“Sunshine is the best disinfectant” pipes up Dr Serena in Holby City and I thought, I know that line. The purifying healing effect of sunlight is one of the many subjects explored in Florence Nightingale’s vastly entertaining “Notes on Nursing”, first published in 1859 and an immediate best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. This slim volume – just over 130pp – is energising and fresh as a breezy spring day: packed with practical advice and acute psychology, spiced with Miss Nightingale’s sarcastic and pawky humour. I love this book: you see at once how magnetic the great reformer was, and how very tricky to work with. “Notes” is invaluable for incidental and usually horrific insights into mid-Victorian domestic life. We hear about the uncovered and brimming chamber pot left under the bed for twenty four hours – and not in a poor household; the arsenic-soaked wallpapers, fatally inhaled; disastrously inflammable starched petticoats and the “indecency” of the crinoline”¤.
“A respectable elderly woman, stooping forward, invested in crinoline, exposes quite as much of her own person to the patient lying in the room as any opera dancer does on the stage”¤¤ – F.N.
Sunlight, writes Miss Nightingale, sweetens a room, revives the sick and invigorates all forms of life. The chronically ill perk up as they turn their faces, like a row of heliotropes, towards the sun. Nightingale loves sunshine because it shows up dust (source of all evils)¤¤¤; it dries up the foul air and vapours which she believes – no doubt with good reason – cause disease. Her theories on light are certainly very persuasive and easily proven. An otherwise unscented room, well-aired and then filled with sunshine for an afternoon, has a wonderful cleanth and purity about it. By the accident of its positioning, my own bedroom basks in sun through nearly the whole of a clear February day. So I draw back the bedcovers – Nightingale has some dreadful things to say about mattresses and valances – and lay out all my linen and woollens for a sun bath. As I may have mentioned before in this column, intense exposure to spring sunlight when the ultra-violet rays are at their most intense is the only sure prevention against moth. Unlike most eggs, which thrive on heat and incubation, those deposited by the noxious insects will infallibly shrivel and perish in the sunbeams. So, you see, the ancient Egyptians were on to something when they saw their solar goddess Sekhmet as both the bringer and the expunger of disease. And look at ‘Sunlight Soap’!
A dear friend tells me that before, during and after the frying of fish she opens simultaneously her front and back doors for a great through-rush of fresh air. Keeping one’s house sweet is a problem that has not lessened since 1859: the causes of lingering odours are much the same as those listed in the “Notes”. Viz: stale carpets, curtains, loose covers, “sanitary arrangements” and cooking. I must say, I am all for a ban on the wearing of outdoor shoes in the private intimacy of the home. The full implications of the muck trekked in to multiply on floor coverings do not bear thinking of. And I wonder if you’ve noticed that when people in films and on tv fling themselves on sofas and beds they never ever remove their shoes, encrusted with all the filth of the streets. I think it must be because shoes are currently so sexy and on point: the directors want them kept on show at all times.
I’ve had so much correspondence lately on one especial topic: the finding of a reasonably priced house plant or bunch of flowers to sweeten and scent a room in late winter. It’s a tricky one: there really isn’t much choice. The first daffodils are now in the shops – average supermarket price £1 for a good twenty or so stems. If you blow a fiver and place the massed flowers in a warm room, or where the sunshine will illuminate them, then that powdery, faintly rubbery greenish smell is absolutely divine, though fleeting. But a word of warning, in recent years I think the commercial florists have treated daffs as the Walrus and the Carpenter did the Oysters – “brought them out so far/ and made them trot so quick”. The flowers, delivered like Richard III before their time into the world, seem frail and pale in scent. I think they must suffer from too long in the cold store because bunch after bunch now wither and die before the blooms – sunshine on stems – are fully open. Shame.
Tulips – gorgeous but no scent. Shop carnations no longer smell. Potted gardenias are heaven, provided you can rear them. I’ve fiddled about with distilled water and rain water and what not, but with no success. One glorious coconut-smelling cream velvet blossom, and then a tragic succession of dropped buds. I think gardenias are allergic to gas, draughts and central heating. In my case, it must be the draughts. Jasmine is lovely, but a bit pricey for what you get, and doesn’t last long. Excellent value is to be had for a basic bowl of three hyacinths which, if you buy the bulbs in tight green bud, should see you through a month in a temperate house. That’s as long as you are not one of those who find that hyacinths smell of cat. Personally I love them: the flowers like the carved hair of a Roman statue; the clear strong colours; the bewitching, heady, fruity and yes – faintly iffy – perfume.¤¤¤¤ For years I set hyacinth bulbs in water glasses every autumn and shut them up in a cupboard: the roots grew like so much vermicelli, and they bloomed in January. But last winter neither I nor my neighbour had any success with our individual attempts. The bulbs failed and short-circuited. I suspect another case of mutated breeding has taken place. Freesias are still lovely but the overpowering fragrance seems to have been sacrificed for longevity and brilliance of colour. Occasionally I find an exceptionally pungent spray of the golden variety, and when the rays of the sun play on these you get a cloud of that well-remembered perfume of the past.
Florence Nightingale was ahead of her time in not being afraid of having flowers in a bedroom – “…they actually absorb carbonic acid and give off oxygen”. However, she would disapprove of my final recommendation: the smell of lilies, she writes,”depresses the nervous system”. Certainly I would have nothing to do with lilies if you keep a cat: they affect the feline respiratory system badly. But, for the cat-free, their exotic scent is probably the most powerful and penetrating of all shop-boughten blooms.
One final thought. Decades ago I walked into a chilly winter drawing room: there was a smoky whiff from an unenthused log fire but dominating everything was a clear sweet fresh floral smell like that of a beautiful perfume. It was intoxicating and slightly woody; it came not from a crystal flacon but from a tiny sprig of pink vibernum, tucked into a liqueur glass of water on the mantlepiece. Worth investigating.
¤ another reason why she and Queen Victoria, also a crinoline-hater, hit it off so well. Victoria also had a horror of over-heated rooms, demanding open windows at all times.
¤¤ and maybe more. Knickers had still not yet become general.
¤¤¤ even as I write, a treasured correspondent tells me of a recent Daily Mail piece about a pillow fungus that feeds off dust mite feces. Florence Nightingale was righter than she knew.
¤¤¤¤ Guerlain’s Chamade: in its original form the best and most sophisticated hyacinth perfume ever, blended with blackcurrant and vanilla.