Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 June 2021
The Victorian period was the most formative era for professional nursing and for cultural concepts of the nurse. The most prominent representative figures of nursing from the period were the disreputable Sairey Gamp – the infamous character from Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewitt – and the very real and very proper Florence Nightingale. The Victorian cultural perception of nursing was more complex than these polar opposites might suggest, however. The influences that cumulatively fashioned the popular figure of the nurse were legion and contradictory, ranging from camp follower to proselytising nun to heroic martyr.
The evolution of nursing practice from menial to professional work was widely examined and debated in the media and through fictional representations of nurses. As these treatments reveal, there was marked cultural ambiguity about the entrance of refined women into nursing, which, even in its most professional form, entailed a level of intimacy with both male and female bodies and bodily fluids that was disturbing to Victorian sensibilities. What emerges in both the media and fiction is a curious and very Victorian fixation on sexuality that was explicitly or implicitly directed at the women who practised nursing.