The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon
rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wasn't expecting to enjoy this book. It is not something I would normally even pick up if I saw it in a bookshop. However, it is worth trying something new sometimes and I was not disappointed.
The book is the story of two cousins Rosa and Mariella at the time of the Crimean War, two very different personalities. Rosa is quite headstrong and defiant while Mariella is timid and anxious. They meet as children and become best friends immediately. Rosa takes Mariella on adventures around her home, a large country estate in Derbyshire.
When Rosa's stepfather dies about 10 years later, she and her mother come to London to live with Mariella's family. Mariella is being courted by her cousin by marriage, Henry Thewell, who is fast becoming an eminent doctor and surgeon.
When the Crimean War begins, Henry goes off to help set up facilities for the wounded soldiers, and Rosa decides she wants to join the nurses who are working for Miss Florence Nightingale. Mariella stays at home, living with her parents and losing herself in her sewing. When she receives a letter that Henry is ill she decides to go to him in Italy where he is convalescing. She finds him in a state of delirium, and he begs her to find Rosa who has gone missing in the Crimea. Against her nature she goes.
Mariella finds herself enduring all kinds of horrible conditions which at first she finds repulsive and sickening, but as time goes on she becomes somewhat desensitized to her surroundings and ends up mucking in with the nurses and helping the wounded and dying soldiers. She learns that Henry and Rosa met up here and some kind of liaison took place between them before Rosa disappeared, but no-one seems to know the true extent of this. Although heartbroken at their betrayal, she vows to find her cousin, and is helped by Rosa's step-brother Max Stukeley, a captain in the English Army, and her maid Nora.
Although this book is historical fiction, it is written in a modern style, so the language is not too flowery and it was an easy read. Both Rosa and Mariella can be frustrating at times, but they are both good people. There is a love-triangle element to the story (almost a love-square at one point) with Mariella being a bit naive as to her position in this.
It was interesting to see parallels between that time and modern times. Henry tries to change medical practices to slow the spread of infections in hospitals, and realises that cleanliness is the key. Rosa is an objector to the War and I would have thought in modern times she would be an anti-war protester on marches and in the 80's she would have been a Greenham Common woman.
There is a conclusion to the story which I won't give away but there are also some loose ends which I would have liked followed up, to see what became of some of the characters after the War, but I guess there is a bit of fun in deciding that for oneself.
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