Katharine McMahon, The Rose of Sebastopol (2007)

Oh, I’m conflicted about this one. I love Victorian novels, or set in the Victorian era, and I have nothing against heroines who start off as meek and conventional corset-wearing young women (here the sweet and proper Mariella, who spends her day sewing in her parents’ sitting room) and who learn along the way to be more daring and outgoing, even if it means losing her illusions in the process.

I had noticed this title among Danielle’s recommendations, and I was happy to go beyond my prejudice against the dull cover art (obviously a lack of inspiration from the creative team).

The point that won me over was that I really enjoyed learning about the Crimean war. The only thing I knew about this war before starting the book was the name of Sebastopol and the name of Florence Nightingale, but I’d have been hard pressed to say anything more. Yet as the plot moved from London to the outskirts of Sebastopol, I recognised names that I had just glossed over as a student when I caught up on 19th history at a hurried pace: Malakoff, Inkerman, Scutari…

This led me to some nice history refresher research on the internet (one of the perks of maternity leave, I should say, because I normally never have time to check those things out). Why have France and Great Britain decided to take this fight with Russia? How come French and British would fight along one another? (this didn’t go without problems) Why did the conflict end up in disaster on both sides? Why did the British army, that I had assumed more powerful, modern and organized than the others, face such a bloodshed? McMahon does not go into details, but through Mariella’s family we can see how Victorian opinion could be enthusiastically nationalist and warmongering at the start of the conflict, as well as bewildered and mobilized to help British soldiers on the front later on. In the second part of the book, we really get a feeling of what the Sebastopol siege must have felt like, in a way both traditional and modern (Crimean war was deemed the first modern war, but it really was a time where things were quickly changing). In short, I found McMahon’s research quite impressive, as well as flawlessly woven into the plot.

So far so good, so.

But this book’s weakness is probably to say too much. Its plot feels all over the place and lacks focus. There’s not only one heroine, but a second one, her cousin, the daring Rosa, who dreams to become a doctor, or second-best, a nurse with Florence Nightingale. Rosa is too brash, passionate and too unconventional to be the real heroin here, albeit a tragic one. Or is she? There are love interests, of course. Mariella’s fiancé is interesting per se, and has lots of conflicting feelings. And McMahon still finds some room for friends, relatives (and staff!) who all have a detailed back story.

Thick in the middle of the book, it felt like an overcrowded, stuffy, over decorated Victorian sitting room. Please give me some air! And the end was a bit disappointing, because it failed to tie some important knots. I’m not a big proponent of resolving all the issues nicely, but here, it felt rather hasty.

So if you want to make up your mind and learn about the Crimean war, I’d say: give this book a fair try. Many reviews have not been as positive, I know, but it definitely wasn’t a waste of time.

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3 thoughts on “Katharine McMahon, The Rose of Sebastopol (2007)

  1. I don’t know what’s up with me tonight – this is the second time in as many minutes that I’ve forgotten the title of a book! Anyway, I have read a book by Katherine McMahon and enjoyed it very much, in an easy reading kind of way. I’m not a big fan of war novels, so probably wouldn’t choose this one, but I’d read her again.

  2. I was going to say that while I haven’t read this I have read ‘The Crimson Rooms’ which I was also conflicted about. She seemed to lack a sense of which bits of the plot needed time spent on them and which didn’t. Nevertheless, if you ever feel like a second dip into her back catalogue I wouldn’t go so far as to say don’t read it.

  3. I’ve enjoyed all the books that I’ve read by her–and I did like this one, but I know others have not gotten on so well with it. Maybe one of her other books will appeal more. I have one set in Revolutionary-era Paris that I am looking forward to–haven’t read reviews of it so I don’t know what other readers think, but the story appeals–she is definitely a good escapist read.

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