roseofsebastopolNovember 2008

At first glance this month’s choice The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon seemed like a bodice ripper for beach reading but we soon realised that there was much more to this novel than just a traditional romance.

Though very different characters, the feisty Rosa and her demure cousin Mariella form a close friendship which leads them from the domesticated drawing rooms of Victorian Britain to the chaos and suffering of the Crimean war. The headstrong Rosa, who has always tried to help the weak and vulnerable, treads in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale to become a rebellious though well-loved nurse. Mariella initially follows the progress of the war from conversations in her London sewing circle but when her fiance, Henry a successful surgeon, becomes ill at the front, she courageously leaves home to look after him, She Finds him recuperating in Italy but to her dismay discovers that it is Rosa whom Henry in his delirium passionately desires, but Rosa has gone missing, At Henry’s request, Mariella takes the big step of going in search of her cousin. As she travels through war-torn areas, her eyes are gradually opened to the horrors of war and she discovers hidden reserves of character and strength. Symbolic of her development is the way her ladylike talent for needlework later becomes the most practical of her tools. Behind the battle lines she meets Max, Rosa’s step-brother and a childhood acquaintance, With him Mariella discovers a depth of feeling that Henry had never aroused.

This well researched novel provides a wealth of detail about conditions in the Crimea and social aspects of Britain at the time. Particularly valuable is the perspective on women’s roles and the limited number of opportunities open to them, with only a few daring to branch out as artists or independent thinkers. Nurses were expected to come from the lower classes and have no family ties. The coming-of-age theme is evident as Mariella develops from an insipid repressed Victorian girl to a strong and determined woman and Rosa satisfies her longing to be independent. However none of the characters turn out as they initially seemed and the complex plot ends up with a number of loose ends, which left plenty for discussion.

The sequence of chapters does not follow a chronology of events, it jumps between different dated time periods, a style which we have often encountered recently but which in this case, some of our group found awkwardly broke the flow of the narrative. If however you enjoy puzzling out the pieces of the story to fit them together this approach works.

This was the first of McMahon’s books that we have read as a group and we enjoyed it and our discussion enough to put another of hers on our list for the future.

We meet again on Thursday 11th Dec. when we will be discussing Bleeding Kansas by Sara Paretsky.

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