“Benjamin Jowett came to see me. Disastrous!”

On Valentine’s Day we ask: did Balliol’s most influential Master propose marriage to Florence Nightingale?

Tradition has it that Benjamin Jowett (Master of Balliol College 1870-1893) proposed to—and was rejected by—Florence Nightingale in their younger years.

The source for this tale of unrequited love is the memoir of Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to study law at Oxford, and India’s first female barrister. She was mentored by Jowett, who introduced her to Florence Nightingale, by now a “little old lady with rosy cheeks and a frilled nightcap”. When Cornelia lunched with Jowett after she had visited “the Lady with the Lamp”, he pointed to a picture on his wall, depicting a young Nightingale. “When she was like that, I asked her to marry me”, he revealed to Cornelia.

Later, Sorabji saw an entry in one of Nightingale’s old diaries, which may corroborate this episode: “Benjamin Jowett came to see me.  Disastrous!”

Sadly, that diary no longer survives, and Jowett, for his part, arranged for his most personal correspondence to be burned.  As a result, scholars debate whether the proposal actually took place.

What is clear from the over 700 surviving letters written by Jowett to Nightingale, preserved at Balliol College’s Historic Collections Centre, is that the two remained very close friends.  They corresponded and visited with one another until Jowett’s death in 1893, conversing on topics as diverse as religion, promising students, international affairs, Poor Law reform, and their own families, health, and personal feelings.

Further Reading:

Dear Miss Nightingale : a selection of Benjamin Jowett’s letters to Florence Nightingale 1860-1893, edited by Vincent Quinn and John Prest. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

India calling : the memories of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first woman barrister. New Delhi; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

List of the letters from Benjamin Jowett to Florence Nightingale in the Jowett Papers, Balliol College Historic Collections Centre.

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