In Review

In Search of Mary Seacole: a ‘wonderfully informative’ biography

Helen Rappaport sets out to bring ‘clarity to Seacole’s life’

The “extraordinary” Mary Seacole – who was renowned for giving succour to British troops during the Crimean War – has in recent years become something of a “political touchstone”, said Andrew Lycett in The Spectator. While many see her as a black pioneer who bravely made her way in “an inhospitable society”, others claim she was something of a “charlatan” – a woman who falsely presented herself as a nurse and “doctress” when in fact she mainly sold food and drink.

In this long-awaited biography, Helen Rappaport sets out to bring “clarity to Seacole’s life”, a task made particularly challenging owing to the patchiness of much of the evidence, and by the fact that Seacole herself was often evasive, especially when it came to her upbringing in Jamaica. Yet Rappaport triumphantly brings her to life, revealing her to be a “hardy, enterprising and intensely patriotic” woman who, while certainly no saint, was a significant force for good.

Seacole was born out of wedlock in 1805 to a 15-year-old mixed-race woman named Rebecca and a Scots army officer named John Grant, said Wendy Moore in Literary Review. In her early adulthood in Jamaica she became a “successful businesswoman”, running a lodging house and selling herbal remedies. She acquired her surname in 1836 by a pragmatic marriage to an English merchant named Edwin Seacole, who died eight years later.

Soon after the Crimean War broke out in 1853, she travelled to England and offered her services to the British Army as a nurse – only to be rejected. Instead, she financed her own trip to Crimea, setting up a canteen and “general store” near the front that doubled as a “walk-in clinic” for injured soldiers.

Seacole’s presence in the Crimea greatly irked Florence Nightingale, who regarded her as a Creole upstart and couldn’t stand her, said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. When Seacole visited her hospital in Scutari, Nightingale made her sleep in the “washerwomen’s flea-ridden quarters”. She also refused Seacole’s offer of care when she fell ill with fever in 1855, later writing that Seacole “wanted to quack me”.

This antipathy, Rappaport suggests, was driven largely by jealousy: “Old Mother Seacole” was loved not only for her medical care, but also for her meat pies and her willingness to serve alcohol. Seacole returned to England a celebrity, but had lapsed into obscurity by her death in 1881. Rappaport performs a valuable service in this “wonderfully informative book” by presenting Seacole in “all her roundness”.

Simon & Schuster 416pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

In Search of Mary Seacole by Helen Rappaport
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