ACCORDING TO THE LITERARY CRITIC Lytton Strachey, Florence Nightingale was consumed by an unnatural spirit. “A demon possessed her,” he wrote in his 1918 biographical essay on the Englishwoman who pioneered modern nursing; “with her fierce dominating nature, she brought order out of chaos with strict method and stern discipline.” Strachey aimed to dethrone the angelic “lady of the lamp” that lived in the popular imagination, a reputation he believed was idealized and overblown, and in doing so, conjured another caricature, a precursor to Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched. The Nightingale of Strachey’s account was autocratic and severe, methodical to the point of inflexibility. After long days of imposing her meticulous regulations on disorderly hospitals, she would stay up late into the night pouring her “pent up energies” into vitriolic letters addressed to her subordinates. This perverse disposition, the critic concluded, arose because Nightingale had refused the “inevitable habiliments of a Victorian marriage” and the domestic life it would have entailed. Her “possession,” then, stemmed from an absence. She was haunted by a nurturing instinct gone haywire, having suppressed “the most powerful and the profoundest of all the instincts of humanity”: marriage and motherhood.
Nightingale’s own writings reveal a mind more humane and complex. She believed she had been called by God to a solitary life and often spoke of her work as a spiritual vocation. She feared, more than anything, the breach of autonomy that befell Victorian mothers. “Women never have a half-hour […] that they can call their own,” she wrote in her diary at the age of 32, an idea that inspired Virginia Woolf, several decades later, to write A Room of One’s Own. And yet Strachey was not alone in his diagnosis; Nightingale’s early biographers were convinced that she was afflicted with neurasthenia, a nervous disorder thought to derive from overexertion, which one medical journal referred to as “Nature’s protest against the childless condition.” Her sickness — likely a case of brucellosis contracted in the Crimea — was believed to be the consequence of resisting the transformative, and presumably relaxing, power of motherhood.
The heroine of Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder is an English nurse in her late 20s who trained under Nightingale and served with her at Scutari during the Crimean War. Like Nightingale, Lib Wright is a single woman who comes from middling upper-class family. “My father was a gentleman,” Lib tells a doctor upon arriving at her new job in rural Ireland, then immediately feels ashamed for distinguishing herself by her class. In fact, Nightingale’s reforms would transform nursing, long regarded as a dirty form of menial labor for the lower classes, into a respectable occupation for educated women.
Several years after her work with Nightingale, Lib is summoned to central Ireland to supervise Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old who claims she has been living for months without food, subsisting only on immaterial “manna from heaven.” Religious tourists have made pilgrimages from around the world to pay homage, and the girl’s own family believes she is a saint. A local commission, headed by the family’s doctor, has decided that Anna must be carefully observed to determine whether she is eating in secret. For several hours each day, Lib sits vigil in the girl’s room and takes notes on her behavior, watchful for any suspicious activity.
Lib, it turns out, is ideally suited for the task. Skeptical of the girl’s miraculous powers, she quickly becomes obsessed with exposing her — though she cannot decide whether the girl is running the sham alone, or in collusion with her family. Mentally she refers to the girl as “the little fraud,” and to her father as “the grand showman behind the scenes.” Though a nominal member of the Church of England, Lib is effectively an atheist, a modern woman who believes in nothing more transcendent than the scientific method. To her, rural Ireland is an ignorant backwater littered with obscure Catholic sacraments and the pagan superstitions that preceded them. She shudders at the mystical rituals of the O’Donnell house — putting charms on the butter, setting out saucers of milk to keep away the faeries — unable to fathom the credulity of her hosts. “Is there nothing the Irish won’t swallow?” she asks herself.
Ireland in the 1850s was a land of poverty and disease, still reeling from the potato famine of the previous decade. The novel, much to its credit, eludes the visions of cozy Éire that live so quaintly in the North American imagination in favor of something closer to a historical reality — particularly as it might be seen through the prejudices of a well-off Englishwoman (Lib describes the country as “one endless waterlogged mire”). Donoghue was born in Ireland and lived there until she was 20, and she deftly recreates the country’s historical landscape. The book is impressively textured with the breadth of her voluminous research. She knows, for instance, that residents of thatch-roofed houses were obliged to keep a fire going even during the heat of the summer to keep the roof dry and preserve the timbers; and that a Grub Street journalist would not compare a fasting 11-year-old girl to a mere “circus freak,” but rather a “Fejee mermaid at a raree-show.”
Though Donoghue is a prolific and longtime author of historical fiction, she has become best known for a project that diverged from her larger body of work — the contemporary novel Room, which tells the story of a sexual prisoner confined with her five-year-old son to a garden shed with only a television and a collection of homemade toys to entertain them. Despite the sensationalist premise, the novel can be read as a rather moving metaphor for the isolating experience of modern motherhood. (The book sold more than two million copies and is now a major motion picture that earned Brie Larson Best Actress at the 2016 Oscars.)
Like Room, The Wonder is also about motherhood, though it approaches the subject from a more oblique angle. At the beginning of the novel, Lib is as skeptical of familial love as she is of the faeries. In fact, it disgusts her. Whenever Anna’s mother embraces her daughter, the nurse can hardly tolerate the display of affection. She feels it is “something out of grand opera, the way she [barges] in to make a show of her maternal feelings twice a day […] The whole performance [sets] Lib’s teeth on edge.” She maintains a safe — which is to say scientific — distance from Anna, keeping watch from a straight-backed chair and carefully logging the child’s daily intake, which consists solely of teaspoons of water.
Devotional fasting might seem an odd novelistic subject in an age when such inclinations, especially in adolescent girls, are regarded as more clinical than spiritual. But Anna displays none of the obsessive behaviors characteristic of girls with eating disorders. The child passes her days serenely reading scripture and whispering prayers. She is quick-witted and laughs easily, and seems — at least at first — to have genuinely transcended her need for food. Curiously, it is Lib who displays the hyper-vigilance so common in anorexics. She keeps obsessive notes throughout the day and regards her own eating and sleeping habits with a kind of monomaniacal precision. If the pair were transported to a contemporary landscape, it would be the nurse, not the adolescent, keeping a food journal and wearing a digital bracelet to tally calories.
To be sure, the English nurse’s presence in this tiny Irish hamlet foreshadows the inevitable global triumph of the modern over the ancient, of systemized Protestant efficiency overtaking the drafty world of Catholic superstition. Lib changes Anna’s sheets each day like clockwork, measures the girl’s walks with the punctiliousness of a railroad conductor, and checks off each performed duty in her notebook with the exactitude she learned from Nightingale in the Crimea. Nightingale herself appears sporadically throughout the novel, in flashbacks. Donoghue’s version of the historical figure — Miss N., as Lib calls her — seems to owe no small debt to Strachey’s biography. She stands as a parody of ironclad proceduralism, a woman whose contact with the world of men and science has irreparably damaged her nurturing instinct. “Miss N. warned against personal affection as much as she did against romance,” Lib recalls. “Lib had been taught to watch for attachments in any form and root them out.” When a fellow nurse at Scutari complained that they weren’t allowed to follow “the prompts of the heart — to take a quarter of an hour, for instance, to sit with a dying man and offer words of comfort,” Nightingale replied with a coldhearted appeal to efficiency: “Don’t listen to your heart, listen to me and get on with your work.”
There’s a marked hostility toward scientific expertise quickening beneath the pages of this story. In these moments the novel, despite its firm historical grounding, feels eerily modern. A similar skepticism animated Room — particularly in its latter half, where both the medical establishment and the media are regarded as intrusions into the domestic sanctum, the inscrutable world of mother and child. “Families all [have] their peculiar ways that [can’t] be discerned by outsiders,” Lib observes of the O’Donnells in a rare moment of generosity. It’s a sentiment Donoghue has also put forth in her nonfiction, one that undoubtedly appeals to mothers exhausted by the slew of authoritative yet conflicting prescriptions about immunization schedules, breastfeeding, and the like. The novel seems to be slyly advancing a case for the authority of maternal instinct over institutional logic, a defense of the sort of knowledge that arises intuitively. Reformers like Lib and Nightingale might have all the book knowledge at their disposal, but they don’t “get it” because they’re not mothers.
The Wonder is ultimately a story of transformation — the tale of a woman passing from one side of this divide to the other. Despite herself, Lib begins to enjoy her shifts with Anna. Walking with the child along the green and spongy bog, “the soft skin of Ireland,” Lib too becomes supple, and as the child’s health begins to ail she finds herself increasingly invested in her survival. As is often the case with awakenings, she hardly notices the changes taking place within her until someone else points them out. When she finally implores the doctor who hired her to consider force-feeding Anna, the physician attributes the breach of professionalism — a nurse advising her superior — to the fact that the child has stimulated Lib’s “dormant maternal capacity.”
Soon, Lib dispenses with her note-taking and finds herself resorting to maternal desperation. Despite her professed atheism, she begins praying for Anna’s life to be spared. “Lib [sees] the point of such superstition” for the first time: “If there was a ritual she could perform that offered a chance of saving Anna, wouldn’t she try it? She’d bow down to a tree or a rock or a carved turnip for the child’s sake.” When she decides to take drastic — and markedly unprofessional — action to save Anna’s life, her transformation is complete: “For the first time, Lib [understands] the wolfishness of mothers.”
The novel rests on a series of carefully timed revelations, and its conclusion is likely to be polarizing; it seems deliberately crafted, in fact, to be controversial — fodder for endless book club debates. Suffice to say that Lib does become a mother by the end of the book, though she comes by it in a roundabout way.
Donoghue has presided for some years now over a literary empire that envisions motherhood as a kind of religion, and The Wonder stands as an unmistakable conversion narrative. It is the story of a woman denying, resisting, and ultimately accepting the call to nurture. Even within the context of Donoghue’s previous work, The Wonder is especially insistent — at times even polemical — on the nourishing effects of childbearing. Room dramatized motherhood as an essentially ascetic vocation: its heroine had been chosen in a unique capacity and hermetically sealed away from the world, hence the saintly imagery that populated that novel and the frequent evocations of its protagonist and her son as Mary and the baby Jesus. But the mantle Lib ultimately assumes is more like the universal calling of Luther, a birthright granted to every woman that must nevertheless be discovered through personal awakening. Women who spurn the maternal impulse, the book suggests, are suppressing the power of the spirit within them, as unnatural as a young girl quashing her God-given hunger. In the end, the book makes explicit the inversion that was implied from the beginning: Lib is actually the one refusing sustenance by denying herself the gratification of familial love. “To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again,” she observes, near the end of the book. While the story itself is coy about the implications of this inversion, it’s tempting to read into Donoghue’s vast ecology of metaphors a troublesome import: that childlessness is a kind of starvation, a willful spiritual emptiness.
This drama of resistance and surrender feels similarly of our time. Lib’s transformation is very much in tune with contemporary memoirists like Sarah Manguso and Rachel Cusk, who’ve come reluctantly to motherhood and born witness to their own bewildered conversions. “I never wanted to be a mother,” Manguso writes in an essay for Harper’s titled “The Grand Shattering.” “I now look back at my old life, when I believed myself to be as happy and fulfilled as a person could be, with the same maternal pity I used to despise.” Motherhood, she writes, is “a shattering, a disintegration of the self, after which the original form is quite gone.” Even Cusk, who doesn’t find motherhood particularly miraculous, is adamant about its irrevocable alterations to the self. “To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet,” she writes in her memoir A Life’s Work. “To be myself I must let the baby cry, must forestall her hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her in order to think about other things. To succeed in being one means to fail at the other.” Motherhood is sweeping in its powers of transfiguration. It can make a woman more empathetic, more emotionally acute, more attuned to the injustices of the world. If one is to believe the rhetoric at this year’s Democratic National Convention, it can even make her a better president.
It is difficult in these days of wild and consuming transformation (and here, alas, I am speaking from experience) for the childless woman not to feel a bit like the reprobate stubbornly occupying in the back pew, refusing salvation. Or like an anorexic, declining the nutrients that will inevitably cure her. “Why am I starving, desperate, diseased upon it?” Nightingale wrote in one of her darker moments. It’s a sentiment that remains, a century and a half later, dismayingly easy to recognize.
Has motherhood always demanded such dramatic metamorphoses? Has it ever inspired such furies of doubt? It was not so long ago that Betty Friedan argued that feminism was built on the realization that women “couldn’t live […] in terms of motherhood alone.” The promise of that foundational second wave was that a woman’s identity needn’t be consumed by the crèche, that she could have children without being wholly defined by her capacity to nurture. Of course, Friedan and her allies came of age in an era when motherhood was still understood as an essentially Catholic undertaking, a destiny into which women were born and that rested on a tradition of unquestioned sacraments and collective expectations. Just as the Reformation introduced the necessity of personal transformation, it’s perhaps inevitable that motherhood, too — as the cultural imperatives for its existence have dwindled — has come to assume an aspect of sola fide, a faith that cannot be simply performed but felt, and must be justified constantly in every facet of one’s life. To become a mother, we are told, a woman must surrender everything, spirit and flesh. But most crucially, she must come to believe — in the importance of the task, and in her capacity to become a new being.