“See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle.”
– Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)
Mary Seacole is not nearly as well-known in the twenty-first century as her British counterpart, Florence Nightingale. To the mid-Victorian public, however, Mrs. Seacole was lauded as a celebrity in the years immediately following the Crimean War. When those brave, few Victorian nurses returned home from the Crimea in 1856, it was Mary Seacole, not Florence Nightingale, who drew the greatest crowds and inspired the greatest Victorian legacy.
Seacole’s memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), chronicles her travels to and from the Crimea and her experiences serving as a nurse at Balaklava, in addition to providing readers with a glimpse into her early life in Jamaica. The book became an instant bestseller—not unlike Lady Sale’s Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan—upon its publication in England by James Blackwood. The addition of a preface written by William Howard Russell further increased favorable responses by the public to Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures. In the brief preface, Russell reiterates many of the accolades that he had previously written about Seacole in reports he published in The Times.
Seacole’s post-Crimean popularity was arguably as much the result of Russell’s coverage of her during the war as it was the result of her work as a nurse. In fact, the opening lines of Russell’s preface read: “I should have thought that no preface would have been required to introduce Mrs. Seacole to the British public, or to recommend a book which must, from the circumstances in which the subject of it was placed, be unique in literature.”[i] He concludes the preface with a sort of call-to-action, inducing “England” to “not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead” (Russell p. viii). Russell’s inducement for public support of Wonderful Adventures recalls his introduction of Seacole to readers of The Times in a report on “The Fall of Sebastopol,” dated 26 September 1855. The report contains the first substantial mention of Seacole by the press and records her accomplishments “doctor[ing] and cur[ing] all manner of men with extraordinary success.”[ii]
[i] Russell, “To the Reader,” in Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), vii. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically.
[ii] Russell, “The Fall of Sebastopol,” The Times (26 Sept. 1854), 6.