My history hero: Edith Cavell (1865–1915)

Novelist Kate Mosse explains why she admires an iconic nurse

A statue of celebrated English nurse and wartime heroine, Edith Cavell

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Edith Cavell (1865–1915) was a British nurse who was shot by a German firing squad in the First World War for helping Allied soldiers to escape occupied Belgium. A vicar’s daughter, she trained as a nurse and in 1907 became matron of a nursing school in Brussels. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, she began sheltering and helping British and French troops to escape to the neutral Netherlands. But after being betrayed by a collaborator, she was tried and executed by the German authorities. Cavell became an iconic figure in death, and her execution was exploited by the Allies for propaganda purposes. Numerous memorials were later erected in her honour.

When did you first hear about Edith Cavell?

The day I went to the Chichester Festival Theatre in the 1980s and saw Joan Plowright starring in a play about Edith’s life. The line I always remember from it was: “It’s Cavell to rhyme with travel”! Most people pronounce it Cav-ell. I was intrigued by the fact that someone could be such a heroine in their day, or at least in the years immediately following their death – witness the statue opposite the National Portrait Gallery in London – but over the years somehow rather disappear from public consciousness.

What kind of person was she?

She was clearly an incredibly strong and principled person which stemmed from her powerful Anglican beliefs, and her sense of what was right and what was wrong, and how you should behave. While she was undoubtedly a patriot, it was that moral certainty that drew her towards helping people in defiance of the German authorities, rather than any particular ideological beliefs.

What made her a hero?

The fact that she knew what was right, and she did it – and put other people first. She was incredibly brave, but was also a normal person, as it were, and didn’t hesitate from taking the course of action she did, even though she knew it was likely to end in her death. Above all else though, it’s her courage that shines through.

The other thing I admire about her is that she made the most of her life chances. She was raised in a vicarage and, like most women at the time, had limited opportunities – but she followed her dreams of going into nursing, even though she didn’t fulfil her ambition of becoming a nurse until she was 30. I suspect that she would have had mixed feelings about, in effect, becoming a secular saint following her death. She would possibly have regarded this as inappropriate – because the two things that were always most important to her were nursing and her faith.

What was her finest hour?

It has to be the way she began running escape networks to get British and French soldiers over the border, at one time hiding more than 80 men in her hospital. She gave them money, and even made them fake ID cards using her own Kodak camera – before being arrested, put in solitary confinement and sentenced to death. Yet she never wavered. About 200 men owed her their lives.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

Not really. I imagine she was unyielding in her work and would have demanded the same high standards of everyone around her as she demanded of herself, which might have been exacting for some people. But I admire pretty much everything about her, right down to the way she trusted in her faith to the very end.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

Reading about her life has undoubtedly inspired me as a writer. I’ve always written about courageous women who stand against the expectations of their time, and while unfortunately I can see no real parallels between the two of us as people, I can see plenty between Edith and my fictional characters.

If you could meet Cavell, what would you ask her?

I’d ask her if there was anything she would have done differently – and if as the rifles were being cocked before being fired, how she looked back on her life, and what she regarded as her finest hour.

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Kate Mosse was talking to York Membery. Kate Mosse is a novelist, best known for her 2005 book, Labyrinth. Her latest novel is The Taxidermist’s Daughter (Orion, 2014)