Saturday 5 December 2009

The Rose of Sebastopol

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon was the reading group’s book of the month for December. The Rose of the title is Rosa Barr a young woman who is determined to make a career in medicine and somehow manages to get herself to the Crimea to work as a nurse during the infamous Crimean War. However, though a crucial person in the novel, Rose is not the main character and the novel is not primarily about the war. Rather the novel is centred on another young woman - Mariella Lingwood, Rosa’s cousin. For the novel is almost a coming of age tale. We see Mariella grow from a sheltered and innocent young girl to a woman who has painfully and stumblingly become aware of the sometimes cruel vicissitudes of life and love.

The starting point for the novel is the discovery by Mariella that Rosa is lost somewhere in the Crimea during the war. Mariella is pressed upon to go in seach of her cousin and the novel is Mariella’s first person account of this adventure. From her account we learn not only about Mariella and Rosa and their families, but also about the controversies and developments in medicine and nursing in the 1840s and 1850s. This of course covers the period in which women began to strive with some success, to break out of their corsets, so to speak, and to break into the make dominated world of the professions. The novel has much to say about these changes and how they were perceived by polite society. Mariella herself is somewhat ambivalent about these changes and only becomes reluctantly involved through the incessant prodding of Rosa. Mariella is content to pass her life within the traditional confines open to women in 19th century Britain. She is desperate to marry her beloved Henry and have lots of children. Rosa on the other hand is made of much sterner stuff and is equally desperate to enter the world of work and independence.

Though the novel is not primarily about the war, once Mariella reaches the Crimea, then the war does become the backdrop to everything that happens. And Mariella does not spare us any of the horrors and suffering of that war. Though not herself on the front line, she, and we, learn much about the brutality and the stupidity of the war from her encounters with wounded soldiers. Though there is much bravery, this picture of the war painted here is not a pretty one.

The worlds of medicine and the war provide the background to the novel, but the heart of the story is Mariella’s own growing self-awareness. And this part of the novel reads as a love story. Or perhaps more accurately at least three love stories. We begin with Mariella and Henry. This is a very formal and traditional love affair, with much affection, not a lot of love and zero passion. Once in the Crimea Mariella slowly and gradually begins to fall in love with Max Stukely, Rosa’s half brother and an officer in the Crimea. This affair is full of passion and is a stark contrast to the insipid affair between Mariella and Henry. The other love story is the least developed and that is Rosa’s love for Mariella. That Rosa has a not so secret passion for Mariella is obvious to all, except Mariella herself. It is one of the weaknesses of the novel that this relationship is not fully developed and abruptly terminated with the death of Rosa at the end of the novel.

This is a well written novel and successfully deals with some very interesting aspects of our past - the changes in medicine, the changing role of women and the Crimean War. However in telling this tale, the novel goes back and forth both in time and in place. Thus we start in Italy in 1855, then in the next chapter we are in London in 1840. Subsequently we switch back and forth to Derbyshire in 1844, back to London then to Italy, back to London and on to the Crimea in 1856. Not at all sure what all this to-ing and fro-ing adds to the novel. A bit of mystery and confusion. I kept expecting that something revelatory would emerge, but alas nothing did. I also feel that the whole does not really hang together that well. It is almost as if the author started writing one novel which has Henry as one of the key characters and then half way through changed to one in which Henry barely features and Max suddenly becomes the male hero. Mariella herself is not the most likable or attractive of heroines. Most of the time she is very conventional, narrow-minded and blind to feelings of others. As a result she misjudges just about everyone. Still, on the whole an enjoyable read.

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