In Search of Mary Seacole is a superb and revealing biography that explores her remarkable achievements and unique status as an icon of the 19th century, but also corrects some of the myths that have grown around her life and career.
Having been raised in Jamaica and worked in Panama, Mary Seacole came to England in the 1850s and volunteered to help out during the Crimean War. When her services were turned down, she financed her own expedition to Balaclava, where she earned her reputation as a nurse and for her compassion. Popularly known as ‘Mother Seacole’, she was the most famous Black celebrity of her generation – an extraordinary achievement in Victorian Britain. She regularly mixed with illustrious royal and military patrons and they, along with grateful war veterans, helped her recover financially when she faced bankruptcy. However, after her death in 1881, she was largely forgotten for many years.
More recently, her profile has been revived and her reputation lionised, with a statue of her standing outside St Thomas’s Hospital in London and her portrait – rediscovered by the author – is now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. In Search of Mary Seacole is the fruit of almost twenty years of research by Helen Rappaport into her story. The book reveals the truth about Seacole’s personal life and her ‘rivalry’ with Florence Nightingale, along with much more besides. Often the reality proves to be even more remarkable and dramatic than the legend.
Helen Rappaport was born in Bromley, Kent, and studied Russian at Leeds University, before working as a translator and copy editor. She has been a full-time writer for more than twenty-three years, and in 2003 discovered and purchased an 1869 portrait of Mary Seacole that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, sparking a long investigation into Seacole’s life and career.