The Rose of Sebastopol is one of those novels where the idea of the book sounds far more interesting than the book itself turns out to be. Author Katharine McMahon’s notes and website, which describe her inspiration and research, were fascinating – and far more enjoyable than the novel, which failed to live up to my expectations.
Set in the time of the Crimean War, it tells the story of Mariella Lingwood who leads a sheltered, comfortable, conventional life in her luxurious, middle class home, and spends her time doing needlework for her mother’s good works – the latest of which is a charitable venture to provide a home for needy, retired governesses. She is engaged to her cousin Henry, a rising young surgeon who lived with the family for a time following the death of his mother, but life becomes more complicated with the appearance of Mariella’s childhood friend, beautiful, high spirited, independent Rosa (another cousin). Henry and Rosa both head for the Crimea to care for wounded soldiers, while Mariella stays at home and keeps a war scrapbook.
But her neat ordered life is turned upside down when Henry is sent to Italy to recover from ‘fever,’ and what appears to be a mental breakdown. Mariella sets off to nurse him back to health, but is shocked when her delirious fiancé thinks she is Rosa, with whom he has become obsessed. Later he begs her to find Rosa, who has disappeared. At this point I rather hoped Mariella would push him off his sick bed and kick him where it hurts. But no, after a little persuasion from her maid Nora (who previously served Rosa’s family), she does as he asks and sets off for the war-torn Crimea, accompanied by Nora.
I failed to warm to Mariella, but she is not nearly as wimpish as she appears at the outset, for she copes admirably with the vicissitudes of the journey, and with the hardships and dangers of life on the battlefield. Not only does she prove to be a capable and competent assistant in a hospital, but she also puts her expertise as a needlewoman to good use by washing and repairing soldiers’ uniforms, and even finds a love interest along the way.
I did wonder whether it was possible for a couple of women to turn up in the middle of the war and wander around the area as Mariella and Nora do, and I was curious about the presence of officers’ wives, and the social events that take place, like teas and riding. Somehow it all seemed very unlikely, but when I carried out my own research I found that was exactly what happened. Indeed, the reality sounds even more far-fetched, and one military wife (Mrs Henry Duberley) kept a journal of the ‘Russian War’ in which she describes attending horse races, theatrical performances, musical events – and even trips to the front to watch the fighting!
In the same way, McMahon’s descriptions of conditions in the camps and hospitals, the dreadful injuries and widespread sickness (cholera was rife), are horrific but appear to fall well short of contemporary reports. The novel raises questions about the right to fight, and touches on other topical issues, like paedophilia, sexual identity, medical advances, and women’s pace in society.
The Rose of Sebastopol sounded so interesting that I really wanted to like it, and was disappointed that I didn’t. The characters remained flat, the novel never really came to life, and I was irritated by the way the narrative jumped around in time and place in a way which didn’t always add to the story.