Dec 5, 2011

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret Countess (also known as A Countess Below Stairs) opens in 1907, when Anna Grazinzky, daughter of the Count and Countess Grazinsky, is growing up in dazzling Belle Époque St Petersburg. The second chapter, however, takes us straight to 1919, after the war and the 1917 revolution forced Anna’s family into exile. They now live in London with Anna’s former governess, Miss Pinford, and money is running short – which is why Anna accepts a position as a housemaid for the wealthy Westerholmes. The youngest and only surviving son of the family, Rupert, is about to return to their country home, Mersham, for the first time since the war, and Anna is taken on as a temporary member of staff to help get the place in order.

If you think you already know where this is going, well, you would probably be right. But if you think that being able to identify the shape this story is going to take right away makes The Secret Countess any less of a delight, then you’d be absolutely wrong. Over the course of this year, Eva Ibbotson’s books have become my favourite destination when I need a short vacation from reality, and The Secret Countess was no exception. Her stories seem to take place in a fairy tale world even when they’re strictly realistic – but like in the best fairy tales, this is a world where the losses and the human costs are very much real. The romance and glamour of her stories never come at the expense of true emotional resonance.

The romance in The Secret Countess is completely satisfying, mostly because of how gently and subtly Ibbotson handles every emotion, every intricacy of interaction between two human beings. Anna and Rupert’s feelings for each other emerge organically, and the obstacles they face never seem contrived or cheap. The fact that I had complete faith in the fact that Ibbotson would have a happy ending in store for us didn’t keep my heart from almost breaking in certain scenes – particularly the ball scene that begins like this:
To this waltz, born in a distant, snowbound country out of longing for just such a flower-scented summer night as this, Rupert and Anna dance. They were under no illusions. The glittering chandeliers, the gold mirrors with their draped acanthus leaves, the plangent violins might be the stuff of romance, but this was no romance. It was a moment in a lifeboat before it sank beneath the waves; a walk across the sunlit courtyard towards the firing squad. This waltz was all they had.
But there’s more to The Secret Countess than just Anna and Rupert: the supporting characters are every bit as gripping and alive. I won’t soon forget the practical, discreet and kind Mrs Bryne, who the narrator credits with putting an end to the bad reputation of stepmothers everywhere; eight-year-old Ollie Bryne, a charming little girl who quickly befriends Anna; or Anna’s cousin Sergei, who has nearly every girl he meets fall in love with him but is not an idiot about it. Most of all, I’m in awe of Eva Ibbotson’s ability to get so much across about her characters so economically. With only a few carefully chosen details, a vivid and complex picture emerges. Take, for example, this passage about the Mersham cook, Mrs Park:
Standing at the table now, crumbling pastry like small rain through her deft, plump fingers was Mrs Park, the soft-voiced, gentle countrywoman who had replaced the chef, Signor Manotti. The fact that she was in every way unworthy to succeed so great a man was Mrs Park’s continuing despair. No cook ever had less ‘temperament’ or more skill. Unable to pronounce the French names of the exquisite dishes she sent to the table, she could never believe she was not failing some culinary god with her Englishness, her simplicity, her female sex. Everyone loved her and she had made of the kitchen, so often a forbidden and defended fortress, the place where all the servants came to rest.
Having said this, I do think Ibbotson got even better at characterisation later in her career, particularly at making her villains more human and nuanced. Here, the main villain is Muriel, Rupert’s fiancée. Muriel’s credo is thus summed up: “there were people who, by physique and training, were somewhat superior and she would have been foolish not to recognise herself as one of them”. She’s a eugenics enthusiast with pretty much no redeeming qualities, but this almost doesn’t matter – and I wouldn’t say something like this lightly.

Muriel and her mentor, Dr Lightbody, are not very complex characters, but they’re good representations of certain ideas – in this case, the arrogance and lack of compassion behind their beliefs. Triumphing over these characters means that kindness and respect for others have triumphed, and though there might be occasions where you know it’s really not as simple as that, the core principles still stand. Eva Ibbotson uses shortcuts to conjure a simpler world, but one that seldom crosses the line into frustratingly simplistic territory – she leaves just enough in to maintain the balance most of the time.

Of course, sometimes there are problems attached to these shortcuts. When I read A Dog and His Boy, I had issues with her defence of circus animals and said: You can tell how very badly she wants a rose-tinted version of reality to be true, one in which the animals are appreciated and trained lovingly and bring thousands of children immense joy, and so you kind of go along with her for the ride. But at the back of my mind there was a voice going, “But, but, but!”.

Something similar happened here with the elderly Mr Sebastien, one of the Westerholmes, who is in the habit of groping the maids. This is portrayed as the harmless habit of a lonely old man who loves women, and Muriel’s attempts to put a stop to it as one more example of her cruelty. I don’t buy into this version of reality, of course, but because Eva Ibbotson has earned my trust, her being wrong didn’t leave as bad a taste in my mouth as it would with any other author. She’s such a generous writer that it makes me want to be generous in return. I suspect that in different circumstances she would have been capable of extending the compassion she has for Mr Sebastien to the maids in question.

The Secret Countess was originally published in 1981 as a romance for adults – you can see some of the original cover art below. I was therefore very amused to repeatedly come across reviews which remark that some aspects of the plot or other is “very typical of contemporary Young Adult fiction”, or which attribute some of the novel’s shortcomings, like the one I mentioned above, to the fact that it’s YA.

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

I have nothing against Eva Ibbotson’s romances being repackaged as YA and introduced to a new generation of readers - quite the contrary. I want everyone to discover her and derive just as much comfort and joy from her stories as I have. But this is a good example of the fluidity of literary distinctions that are often understood as being set in stone, and a useful reminder that where a book is shelved at the bookshop says nothing about its content and need not determine how we approach it.

I’m already looking forward to my next Eva Ibbotson novel. I’m so glad she has a long back catalogue for me to explore.

They read it too: Stella Matutina, The Book Smugglers, Dear Author, The Captive Reader, Bookshelves of Doom, The Sleepless Reader, The Bookworm Chronicles

(Have I missed yours? Leave me your link and I’ll be happy to add it.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

33 comments:

  1. I didn't realise this was first published for adults. I feel bad as I have so many books by this author on my shelves and I have yet to read one of them.

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  2. My son and I went through a period (he was in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, I think) during which we read all the Eva Ibbotson I could find. But I didn't find this one--maybe because we were looking in the children's section.

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  3. I can't believe this hasn't been made into a movie! It seems like such a natural!

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  4. P.S. I just went to reserve it and for the U.S. it is available only as A Countess Below Stairs so if people are looking for it...

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  5. I adore this book. For years, it was the only Ibbotson I owned a copy of and so it was the one I reread the most often - at least once a year. I think your description of Ibbotson as being "such a generous writer that it makes me want to be generous in return" is absolutely perfect. That's exactly how she makes me feel and that feeling is why I go back to her books, year after year.

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  6. I've thought of giving Ibbotson's books a go for a while, but was put off by the YA label (the covers often seemed to me younger than YA). So now you've said they aren't particularly I'll reverse my decision!

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  7. Read it a while back and couldn't be as enthusiastic as you. I guess my problem with this book is the same I have with most Georgette Heyers. They both assume (no questioning!) that everyone who is high-born has a certain "je ne sais quoi" that distinguishes them from the rest, even if they are in the same financial circumstances as the rest. Someone always looks at these heroines and "knows" there's something aristocratic/blue blood about them, even if, in GH's stories, they were switched at birth.

    I know, I know, I should lighten up, but I can't help it, my Republican (not as in vs. Democrat, more vs. Monarchic) blood just boils and I can't enjoy the rest of the story.

    http://thesleeplessreader.com/2010/06/13/a-countess-below-stairs-by-eva-ibbotson/

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  8. This is perhaps just the thing to get me back to reading fiction. I've been struggling (apparently new small people in the house will do this to one's focus?) but this sounds like exactly the kind of story I could get into right now. And I haven't read Ibbotson in ages.

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  9. I think this book sounds wonderful, and your warmth and intelligent discourse on it makes me want to seek it out and make it a favorite for myself as well! I think this is just the sort of gentle story that I need right now, and the bonus is that I can share it with my daughter when I am done! Very nicely written review today, Ana!

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  10. Lovely review. I feel about Alice Hoffmann like you about Eve Ibbotson. But also enjoyed the few Ibbotsons I've read so far. Bot writers manage to be realistic and at the same time give fairytale quality to their writing.
    I'm glad I still have one or two unread Ibbotsons at hand and more than two of Alice Hoffmann's books.

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  11. This was my first Ibbotson and I loved it. I don't usually go for fluffy feel good romances, but I really like Ibbotson. There's something quite old fashioned about her and the way she writes.

    Sometimes it's just nice to read something that isn't all dark and full of 'issues' and political correctness. Her books are golden-hued. She manages to do it in a way that isn't sickening or simpering though.

    I realy want to read some of her others... probably more her YA/adult books rather then those for younger readers. I read The Star of Kazan I think and though it was good found it a little too childish - and I'll read books for all ages.

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  12. Vivienne: But think of how great it will be when you finally start reading them and have so many to pick from :P

    Jeanne: Yes, that was probably why!

    Jill: Oh, thanks for letting us know! I hadn't realised it still had the old title in the US.

    Claire: It's what makes me want to read more and more of her work too.

    Charlie: It's not so much that this doesn't read like YA as it is that the label doesn't mean much, I don't think. Anyway, I hope you enjoy her if you decide to give her a go :)

    Alex: I didn't particularly get that impression from this book, but I think my reading was definitely coloured by my previous experiences with her books. The three Ibbotson novels I've read before are all more recent, and in them she seems to go almost too far in the opposite direction: rich and high born characters are usually suspicious, and the hard-working poor and are almost idealised. So much so that I was actually rather surprised that Anna's family and friends were portrayed so sympathetically here. I wonder if this signals a political change of some sort? Or maybe she just realised this was a trend in her work and tried to reverse it?

    Kiirstin: I can imagine how new small people would have that effect, yes :P I hope this will be the book that does it for you!

    Zibilee: This would be a lovely story to share, I think. And as always, thank you for your very kind comment!

    Caroline: I need to read more of Hoffman's work! I absolutely loved The I Ice Queen, but after not having much luck with Practical Magic I haven't picked her up again.

    Fiona: Yes, golden-hued is a good way to put it. Yet there's still enough substance to them that I'm satisfied. She's the perfect comfort author.

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  13. It seems that quite a few books that were published years ago could be repackaged and published as YA these days. The young adults of today are much more sophisticated than those of the past.

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  14. Ibbotson's The Great Ghost Rescue was one of my favorite books when I was about ten years old. It could be fun to revisit her writing and The Secret Countess sounds like a very nice holiday season read!

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  15. I'm really interested to read yours and Alex's exchange about high born characters in this novel and others by Ibbotson. I do wonder if Ibbotson's linking of evil to money, or status in other books is affected by the alignment of class and money. In 'A Dog and His Boy' Hal's parents are clearly 'new money', who have made their wealth in trade and I seem to remember that the bad parents in Platform 13 are not rich by birth. New money characters do tend to get a bad rep in fiction, while the aristocracy is generally assumed to know how to act and how to weild their money responsibly. The middle classes do tend to take a lot of flak in our society, for essentially trying to improve their economic status.

    Anyway I will add this to my growing Ibbotson must read pile. That first quote you included is just so terribly tragic and that's part of what I love about her books, how she can break your heart without losing your trust.

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  16. Kathy: The funny thing is that I can't imagine a tamer romance than this one! I even wondered if that was the reason why it had been republished as YA.

    Tiina: Yes, I keep thinking I should have added her to my list of holiday season reads last week :)

    Jodie: very interesting possibility about class and money. In this book, Muriel is new money, which supports that theory, but then again there's Mrs Bryne, who is not high born and marries into an aristocratic family and is a wonderful, wonderful character. There's also an extremely unpleasant aristocratic family who employ Sergei, Anna's cousin, as a chauffer. So while I think there might be something to it, there are some counterexamples to complicate the picture. Possibly she bought into some classist ideas but simultaneously struggled against them? Anyway, I'd really really love to hear your thoughts on this book!

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  17. I also love Ibbotson's writing style and how she makes you understand exactly what a person is like with a few specific details. Definitely an author worth checking out!

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  18. The romance and glamour of her stories never come at the expense of true emotional resonance.

    Yes. This. I almost always cry at her books, because even when they're not, perhaps, as realistic as they could be, they're emotionally true. Even the two children's titles I read last month made me tear up a time or two.

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  19. You know I didn't actually realise how old this book was! Silly me for not noticing! But now I know, some parts of the novel make a lot more sense. It has quite an old fashioned tone - for example, the way the story line with the maids is handled - which I have to admit, I wasn't particularly comfortable with when I read it. It never sat well with me that excuses were made for the old man sexually harassing the young maids and it was implied he did actually assault them as well. I didn't like how Ibbotson tried to pass him off as a harmless old man.

    I also found Anna far too sweet. Perfect, selfless characters have never interested me very much - especially when they are women. It always feels like that is some sort of message in there which turns me off slightly.

    The romance in this book is probably the tamest, chaste romance I've ever read lol so its interesting that this was originally an adult's book.

    Great review :)

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  20. This was the first Ibbotson book I read and I thought it was truly lovely. I was lucky that my mon passed on a stacked of her books to me so I plenty more of her work at my finger tips. I recommend reading The Morning Gift and A Song for Summer which my were my two favourites. I've also read A Company of Swans which was also lovely.

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  21. Ooo forgot to leave the link to my review:

    http://thebookwormchronicles.wordpress.com/2009/12/17/the-secret-countess-eva-ibbotson/

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  22. Heidenkind: Agreed :)

    Memory: Yes - so many moments made me tear up. Sometimes they're really small things, but she gets them so right.

    Amy: I know exactly what you mean about Sebastien. The good will towards Eva Ibbotson I'd accumulated over the past few months was *definitely* necessary for me to read those scenes without becoming furious. I disagree about Anna, though - she was sweet and everything, but I thought she had too much agency and too strong a will to embody any ideas about female subservience. I'm with you on the romance, though!

    Jessica: I've added your link - thank you! And thank you also for the recommendations. I want to read pretty much everything she's written :P

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  23. i've heard so many great things about her. she's very popular at the store i work at!

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  24. I am very curious about this author, but have never read her. I should remedy that...

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  25. I don't think I ever would have given this book a second glance if I'd just run across it in a store or library. I would have assumed without even digging deeper that it just wasn't up my alley. My alley has widened remarkably thanks to you and others who have opened my eyes...and yet I still have that old mantra of "not for me" ingrained in my head and it just pops out automatically. Reading your review makes me believe that I would actually quite love this book! So how very sad is it that I never would have given it a chance if not for your review. Or perhaps I should look at it from the bright side--how very lucky I am to have you in my life to "slap me upside the head" so often. :P

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  26. I had to idea that this was originally published as a novel for adults! It's the first Ibbotson that I read and I completely fell in love with it. I think it's great that they repackaged her romances as YA novels because I love the new covers (I have the trade paperback edition with the title "A Countess Below Stairs"). I've read all of them - this and The Reluctant Heiress are my favorites.

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  27. And another book I would never pick up it it wasn't for your review! I love books that have something of the Russian revolution in them, it fascinates me.

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  28. Marie: I hope you'll give her a try one of these days!

    Kailana: Yep :P

    Debi: You'll have to read her one of these days! She'll put the biggest smile on your face. Also, I could say the same to you, you know. You've introduced me to so many things I'd have missed out on otherwise.

    Chachic: I need to read The Reluctant Heiress soon!

    Joanna: Yes! This really made me want to read something else set in St Petersburg. I should as Twitter for suggestions...

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  29. SQUEEEE!!! I'm so excited--I went right from your review to add this to my Paperback Swap wish list. And I just got an email that someone added it--so it should be on its way to me very, very soon!

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  30. I was under the impression that this was a fairly recent novel written for teenagers. A friend of mine, who knew I loved Heyer, asked me to try Ibbotson. But the fact that it fell under 'YA' put me off a bit. -- that's a pity, I begin to see. I can't quite pin-point it, but when I read the title YA...especially if a book I know nothing of falls under that category, I just move past it.

    I enjoyed reading your review on this book. I love the details you give, and the little snippets of narrative you've posted have me tempted. I hope to give Ibbotson a try now! :D

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  31. Hope you get to read A Reluctant Heiress (Magic Flutes in other editions) soon because it's just as lovely as this one! Would love to know what you think of it.

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  32. I've only ever read one Ibbotson novel, but was swept away by it. The detail and the gentleness you describe here could apply equally well to that one. You remind me that I should look up more of her books.

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  33. I absolutely loved this book and the other ones like it. They're among my favorites of all books I've read. Good review!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.