me, you approach her biography expecting to right a historical wrong, you will end up forgetting all worthy intentions in the sheer joy of the writing.
Mary Seacole is known for being the unacknowledged sister-in-arms of Florence Nightingale. The two of them bravely ventured to the horrors of the Crimean war, to nurse and help the suffering troops. The white, upper-class Nightingale’s story is well known, battling sexism she forced her way through the bureaucracy to revolutionise British nursing. Seacole’s story is more personal. Her skin colour prevented her from being accepted as one of Nightingale’s employees, so she set out on her own to open the ‘British Hotel,’ a setting from which ‘to establish a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.‘ In humanitarian terms, the venture was a huge success. In financial terms, it was a failure; peace negated any need for such a hotel and Seacole was left bankrupt after her stores of food and goods were rendered redundant. It may be selfish to say, but her loss is our gain, as her precarious situation on arriving back in England lead to the publication of this wonderful autobiography. It’s quite breathtaking, reading this intelligent and entertaining woman carve out a celebrity space for herself through, possibly, the most well-judged memoir I have ever read. Never dull, never self-serving, continually humourous, humble and insightful ‘The Wonderful Adventures’ provides a masterclass in biography and image management for any aspiring celebrity or writer.
Actually, I’m not going to share too many of Seacole’s adventures, because I really want everyone to go out and get a copy of this book so they can discover them first hand. It’s worth pointing out though, that when she said she’d travelled to ‘many lands,’ she wasn’t exaggerating. Well before her Crimean experiences she had travelled from her birth town of Kingston, Jamaica to London and New Providence as well as Haiti and Cuba. The details really start however, when she moved to Panama, where she opened up a hotel and set up as a nurse. The descriptions of life in this ‘uncivilised’ backwater are fascinating. As a self-consciously superior British outsider, Seacole confidently chronicles. the country’s society and customs. In an unusual spark of criticism, she is also gently firm in her distain for the slave-owning, openly racist Americans who try to excuse her skin colour when they discover her nursing abilities.
Wherever her wanderings took her, Seacole remains the perfect guide for a time-travelling, globe-trotting journey to the Victorian empire. There’s stiff competition, but this is definitely my favourite biography to date and I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut my review short, because the memories are making me impatient to start re-reading …