This mid-Victorian melodrama crosses the ocean, beautifully sweeping through England and Italy, Constantinople and the Crimea as war rages and two sheltered young women find love and redemption in a bloody and body-littered landscape. While bulk of the novel covers the war fought between the Russian Empire on one side and the Western
Allies on the other, the story is also of Mariella Lingwood and her efforts to find her free-spirited cousin Rosa Barr, who pig-headedly vanishes to the war front, thinking that she can be everyone’s savior by joining Florence Nightingale’s nursing corps.
Ever since the wayward Rosa came to London from rural Derbyshire to stay with the more conventional Mariella, both seem to be similarly repelled
by and attracted to each other. The ladylike Mariella finds comfort in her exquisite needlework, stitching and mending and tucking, and working on her war scrapbook, intent to create around her “an oasis of charm.”
It is the adventuresome Rosa who is truly imbued with a sense of the audacious, seeking out individuals like Barbara Leigh Smith, the notorious artist who is considered by proper society to be one of “the wild people of London.”
Despite their differences, however, the two girls become loyal friends and companions. Mariella is ultimately driven by the essence of Rosa, her smell of lemons, the fragrance of her hair and skin. The more independent of the two, Rosa is truly inspired when she visit a London hospital and observes the amputation of a young boy’s leg by the renowned surgeon Dr. Henry Thewell. Surprisingly, Rosa and Henry form an unlikely attachment, even though Mariella is the one destined to play the role of the “young-lady-waiting in betrothal” to Henry.
Mariella, like Rosa, cannot remain sheltered by her bourgeois family forever. Her journey begins when a letter arrives at her home telling her that Henry has survived the first wave of battle in the Crimea and is convalescing in Italy after a bout of illness, perhaps cholera. Traveling to the town of Narni, Mariella endures the smell of fever still on Henry’s breath. Even though he is too ill and too insistent to resist, there can be little doubt that Mariella is answering the wish of a dying man - that of his frantic concern for Rosa.
Determined to find out the truth of Rosa’s whereabouts, Mariella makes hasty plans, bound for the Crimea with her trusted maid Nora McCormack, who becomes an indiscernible traveling companion and who unexpectedly finds her own value as a nurse to the wounded soldiers. Mariella’s eventual goal is to revisit the place where Rosa was last seen in Sebastopol, but she has no way of knowing the difficulties and problems that await her on this momentous adventure.
The dynamics among Rosa, Mariella and Henry - and also the tall, dark-eyed Captain Max Stukley, all “flashing braid and gilt buttons”
- gives this tale its Victorian piquancy. Mariella’s dangerous journey to the Crimea reflects the realities of the British Imperialism and a bloody and disastrous war that seems to go on forever. Dividing her narrative up
among three locations and interspersing two time periods, Katharine McMahon’s task seems Herculean as the action moves between the gentle solace of England with its green fields and narrow lanes to the Crimea's rats and pestilence, the death and dying, the young soldiers without limbs, and the nurses who attend them while battling with limited resources and the constant threat of cholera.
Most fascinating is the author’s meticulous attention to period detail, from
the sick and helpless whom Mariella eventually begs to care for, to the lead works in Derbyshire that feed the munitions for the massive war effort, to the poor sanitation of the Victorian hospitals and the lack of clean water, both for cleanliness and for drinking, where the wards are in danger of becoming a breeding ground for plague. Throughout it all, Mariella steadily matures and grows, driven by her desire to find Rosa.
The author draws us into Mariella’s life, her sense of impending danger, and the Crimea, beautifully contrasting her more innocent and genteel life in England.