The Rose of Sebastopol
A shy, stay-at-home young woman becomes the unlikely heroine of this highly entertaining historical novel.
When it comes to 19th-century heroines, modern readers expect them to be ahead of their time. They are either tomboy geniuses like Jo March, who chafe at the narrow roles women were expected to fill, or sparkling wits who aren’t afraid to speak their mind, such as Lizzy Bennet and Marianne Dashwood.Skip to next paragraph
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If they are shy on the surface, like Jane Eyre, that’s only because they’re concealing a fiery temper and unsuspected depths.
Then there’s Mariella Lingwood. Timid and judgmental, she craves society’s approval. She’s not bookish or artistic. Instead, she’s a whiz at sewing. (It’s hard to think of a more genteel occupation at which to be a prodigy. Arranging ferns? Painting china?)
Mariella may be no Mary Wollstonecroft-reading bluestocking, but she can embroider a set of towels faster than most of her peers can down a cup of tea.
Mariella’s beloved cousin, Rosa, is far more suited to the role of heroine. Beautiful, opinionated, and impatient with the restrictions of Victorian mores, Rosa is determined to follow in the footsteps of her hero, Florence Nightingale. Despite discouragement from everyone – including Miss Nightingale, who had no use for pretty young idealists – she sails off for the Crimea with a bunch of volunteers. (Mariella’s war efforts? She’s making a scrapbook.)
Mariella’s fiance, Dr. Henry Thewell, is already there, serving in the understaffed, underequipped hospitals of that woeful war. That they are so nightmarishly unprepared is partly Henry’s fault: He’d been part of an advance team that was supposed to get everything ready.
However, the civilian surgeons were unable to imagine either the scope of the casualties, the bitterness of winter in Russia, or the possibility of cholera. The exalted medical minds also forgot that wounded men need bandages.
“Imagine a building the size of one of your new London railway stations, just as empty but a hundred times dirtier and older, the only provisions a handful of bedsteads, a few sacks, and a dozen bottles of port,” Rosa writes to Mariella in one of the few letters that make it back to England. “Imagine that a couple of steamers come puffing and snorting up to the ramshackle jetty outside and discharge 300 wounded men, each in need of warmth and sustenance and skilled nursing. Imagine that what they find instead are half a dozen Rosas and a clutch of nuns, all more or less empty-handed and in a state of shock. That’s the hospital at Koulali.”