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The stupidity and brutality of war, caste structures and the Victorian double standard--all these familiar themes are decorously understated in this tale of a young English woman who finds liberation and love during the carnage of the Crimean War, ""a rotten war fought for a rotten cause."" Stuffy paymaster Captain Edgar Drummond, who admires ""authority and aristocratic splendor,"" has allowed his sisters--pretty, flighty Blanche and sober, thoughtful Sarah--to accompany him on the surely brief sorties against the Russians in the Crimea. Blanche is appalled at the inconvenience. But Sarah is oppressed by the increasing evidence of human misery--as she learns more and more from shipboard acquaintance Robert Chiltern, war reporter for the London Clarion, who's been slipped in among the troops by his wily editor because of Chiltern military connections. There is plenty the generals do not want the public to know: the troops are stalled for five months before engagement, suffering with cold and disease; there's no potable water and, because of bungling in high places, no fresh supplies. Slowly, then, Sarah begins to respond to Robert's plea to step out of her Victorian lady's role and ""fulfill herself""--and she's also beginning to respond to Robert as a man. . . until she discovers Blanche in Robert's embrace. Furious brother Edgar sends Blanche (who's also been dallying with a Frenchman) back to England; Sarah is supposed to follow. But, seeing before her ""day after endless dreary day of drawing rooms and dining rooms . . . and insupportable pointlessness,"" Sarah strikes out on her own--witnessing the infamous siege of Balaclava, along with picnicking tourists on the hill. (""Lord Raglan will watch somewhere half way to Paradise, and we shall fight it out on the valley floor."") After Edgar's death, she begs to be used by Miss Nightingale at her hospital at Scutari, where Sarah will organize over 200 homeless women and children, run a laundry, reunite families, deliver babies, etc. (At one point she's beaten black and blue for her pains.) And the reconstituted Sarah--supremely happy in her new life--will also receive two marriage proposals, one from guess-who. Like Eliza Stanhope (1979): a competently researched overview of some of the scandals of a scandalous war, all of it as forthright and as earnestly high-minded as Sarah Drummond herself.

Pub Date: Feb. 13th, 1983
Publisher: St. Martin's