Jan 25, 2012

The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands by Mary Seacole

The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands Photo of Mary Seacole
Photo of Mary Seacole from Wikimedia Commons

Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse who played an important role in the Crimean War. During her lifetime, Seacole was as well-known as her contemporary Florence Nightingale, but after her death she fell into obscurity for a long period of time. Her memoir, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, is notable for being among the earliest autobiographies by a woman of colour published in Britain.

Just the other day I was reading an excellent article at The Hairpin about a rediscovered book of suffragette poetry, and the article’s author says, “This, by the way, is *the* reason to get an e-reader — (…) the sheer bounty, the gems you’ve never heard of on Project Gutenberg, which are yours, for free, and which will break you with gratitude”. As you know, I’m a new e-reader owner, but I couldn’t agree with the sentiment more. Which is why I was incredibly excited when Aarti e-mailed me about The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands and suggested we read it together.

Our joint review (the first part of which you can read at Aarti’s blog) deviated quite a bit from the book itself to become a more general discussion of the constraints under which a woman of colour writing in the Victorian era operated; of racism and feminism and how people most likely had to pick their battles very carefully; of how the tone of the memoir surprised us and how we wondered about what Mrs Seacole was not telling us; of the way the perception of historical figures shifts over time; and of the search for meaning at times of catastrophe, among other things. This is why I love talking books with Aarti. I hope you enjoy reading our conversation as much as we enjoyed having it. Please make sure you start with the first section at Booklust.

Ana: We have gone on at length about what we expected to get out of this memoir and didn’t, but there are also interesting things we did find. So I thought I’d ask you what you liked about Mary Seacole’s narrative. What were some of the things that interested you the most?

Aarti: Well, Mary herself was pretty amazing. I was also interested in her way of going to a totally foreign place and opening up a hotel as her business, even though what she really enjoyed was nursing. I assume that nursing must not have made her much money at all, but it doesn’t seem like she was a very successful hotelier, either (especially now that I know what you detailed above).

I wonder if that was just what was easiest for her to do - because her brother had opened an inn - or if that was one of the few options available to her, as a black woman, or if she just really liked meeting so many different types of people every day. All of her stories and descriptions of hotel life were also super-interesting to me, and I wish she had put more of those anecdotes in the narrative. It was fun to learn just how highly prized eggs were, how difficult it was to get meat, how often things were stolen, how many favors the officers were willing to call in for Mary, etc. I really enjoyed those parts of the story, and I think Mary must have been a pretty indomitable woman to have kept that hotel open in the midst of war the way that she did. But perhaps she wasn’t very good with the financial operations, if she went home completely bankrupt. It’s so sad that she went and nursed so many men in the war, but didn’t get paid for any of it, and then came home destitute. It really says so much about her and her very strong belief that she should be useful and do something good for others.

What was your favorite story that she related?

Painting of Mary Seacole
Portrait of Mary Seacole discovered in 2003 and added to the National Portrait Gallery. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ana: My favourite of her stories was probably the one about her first time performing an autopsy, to try to stop a cholera epidemic. I thought I’d include those two paragraphs here, actually, since they give readers a taste of what Mary Seacole’s narrative voice is like:
And, meanwhile, I sat before the flickering fire, with my last patient in my lap—a poor, little, brown-faced orphan infant, scarce a year old, was dying in my arms, and I was powerless to save it. It may seem strange, but it is a fact, that I thought more of that little child than I did of the men who were struggling for their lives, and prayed very earnestly and solemnly to God to spare it. But it did not please Him to grant my prayer, and towards morning the wee spirit left this sinful world for the home above it had so lately left, and what was mortal of the little infant lay dead in my arms. Then it was that I began to think—how the idea first arose in my mind I can hardly say—that, if it were possible to take this little child and examine it, I should learn more of the terrible disease which was sparing neither young nor old, and should know better how to do battle with it. I was not afraid to use my baby patient thus. I knew its fled spirit would not reproach me, for I had done all I could for it in life—had shed tears over it, and prayed for it.

It was cold grey dawn, and the rain had ceased, when I followed the man who had taken the dead child away to bury it, and bribed him to carry it by an unfrequented path down to the river-side, and accompany me to the thick retired bush on the opposite bank. Having persuaded him thus much, it was not difficult, with the help of silver arguments to convince him that it would be for the general benefit and his own, if I could learn from this poor little thing the secret inner workings of our common foe; and ultimately he stayed by me, and aided me in my first and last post mortem examination. It seems a strange deed to accomplish, and I am sure I could not wield the scalpel or the substitute I then used now, but at that time the excitement had strung my mind up to a high pitch of courage and determination; and perhaps the daily, almost hourly, scenes of death had made me somewhat callous. I need not linger on this scene, nor give the readers the results of my operation; although novel to me, and decidedly useful, they were what every medical man well knows.
In this short description, I saw a glimpse of the Mary Seacole I wish I had found in the rest of the memoir. Her tone is a little apologetic, and she’s clearly aware that the mere idea of performing an autopsy on a child could shock many of her readers. Of course, even today a graphic description of something like that is off-putting to most of us, but she seems to be hinting at something else here—at the then predominant idea that autopsies were a violation of the deceased’s body; at a controversial element surrounding them that is now gone. What is interesting to me, though, is that I think I can sense some genuine scientific excitement behind her words. She’s cautious, she’s clearly sad that the child died, and she doesn’t exactly like that she has to do this. But she’s also curious, in an intellectual way, to find out all she can about how to stop the epidemic from killing more people.

This little glimpse made me understand her passion for nursing better than anything else in the memoir. It made me think that there was an element of intellectual curiosity to it that she didn’t generally emphasise. I wonder if some of that comes down to, once again, gender roles and what was expected of a Victorian woman - she does say she fears her words make her sound callous. The caring element of nursing was far more socially acceptable, but there’s no telling whether that really was what drove the women who took up the profession. Judging by what I know of Florence Nightingale, for example, that doesn’t seem to have been the case with her. And judging by this, I have to wonder about Mary Seacole. I wish there had been more passages like this in the memoir — I wish she had been in a position where being candid about her experiences wasn’t fraught with complications and fears about how she would be perceived.

Aarti: You’re right- that’s an excellent passage to choose as a glimpse into what motivated Seacole because it’s much more clinical in nature than self-congratulatory, like much of the nature. And because of that clinical description, you learn a lot about Mary herself- that she approached her job more pragmatically than you might imagine, maybe?

You bring up an interesting point about what was allowed to drive women vs. what really did drive them. I think even now, many women veer away from the sciences and math-heavy fields because they seem dominated by men and women are generally considered to have a more creative, not logical, mindset. But there is so much creativity and opportunity available in science, and I can see how the idea of learning more for the sake of science and the extension of your own knowledge could make be very heady, particularly to someone who understood the miracle of the human body and its ability to heal itself.

On a more personal note, I think that as people, we really struggle with the “why” of loss so much, particularly in light of epidemics and wars that kill so many people, indiscriminately. There was a great interview on NPR’s Radiolab recently with the author of a graphic novel called The Green River Killer in which they try to understand why a man became a serial killer. And the author makes this amazing statement of: “My point is, sometimes when we ask the why in the face of profound evil, you kind of wonder if what we’re doing is daring God to show himself. And I think even now when we ask the ‘why,’ we are looking for order to restore itself and give us hope that all of this isn’t meaningless.”

And I bring this up because I actually think that much of what drives people to become healers is this “why,” and the belief that there must be a reason and a lesson and a greater good served by supreme suffering. I can’t help but wonder if Mary Seacole, who seems to have been pretty religious, was really shaped more by the belief that she must do the best she can in the face of suffering because that’s one way for her to really see meaning in all the horrible things going on around her, surrounded as she is either by colonialism or war. Granted, it doesn’t sound that way at all based on her description of the scene above, which is much more pragmatic than spiritual, but I don’t know if she would have been driven to the Crimea to search for more scientific knowledge, particularly when she had no money and no real support for her endeavor, and when she had so much suffering so close at hand, if that was the only thing motivating her. But if you say that’s what drove Florence Nightingale to the Crimea, then maybe it isn’t too far a stretch to think the same motivated Mary Seacole.

Ana: Oh no, I didn’t mean that was what drove Florence Nightingale necessarily - I don’t know enough about her to have a solid opinion on that. I just meant that what I’ve read about her suggests she was first and foremost a strategist, and yet the prevailing popular culture image of her is that of the ministering angel. She had an interest in mathematics, particularly in statistics; she was brilliant at looking at data and seeing the bigger picture, and thanks to that she was able to pioneer many important and life-saving sanitary reforms. And yet when people talk about her, they don’t generally emphasise that; they portray her as nurturing and caring, as “The Lady with the Lamp”. So I wonder if something similar might have been going on with how Mary Seacole portrays herself.

Aarti: Oh, I see! Yes, I suppose we could easily veer into objectification here. But I don’t think that in the case of Florence Nightingale, referring to her as “the lady with the lamp” and only talking about her as a ministering angel is necessarily because she’s female. This happens countless times throughout history- the nuances, rough edges, personalities and strong opinions of people we hold up to be heroes or villains are completely smoothed over so that what is presented to the world is a black-and-white, almost flavorless sound bite of a descriptor. This is very likely what happened to Florence Nightingale (as well as Gandhi, MLK, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Henry VIII, Richard III and so many others). Mary Seacole is different in that she is the one in control of our perception of her, not the press or history, so we are seeing what she chooses us to see, which for the majority of the book is a fairly one-dimensional person.

Ana: I agree with you, but I think there might be gender-specific aspects to how they were simplified (in both cases, in ways that were more gender-role appropriate), and that there’s a possibility that this was the case even if with Mary Seacole it was done by her own hand. But anyway, I definitely think there could be something to what you’re saying about searching for meaning in a more spiritual sense and trying to do something in the face of illness and suffering. And I say “could” because neither of us can of course be sure of what drove Mary Seacole - but imagining what might be hiding between the gaps of the text is a huge part of the fun of reading a book like this. Your reading makes sense to me in light of what we know about her convictions and background. I think the drive to find meaning goes beyond religion, even - for example, I’m a non-believer, but I too have the same tendency to try and make sense of things (on a personal level, at least), to use narrative to create meaning and impose order on chaos. We write the story of our lives through our actions, and perhaps Mary Seacole’s journey was her way of changing a senseless story of death and suffering.

Well, we have moved far beyond The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands in this conversation, but then again part of the fun of talking about books is that they’re such perfect starting points for wider discussions. I didn’t love Mary Seacole's memoir, but I’m glad to have read it anyway, particularly because it led to this conversation with you. Do you have any final comments?

Aarti: Much the same! I didn’t love this memoir, either, but I got so much more from our discussion of it than I ever would have if I had read the book on my own. I’m glad we really dug deep and touched on some sensitive topics here! I look forward to another read with you :-)

You can download The Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands for free at Project Gutenberg. As for me, I really look forward to one day reading Jane Robison’s (author of the excellent Bluestockings) biography of Mary Seacole, and seeing the extent to which it confirms or challenges the speculations and impressions Aarti and I formed through this memoir.

They read it too: Juxtabook

(Have you read this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add your link.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. This was a very interesting discussion!

  2. I've been browsing on Project Guttenberg and can't believe how many utterly fascinating books are waiting for me. This one sounds great - I love reading about real people. There were so many courageous women even in times when they didn't have many rights - it makes me sad that so many of their stories have been buried in history.

  3. I LOVED reading this with you :-) And I love you, too!

  4. Mary Seacole sounds like a fascinating woman even if her memoir wasn't the best. Great discussion!

  5. Wow, this was really an amazing joint review, and both halves of it focused on very different things, but were extremely interesting to think about. I think you both really got a lot out of the book, despite the fact that you expected something a little different, and I can see that had I read this, I would have probably also wondered why she went into the hotel business when her passion was nursing. An exceptional review by two of my very favorite people. So, so awesome.

  6. Oh! :D I need to save reading this (and the post at Aarti's blog) for after I read the book for myself-- I'd started reading it right before I lost my iPod Touch and I really liked it. I need to redownload it so I can finish reading it!

  7. I haven't read this book--or even heard of it--but I totally agree about Project Gutenberg. It would be awesome if their website had a browsing feature similar to GoodReads or Amazon so that people could discover more titles.

  8. 'I am sure I could not wield the scalpel or the substitute I then used now'. This sentence sticks out to me, because I wonder if as well as being a way of softening the impact of her child autopsy description it's also meant to emphasise to male physicians that she knows her place. Nursing was fine for women (simplistic, but it was accepted that women could be nurses), but surgeory was still a man's domain. If Seacole needed support after her return from the Crimea, might she have wanted to show her achievements, but needed to avoid offending the sensibilities of male colleagues, who might otherwise support a brave woman back from the front?

    If I remember rightly there was quite a bit of tension between Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. I think Seacole was accussed of running a unti for women who lacked the necessary stuff to get into Nightingale's nursing ranks and there was some suggestion that she was running a front for camp followers, or at leats a nursing until full of women with loose morals. I can't be sure that Nightingale was the instigator of these kind of accussations, but I seem to remember hearing that she was a good self-publicist, adept at creating an image for herself. Maybe one of the ways she batted off claims that respectable women shouldn't go out the Crimea (or more that they shouldn't be able operate there because respectable ladies would surely faint at the unrespectbale circumstances, so if you were capable you were deemed less respectable) was to set up a rival, who could be easily demonised because of the colour of her skin and the contextual associations people made between that and morals. All of this to say I really need to read 'No Place for Ladies' about those who went to the Crimea.

  9. Interesting discussion on an intriguing woman! I've never heard of her before. I do think that her sex and race colored her writings and her place in history - forgotten.

  10. It is books like this that make me so happy I have an e-reader now. Will have to check this one out.

  11. Thank you for sharing this book! I understand your fascination with a woman of color who managed to write a memoir during the Victorian times, and I'm fascinated as well.

    Also, I completely agree about Project Gutenberg. There are so many books on that website just waiting to be discovered.

  12. Kelly: I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'm looking forward to ours about the Kingslover book.

    Joanna: I know! And they can be tricky to find, which is a shame. It makes me sad that so many of these stories were forgotten too, but I love that changing that is easier than ever these days.

    Aarti: Aww, likewise <3

    Kathy: Thank you! She was incredibly interesting, even though I kept wishing she had told us more.

    Zibilee: Now you know how I feel when I read your and Aarti's discussions :P I can't wait for the next instalment of Middlemarch.

    Anastasia: I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Heidenkind: YES. So excited about our upcoming project :D

    Jodie: Now I'm dying to read No Place for Ladies too, as well as more about Florence Nightingale in general. I didn't know about the tension between them, but the possibilities you raise are so interesting. I want all the books! And yes, you're right about the "I couldn't do it again" sentence. It does seem like an attempt to make herself as non-threatening to male surgeons as possible.

    Carrie K: Yes, I think so too. Fortunately she does seem to be talked about more these days.

    Jessica: Exactly. I doubt I'd have read it otherwise.

    Darlyn: It's such a great resource, isn't it? I'm more grateful for it every day.

  13. This is one case in favor of eReaders that I had not considered before. It's a strong one, too. You've got me thinking.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.