Set in the Crimean War, Katherine McMahon takes her heroine and plunges her into the thick of war. Mariella Lingwood is a demure young woman, an expert seamstress, who spends most of her time sewing for the home for retired governesses her mother is setting up.
When the Crimean War begins, her fiance and second cousin, Dr. Henry Thewell, is asked to consult on the hospitals the military is setting up for casualties. When the inadequacy of the preparations becomes obvious, Henry decides to go out to the Crimea to work in the hospitals himself.
Meanwhile, Mariella’s cousin, Rosa Barr, is determined to help people and make a difference, preferably in the field of medicine. Unable to become a doctor in England, she finds a way to go out to the Crimea also, as a nurse.
Mariella remains behind, to sew and work on her album of the war, until Henry becomes ill and is sent to Italy to recover, and Rosa stops writing. In the company of a nurse who has worked with her family, Mariella sets out first for Italy and then the Crimea, determined to discover why Henry should mistake her for Rosa when she first sees him on his sickbed in Italy, and where Rosa is, for she has disappeared entirely.
I enjoyed the book very much, but I was disappointed on three counts. First, I cannot fathom why in the world most of the other characters seem to be in love with her. By her own account she is not very pretty, tiny, and a homebody. She acts with great courage in the end, but she really prefers to uphold standards and never experience change. I suspect she is prettier than she admits, but her character seems to be rather weak, especially before her wartime experiences. Perhaps she is an ideal of girlhood and womanhood to those who meet her. That sounds so Victorian, but then it is Victorian times.
Second, the end of the book seems a little unbelievable, and a little too pat. In one stroke, Ms. McMahon tidies up all loose ends, leaving no upsetting matters to be dealt with after the fall of Sebastopol (that detail is not a spoiler, it is a historical fact). There will be grief, but that is natural in war, and there will be love to counteract it. It just seems too neat.
Third, I was disappointed in the relationship between Mariella and Rosa, especially after reading The Crimson Rooms, Ms. McMahon’s next book. In The Rose of Sebastopol, Rosa is desperately in love with Mariella, although her love is returned only in a platonic and familial way. In The Crimson Rooms, one woman is again in love with another, and while her love may be returned, it is probably not as ardently felt.
I feel like Ms. McMahon is tentatively exploring writing about love relationships between women, and cannot quite bring herself to write of a love that is between equals, and returned equally, from each to each as they have given. And yet she does not seem to want to write of relationships between men and women, either, giving these relationships a tentative, temporary feel, as though they were a harbor refuge from a storm of unwanted feelings.
Overall, I liked the book, although The Crimson Rooms is definitely the better book, with more in-depth relationships and better drawn characters. Three out of five stars.