Best Biography So Far: ‘The Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

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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 …

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19 Responses to Best Biography So Far: ‘The Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

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  2. MarinaSofia says:

    Oh, that Mrs. Seacole – now I realise! Wonderful, am making a note of this book immediately, you’ve sold me on it!

  3. BookerTalk says:

    I hadn’t heard of this lady but she sounds extraordinary. I’ve now recommended it to a friend who loves biographies.

  4. Sarah says:

    I’m currently reading ‘The Enchanted April’ on your recommendation, and am loving it! I really enjoyed reading your review. Your enthusiasm has convinced me that this is another must read. I don’t tend to read much non-fiction but I’m going to make an exception for this, especially as it’ll tie in brilliantly with my #AW80books armchair travels! 🙂

    • I was thinking of your reading through the world project when I started it – especially as she really does have the most exotic life. This is absolutely another must-read – behind the scenes, it’s heavily tipped to be one of my top books of 2016 😉

  5. I do like the sound of this and I shall be looking for a copy, but before that you have reminded me of a book about a contemporary that I have been meaning to read for ages. I have a copy of ‘Betsy Cadwaladyr: A Balaclava Nurse: An Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis’, which was reprinted by Honno Books a while ago, and if you can have or can find a copy it may be an interesting compare and contrast kind of book for you after this one

    • That sounds really interesting, thank you for the recommendation. When I started ‘The Adventures’ I thought it might be a companion to the Florence Nightingale section of Lytton Strachey’s ‘Eminent Victorians’ but the tone was so conversational and engaging I ended up forgetting the serious history and just getting enthralled in her story!

  6. I adore Mary Seacole! Funnily enough, most NHS trusts I’ve worked in have had something somewhere named after her – not so Florence Nightingale, although she remains much more famous. Lovely to read such an enthusiastic review of one of my heroines 🙂

    • It’s great to hear that Seacole is still a presence in the English health system! I’m fortunate enough to rarely be in hospitals, but I’m going to have to look out for her name in the future…

  7. I hadn’t heard of her either, but her story sounds fascinating AND it’s always wonderful when someone with a fascinating story can also write. That’s not very common. I’m not sure I’ll get an opportunity to read this, but if it comes my way I’ll try. Meanwhile, I’ve really glad to have been introduced to her, so thank you!

    • I know exactly what you mean. I already knew a little about Seacole’s life, so I expected it to be quite interesting, but I was completely unprepared for her wonderful narrative voice. When such an amazing topic is tackled by such an engaging writer, you know you’re on to a winner.

      • Absolutely – there’s something wonderful about a great biographer. Too many are earnest, and don’t breathe any life into their subjects aren’t they?

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