The Rose of Sebastopol

Written by Katherine McMahon
Review by Sally Zigmond

Mariella Lingwood is a typical Victorian young lady. She is quiet, dutiful, unadventurous, shy and modest. She helps her mother in her charitable works and is an expert seamstress. She becomes engaged to her childhood sweetheart, Henry. Her cousin, Rosa, is the complete opposite, being a wild, adventurous, unconventional, independent spirit. When the Crimean war breaks out, Henry, now a surgeon, immediately goes out to help. Rosa is desperate to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses and when she is turned down she determines to make her own way there. Mariella stays at home, makes bandages, keeps a war scrapbook and finds it difficult to understand what is happening and why. Then she receives news that Henry is now safe in Italy but close to death and needs her. What happens when she gets there shocks her to the core, and leads her to the heart of the war and events that will change her life completely.

I loved everything about this book. With a cracking plot, wide in scope and yet exquisitely detailed, it conveys the world of England in the 1850s—domestic life, medicine, industry and charity—with a confident brush. McMahon also cleverly evokes the gulf between middle-class life in England and its perception of the situation which is at total odds with the reality. She also subtly draws out the similarities between the Crimean War and what is happening in Iraq now without any sense of the didactic. Her portrayal of Rose and Mariella is particularly fine, as is they way they, and our perceptions of them, deepen and evolve as the novel progresses.

I have enjoyed reading all Katherine McMahon’s historical novels but this, to me, is her best so far. I thoroughly recommend it.