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Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Rose of Sebastopol - Katherine McMahon

I’m going to say upfront that I was more than a little disappointed by ‘The Rose of Sebastopol’ by Katherine McMahon. When I began the book it was enjoyable, if a little tiresome in places (as I mentioned earlier there are tons of heavy handed allusions to what Rosa hopes to get from her relationship with Mariella). In the later stages the book became rather frustrating, so I burnt through the last hundred pages because I wanted the book to be over. It’s not all bad, but it was often uninspired.

Mariella lives a happy, ineffectual life with her parents, waiting for family friend, and celebrated surgeon Henry to propose. Then her distant uncle dies, throwing her aunt and cousin onto the charity of her parents. Mariella’s world is broadened by her cousin Rosa, who is consumed with attempting to get an education and do something to help the world. When the opportunity arises for Rosa to help the troops by nursing in the Crimea she leaves. Henry also leaves to tend to the troops but falls sick, meaning that Mariella must journey to him. On arriving she finds a changed man, consumed with finding Rosa who has recently gone missing.

My edition of The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon came with questions for reading groups, helpfully supplied by the Richard and Judy consortium. I’m going to use a selection of them to flesh in the rest of my review.

How traditional a romantic tale is The Rose of Sebastopol?

It’s pretty traditional, but there are some areas where it breaks from traditional romance. There’s the first romantic hero, Henry who seems like a good bet but in the end turns out to be a cad. However he’s also the quiet lad from Mariella’s childhood and in a traditional romantic tale that sort of character often turns out to be the undiscovered love. Mariella has already decided that she loves him in early childhood so it’s a pretty safe bet that that will not work out. Henry is also a ‘cold fish’ when it comes to Mariella, and expects her to remain the same as he has always know her. Any kind of repression around the future missus generally means caddish behaviour will follow in traditional romances.

Then there’s the dashing secondary hero, Max who is the traditional rash, intense soldier character. But the dashing young captain always adds to the romantic excitement so I was happy to see him take a bigger part towards the end of the book. He is of course, a man of action. Henry may be a surgeon, so he’s not quite the traditional dreary, paper bureaucrat readers know will get the boot, but he’s still not in the same league as a soldier.

Mariella is the good little virgin, inexperienced in the ways of the world. Quite in keeping with the historical times, and also quite traditional.

Obviously having a lesbian character like Rosa breaks with old romantic traditions (depending on what books you read) but the way the author just drops clanging hints to her sexuality into the story, instead of dragging her feelings into the open is typical of some older style romances. We can also compare her attitude to Mariella, to Henry’s attitude: both want her to remain ‘a constant’, both like to be a little patronising, both like to control her a little. Is Rosa the lesbian version of the unsuitable male suitor, presented in the book?

‘The result of this behaviour was that all eyes were upon her.’ Is this Rosa’s intention in life, or just a by-product of her transparency?

I mentioned before that in my opinion Rosa seems to ‘cry prettily’ and always get her way. Her behaviour often seems suspect, and I came to find her quite a controlling character. However I don’t think it is her intention to have all eyes on her, it is just the fact that she feels and embraces life to an extent that other people in society do not.

Then again it’s hard to get a grip on Rosa. The only information we have about her is provided by Mariella, who is clearly blind when it comes to even the basics about her cousin. So, despite all the details we’re given about her life, and her personality, we never see beneath the surface or discover her true motives. That is why I think the book began to drag, for me, because it clearly wanted to be a book that examines character in depth, but it never penetrates Rosa’s character because all the information comes from unknowing, second hand sources. Perhaps the author is going for an air of unsolveable mystery, all that how much can we ever really know a person stuff, but I found it frustrating to be given a character so full of promise, but then to never be allowed to engage with her.

‘What an odd, turbulent period of history we live in, a clash of conflicting ambitions, great and small.’ How well does The Rose of Sebastopol portray the 1850s?

I have no idea how well the novel portrays this time; I did not study the Victorians or the Crimean war. I do think the book provided an interesting alternative view of the medical set up to that shown in ‘The Great Stink’, but without further reading I couldn’t say which book had the more accurate depiction. I did enjoy the descriptions of the locations Mariella travelled to, they were vivid and drew me in. The development of the different settings and Mariella’s reactions to them was probably my favourite element of the book. It made me want to read No Place for Ladies right away.


The Rose of Sebastopol deals with desire in many forms – some of them secret and forbidden. How far do you see Rosa as a doomed heroine from the beginning?

A really annoying feature of the book was the constant hinting at an extra layer to the relationship between the young women. So many chapters ended with breathy, enigmatic hints at the clearly obvious, if forbidden, love that I think I actually started sighing audibly. How many times have I mentioned that already? It did bother me a lot, I needed maybe two hints to know that there was going to be a lesbian plotline, and after that I would have just assumed it and waited for it to develop.

I wish that a modern novelist hadn’t felt the need to kill off the inconvenient character, just to simplify the romantic ending. It’s to be expected from novelists writing in the Victorian era who would have been able to see no other future for a character like Rosa, once Mariella decides on Max, and who liked to kill of inconvenient females in general (Dickens I’m looking at you). I would have expected more from a modern novelist. It’s true that Rosa and Mariella could never openly have been a couple (in the context of the book, and the context of the historical period) but it seemed like a girl with as much drive as Rosa would have been able to forge a different version of the happy ending. So, yes she’s a doomed heroine as soon as the author decided on dooming her I suppouse.

How satisfied were you with the ending of The Rose of Sebastopol?

Not satisfied at all, not one bit. The entire book is focused on finding Rosa, all action is driven by this search, then at the end she’s found dead and the book abruptly cuts out. Mariella falls for Max but throughout the early parts of the book there’s definite evidence that she reciprocates Rosa’s feelings, or has sexual curiosity about women. Is it just Rosa she feels this way about, or is she interested in women as well as men?

Henry’s crazy mania for Rosa, which is the author’s way of freeing up Mariella for Max, seems to come form nowhere. His obsession is never explained, even in his own illogical terms and what happens to him after she dies?

Oh and I wanted the full story on Nora, as she had clearly had a tragic life, worthy of a plot line.

Finally, I promise, what is the point of the plotline about the sexually abusive uncle? Is it meant to be important in understanding the girl’s characters, or was it just thrown in there as an extra? It’s never dealt with properly, and if it’s meant to be another surprising twist it doesn’t work, as it’s also signalled heavily throughout the book.



I read this last year and was a bit disappointed with it as well. More recently I read a book called The Water Horse by Julia Gregson which I thought was a much better portrayal of how life would have been nursing in the midst of the Crimean War. It didn't even occur to me that this book would have fit for this challenge! I'll try to finish my review and get it posted soon.


I've heard of the Water Horse somewhere before, I might have to try it out.


I love a good rant! I wasn't very impressed with this book either!


There is a kids movie of the same name that is based on a very different book!

I have read two books by Julia Gregson now and have enjoyed them both.


I have this in my TBR and after reading your review I'm not really eager to get to it.;-)


Marg I know that book (Dick King Smith right) and love it :)

Alex don't let me put you off. I love to read reviews but I almost never avoid books because of them.


I found this book, a hardcover american 1st edition sitting on the bookshelve of some certain store. I picked it up read through the end.

A disappointing ending indeed. And I don't like Max's attitude towards the heroine. He was mocking her then the next thing you know they done it :D

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