Unravelling Cavell

That rhymed. Just so you know how to pronounce her name. Norfolk people aren’t like Hyacinth Bucket.

This is Edith Cavell part II; the first came earlier today, in time for her death.

Is Edith truly world famous, or was that just 100 years ago, when the British army wanted more recruits and the Commonwealth more hatred of the Germans?

Did the Cavell bridge in New Zealand have a memorial service at 7am today, when Edith was shot? Norwich had one. I know of only one other death we remember in real time, and that’s on Good Friday. Will Brussels’ memorial be adorned with a wreath? Will the one in London, that had the “patriotism is not enough” quote added later in smaller writing?

I found out and was intrigued by who did and didn’t recall her. Brussels has its own Edith centenary website. Peterborough, where she was at school, is having several events; a Leicestershire village will plant a wreath. Leeds will show a silent film about her called Dawn. London’s pretty busy with Edith events – nearly all the venues are churches or nurse related. My favourite is that Edith has her own mountain in the Canadian Rockies and it will be climbed in her honour today. But Edith lived and worked round the UK and there are no events on the official website in some of those places.

In her native Norwich, Edith is almost as prominent as the poppy itself – coming out early this year and already on her grave, in various wreaths. I checked – they were laid by nursing and military organisations in an annual outdoor service. The Belgian ambassador joined us and was one of the few who laid a wreath of his own. I’d have been more impressed if a German had. I’m concerned that we still demarcate Germans as enemy, even though we’re supposed to have let our wartime sides and deeds be water under a bridge – one we like to collect and swim in.

I peeked in guides to Norwich. Edith’s mention under famous sons and daughters gets bigger over the years. The secular books quote her as the brave nurse who was shot for letting allied troops escape. They don’t mention her beliefs or her indiscriminate care. One mentioned her nursing advances, but not what they were. One made a mistake that she helped all soldiers escape – but it was only allied ones.

The local rag’s pull out did speak of her faith, alarmingly comparing her death to her Lord’s. There may be a little overlap, but if you’re Christian, suggesting that a mortal can be compared to Christ’s passion is theologically offensive. Yet Norwich cathedral’s art display is called just that – the Passion of Edith. The artist’s naive works claims to strip her of the propaganda. I don’t think he stripped off too many layers. I also went to the Hostry exhibition at the other end of the cathedral, which was less on Edith than her times and related themes, but it did include her devotional books.

In Norwich, the Forum is the most prominent spot in the city. Since local TV is broadcast within it, you could say it’s central to the region, of which Norwich is capital. And here are two more important ongoing Edith events. One is outside, a much photographed and easily passed spot, where the Cavell Van stands as a mini museum. It’s the rail wagon that brought her body back to England after the war ended. She was buried at the Belgian shooting range where her body fell until May 1919, when it was paraded in military style though three cities, and had two cathedral/abbey funerals on the same day. One was at Westminster, then again by train to her natal city, to be escorted through the tall stone gatehouse built at the battle of Agincourt (also having an anniversary this year) where her bust now stands.

In 2010, the year that austerity began in Britain, £27,000 was given to restore this carriage and make it into a museum. Most of the space inside is taken up with a coffin and then some panels about Edith and also the two other British bodies which were expatriated after the war, both military.

If you’re in Norwich, you can’t easily avoid going in the Forum, it has 50,000 visitors a week, and it’s filled with Edith stuff, or more truly, nursing. You’re hit with her on the way to the various information centres, main city library, cafes, or toilets. In a former visitor attraction, the story continues by pushing military nurses, Edith’s nursing charity, and the local university hospital’s nursing. It’s more about nursing that Edith.

I’m not sure how I feel about Edith’s nursing. She was taught by a friend of Florence Nightingale. She’s credited with assisting nursing becoming a serious trained profession. Without willing it, Edith’s nursing reforms helped the hegemony of allopathic medicine and the spread of central control via those involved in sanitation. Diana Souhami, whose biography is the most pushed work on Edith, has also written the Pitkin guide, the cheap and quick readily available introduction series, on Edith. Diana says that Edith’s work helped all society realise that poor sanitation was key to illness, and that there needed to be joined up thinking between plumbers and water companies, epidemiologists and doctors. Hm, what an interesting alliance. Diana then says that Edith would be amazed at today’s medical technology, she’d consider it heaven come to earth. And that Edith believed that disease could be eradicated though medicine and sanitation. If true, Edith is not wise, for it misses out the spiritual and psychological role in illness, and that sometimes it is needed for our development. Technology is not the only or always the best way to deal with illness. It is also quite a lucrative one.

The part of Diana’s Souhami’s biography that most interested me is chapter 49 – propaganda, and the next one about the German reaction to Edith’s death. Diana is well aware of the use of Edith’s shooting in the Allied cause, and so was the exhibition in the BBC lounge in the Forum. I attended a brief 1 woman show there – there’s a spate of these, apparently, which I preferred to Saturday’s ‘Remembering Edith Cavell’. In the question time, it was asserted that the public response to Edith’s death was akin to Princess Diana’s. Living Historian Georgette Vale stated that despite the images on posters, Edith did not die in a nurse’s uniform: she was nearly 50, and her death pose would not be the young swoony immaculate corpse shown in the pictures of her “murder” – always by the GERMANS so we know who to hate and rally against. Diana’s biography tells us that the then bishop of London said at Edith’s state funeral no 1 that Lord Nelson (another Norfolk war hero) would not sit about with diplomatic meetings after such an event – he’d get his guns out. Shocking words for a man who is supposed to be about love and peace and wisdom. Again I reference the Community Of The Cross Of Nails born after the next world war. I’m far more impressed by the bishop of Coventry’s response to being bombed.

Facts and ideas overlap with interesting new titbits –

  • Edith’s dog Jack was stuffed and is currently at the Florence Nightingale Museum, London
  • Edith now has her own beer, brewed locally and available in gift packs; profits to Edith’s charity.
  • Edith’s mother never got to read her daughter’s final letter to her
  • Edith’s body was exhumed 4 years on and found uncorrupted – so surely she’s a saint. If she’d been Catholic, she’d be canonised, but she gets her saints day anyway. How convenient, a month before armistice day, just right to kick off poppy sales. I’ll be wearing white and purple ones, as usual.

I do hope to read and watch some more on Edith. What’s emerging is a disparity between the Edith that the Edwardians wanted to be believed in and who she would like to be remembered as. A perceptive audience member at today’s show said, “So Edith’s death saved others” – for some associates due to be shot were not, and eventually released. Her death was convenient for those who wanted a catalyst – some say that America joined the war because of Edith. Martyr, matron, heroine, patriot, Christian, philanthropist…. all useful descriptions to be spun together.

What is still worrying me is how this quietly spoken and dry humoured 5’3” matron is being used now. If Elizabeth Gurney Fry or Harriet Martineau had centenaries, would they be this big? because neither of them are connected with war or country. Mystic Julian of Norwich’s 625th and 640th anniversaries weren’t as obvious – but then she preached a God of love and that’s not so marketable and useful when you’ve other wars to wage at unpopular times…

I will report on other Edith Cavell things tomorrow


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