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REVIEW: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Dear Ms. Ibbotson,

When Azteclady asked me to review one of your romances, I was both excited and challenged. You pack so many irresistible characters into less than three hundred pages that it is difficult to do justice to these delightful folk. And how would I explain the magic by which you can take me from a lump in the throat to tears of laughter in the space of a few sentences? And yet, how could I refuse? Your books are the meringue kisses of romance novels: simple and sophisticated at once; rich and sweet and awfully charming.

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva IbbotsonA Countess Below Stairs is no exception. The story takes place in 1919 and centers, as much as it does, on Anna Grazinsky, a Russian Countess. As a child, Anna is a joy to her parents, and though they shower her with gifts, she is so tenderhearted that she never becomes spoiled. Her father calls her his “little star,” but when he is killed in World War I, Anna’s heart, as well as her mother’s and her younger brother’s, are broken.

The family is dispossessed of their fortune when the servant to whom they’ve entrusted their famous jewels disappears. They undertake an arduous journey to England and there they are reunited with Anna’s old governess, Miss Pinfold. While an old friend of Anna’s father agrees to pay young Petya’s school fees, Anna refuses to accept more help from him, and rather than impinge on Miss Pinfold’s kindness, she takes a position as an under-housemaid in a Wiltshire property called Mersham.

Mersham’s housekeeper is Mrs. Brassenthwaite and its butler is Mr. Proom. Mrs. Brassenthwaite is described thus:

Once she had prowled the great rooms, eagle eyed for a speck of dust or an unplumped cushion, and had conducted inquests and vendettas from which ashen underlings fled weeping to their attics.

As for the butler:

…Proom, like Mrs. Brassenthwaite, had once been head of a great line of perfectly drilled retainers: under-butlers and footmen, lamp boys and odd men, stretching away from him in obsequiousness and unimportance.

The war, however, has changed all that, and softened Proom and Mrs. Brassenthwaite. The paragraph describing how this came about was one of many which moved me deeply:

More than most great houses, Mersham had given its life’s blood to the Kaiser’s war. Upstairs it had taken Lord George, the heir, who fell at Ypres six months after his father, the sixth earl, succumbed to a second heart attack. Below stairs it had drained away almost every able-bodied man and few of those who left were destined to return. A groom had fallen on the Somme, an under-gardener at Jutland; the hall boy, who had lied about his age, was blown up at Verdun a week before his eighteenth birthday.

Many of the maids, too, have left Mersham to work in offices and factories during the war. And so, the house has lost its splendor if not its charm, and the servants have now begun to wonder, if, like many of England’s once sumptuous properties, Mersham will be sold.

For the whole hope of the House of Frayne now lay in the one surviving son, Lord George’s younger brother, Rupert. The new earl had spent four years in the Royal Flying Corps, his life so perilous that even his mother had not dared to hope he might be spared. But though his plane had been shot down, though he’d been gravely wounded, Rupert was alive. He was about to be discharged from the hospital. He was coming home.

But for good? Or only long enough to put his home on the market? Remembering the quiet, unassuming boy, so different from his handsome, careless elder brother, the servants could only wonder and wait.

It’s at this point that Anna arrives in Mersham, having been sent there by an agency. Proom and Mrs. Brassenthwaite can tell almost at once that she is a lady — her curtsies resemble a ballerina’s — but since Mersham is desperately in need of more staff, they decide to give her a try.

At Mersham, Anna is introduced to a community. Besides Proom and Mrs. Brassenthwaite, there is Mrs. Park, the gentle and unassuming cook; Win, her simple-minded helper; James, the bodybuilding footman whom the maids love to ogle; Louise, the crotchety head housemaid; Lady Westerholme, the Earl’s mother, who has been much given to consulting ouija boards since the death of her husband and son, and the earl’s elderly uncle, Sebastian Frayne, who loves classical music and pretty women in a maids’ uniforms.

To everyone’s surprise, Anna turns out to be diligent worker. Since, as Proom later explains, what a servant dreads most is boredom, and Anna is anything but dull, she manages to gain acceptance among the other servants, too.

Meanwhile, Rupert Frayne, the new Earl of Westerholme, has just become engaged. Muriel Hardwicke is a beautiful heiress who tended Rupert as a nurse at the hospital during his convalescence. Before his brother George’s death, Rupert promised that should anything happen to George, and should he become the earl, he would do everything possible to save Mersham from being sold so that the servants would not lose their positions. Now that George is gone, Rupert, who once dreamed of traveling the world on archeological expeditions, realizes that he must fulfill his last promise to his brother.

Not only is Muriel fabulously rich, she is also breathtakingly lovely and Rupert admires her no-nonsense manner and her wartime volunteering to tend the wounded as a nurse. He does not realize that Muriel undertook that task with the goal of snagging a titled aristocrat. Nor does he know that Muriel is a devotee of Dr. Lightbody, a lecturer who believes in eugenics as the process by which to improve mankind.

Therefore, Rupert is nothing but chagrined when, shortly after his return to Mersham, he realizes he is drawn to the new under-housemaid who curtsies like a ballerina; whom Baskerville, his mastiff, has fallen in love with; and whose gentleness can make the nightmares of his wartime plane crash fade away.

It is not long before Muriel, too, arrives in Mersham, and while she is too arrogant to realize that Anna could displace her in Rupert’s affections, it does not take her much time to make everyone, from the sweet-natured cook to the Jewish neighbors to Rupert’s best friend’s young sister, miserable.

Rupert is smart enough to realize this, but he is honor-bound by his promise to his dead brother to go through with marrying Muriel. And so, Anna must work hard on the preparations for the wedding of a man she is gradually falling in love with.

A Countess Below Stairs is a kind of children’s story for adults. Like the castle in Sleeping Beauty, Mersham has been neglected and waits for true love to restore it to its former glory. Like Sarah Crewe, the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Anna does not allow her fall from her elevated position to change her generous heart, and eventually, she is rewarded for her kindness. How Anna, Rupert, and the servants of Mersham all arrive at their happy ending, I will not reveal, but we know all along that some way, somehow, everyone will get what they deserve.

And yet, for all that, and for all that there are no sex scenes in the book, there is a sophistication to the language, to the unexpected plot twists, to the gentle humor and to the continental sensibility that makes it clear that this book is intended for grown ups, albeit ones who have not outgrown a love of fairy tales.

In the hands of a lesser writer, a heroine as good-hearted as Anna could have been dull, but you make her delightful. A hero like Rupert, tied to the scheming Muriel, might have lacked strength, but nothing is further from the case here, and Rupert proves to be far more heroic than most.

The supporting characters also shine, like rays of sunlight refracted through the prism of your words. You can sketch a personality or a relationship and fill it with dimension in just a few sentences. For example, here is this description of the reaction of Rupert’s neighbor, Lord Byrne, to his wife’s request that he wear a costume for a “fancy dress” ball:

Lord Byrne looked at his wife. He had married her blind, knowing nothing about her except that she had a quiet voice, a sensible manner and some spare cash. Now, eight years later, he would have died for her without a second’s hesitation. To dress up as a hussar in Wellington’s army would be harder, but he would do it.

It is on a note of gratitude for paragraphs like the ones I’ve quoted here that I’d like to close this letter. Thank you for bringing me such joy and delight, and for writing such heartwarming stories.

Sincerely,

Janine

PS A for this one, if you haven’t guessed.

This book can be purchased in paperback (I think it is trade). No ebook format.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

52 Comments

  1. Kathleen MacIver
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 15:17:42

    I definitely have to look this one up, for these are the kinds of stories I love to read!

    Thanks for the great review, Janine!

  2. Jennie
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 15:19:14

    This is such a lovely review of a book I absolutely adore! You’ve really hit on the reasons this is such a great book. Ibbotson’s characters are just so lovable. :)

  3. Sherry Thomas
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 15:26:12

    Wow, I have to try this.

  4. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 15:37:34

    Kathleen and Sherry — I hope you enjoy the book! It’s a crying shame that Ibbotson isn’t better known for her romances.

    Jennie — So glad you enjoyed the review. I agree, Ibbotson writes these characters that melt my heart.

    BTW, I forgot to mention that UK readers should look for the book’s reissue under the title The Secret Countess.

  5. Jill Myles
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 15:59:46

    Dammit, this one sounds awesome too. DA is going to break me.

  6. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 16:03:31

    Dammit, this one sounds awesome too. DA is going to break me.

    LOL. We live to hear this kind of stuff!

  7. Caro
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 16:21:51

    How much do I LOVE this book? In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would have been a syrupy mess, but in Ibbotson’s hands, it’s perfection.

  8. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 16:26:12

    In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would have been a syrupy mess, but in Ibbotson's hands, it's perfection.

    Yes, I agree, she strikes the perfect balance. It’s like a souffle that she takes out of the oven at just the right time.

    Always great to meet another Ibbotson fan, Caro!

  9. Li
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 16:33:31

    Wonderful review and completely does the book justice – I love this book too :-)

  10. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 16:37:20

    Thanks, Li. Jayne and Jan love her books too. She is one of those authors who is so little known (except for her children’s books) that it’s extra-worthwhile to spread the love.

  11. Meriam
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 16:49:15

    BTW, I forgot to mention that UK readers should look for the book's reissue under the title The Secret Countess.

    I got it last week and plan to take it on holiday.

    Both covers are nice, but I think the British one has the edge… Any idea why our title is different? It seems odd. A Countess Below Stairs is far better for one thing.

  12. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 16:58:34

    I got it last week and plan to take it on holiday.

    Cool! I hope you enjoy it! :)

    I like the British cover a bit better too. I have no idea why the British title is different. I know that it didn’t used to be, so I’m pretty sure that A Countess Below Stairs was the title the book was originally published under even in Britain. In fact, one of the two copies that I have is a trade paperback published by the British publisher Arrow. I ordered it from the UK at a time when this book was out of print in the U.S. (There was long stretch there when some of Ibbotson’s books for adults were very hard to find and used copies were fetching very high prices. I think I once saw a copy of The Morning Gift going for over $300! But it’s back in print now).

  13. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 17:01:41

    Forgot to add: The British Arrow edition is titled A Countess Below Stairs and has an impressionist painting cover that is credited as being “Roses by Kroyer, Peter Severin” (1851-1909). I looked up Peter Severin Kroyer and he is a Norwegian born Danish painter. In any case, that cover is lovely, too.

  14. Meanne
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 17:15:58

    It was such a joy to read your review!

    I'm so amazed to read your fabulous review that echoes so much of what I found so wonderful in this truly enchanting book. And the terrific news is that this is not the only book Eva Ibbotson wrote with such endearing characters and with rich descriptions and dialogue that can move and melt one's heart. Although all of her books have a unique, magical quality, The Secret Countess remains my absolute favorite.. ( I bought it in the UK last year…), followed closely by A Song for Summer and The Star of Kazan ( one of her superb children's novels..).

  15. Susan/DC
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 17:17:21

    I think you (Janine) were the one who first introduced me to Eva Ibbotson, and I’ve been embarrassingly grateful ever since. Her heroines are often quite young (except for Madensky Square) and embody hope and a purity of spirit that could easily be nauseating in less skilled hands but in Ibbotson’s are exhilarating. Her heroes are generally handsome and smart and witty and so very honorable that you can understand why her heroines fall so deeply in love with them. (I too have been known to melt in the presence of her heroes.)

    But part of what makes Ibbotson so special is how fully rounded all of her characters are. They clearly inhabit a specific time and specific place (Vienna, Brazil, England). Her villains are not over-the-top but believable; even as we despise them we can understand how they came to be. One of my favorites is Nerine in Magic Flutes, who in some ways is similar to Muriel. The hero’s mother describes her thus: “Nerine’s greed and self-absorption were akin to those of an artist or composer who will sacrifice everything and everyone in the service of his own gift, only Nerine’s gift was her own beauty.” Ibbotson makes a woman who uses the only tools at her disposal sympathetic even as we wish her to Hades for the potential unhappiness she may cause.

  16. azteclady
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 17:46:55

    Wow, Janine, just… wow.

    And if I weren’t under the strictest of book budgets, I would already have been broken by you guys *chuckle*

    Thank you for this review!

  17. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 17:47:35

    Meanne, thank you!

    And the terrific news is that this is not the only book Eva Ibbotson wrote with such endearing characters and with rich descriptions and dialogue that can move and melt one's heart. Although all of her books have a unique, magical quality, The Secret Countess remains my absolute favorite.. ( I bought it in the UK last year…), followed closely by A Song for Summer and The Star of Kazan ( one of her superb children's novels..).

    A Song for Summer is the only one of Ibbotson’s books for adults that I have not yet read. I’m hoarding it because I don’t want to run out of Ibbotson romances.

    I haven’t read The Star of Kazan yet, either, though I did enjoy Journey to the River Sea, another of her children’s books. Have you read it, Meanne? Like A Company of Swans, it is set in Manaus, Brazil and I really enjoy Ibbotson’s depiction of that setting.

  18. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 18:12:08

    I think you (Janine) were the one who first introduced me to Eva Ibbotson, and I've been embarrassingly grateful ever since.

    Ah, I know how you feel. I was introduced to Ibbotson by an online reader too and I am incredibly grateful to her for pointing me in Ibbotson’s direction.

    Her heroines are often quite young (except for Madensky Square) and embody hope and a purity of spirit that could easily be nauseating in less skilled hands but in Ibbotson's are exhilarating.

    Yes, although I must confess that Susanna from Madensky Square, who does not have this hope and purity but instead a kind of pragmatic romanticism is actually my favorite of Ibbotson’s heroines.

    Her heroes are generally handsome and smart and witty and so very honorable that you can understand why her heroines fall so deeply in love with them. (I too have been known to melt in the presence of her heroes.)

    For my favorite of her heroes, it’s a toss-up between Rupert of A Countess Below Stairs and Guy of Magic Flutes.

    But part of what makes Ibbotson so special is how fully rounded all of her characters are.

    Yes! I often end up loving her side characters just as much as the hero and heroine, and sometimes even more so. I remember that when I read A Compnay of Swans, I adored Harriet’s ballet teacher and Marie-Claude, one of her fellow dancers. And by the end of A Countess Below Stairs, I had absolutely fallen in love with Proom.

    They clearly inhabit a specific time and specific place (Vienna, Brazil, England).

    Yes, and she makes these settings so enchanting, too.

    Her villains are not over-the-top but believable; even as we despise them we can understand how they came to be. One of my favorites is Nerine in Magic Flutes, who in some ways is similar to Muriel. The hero's mother describes her thus: “Nerine's greed and self-absorption were akin to those of an artist or composer who will sacrifice everything and everyone in the service of his own gift, only Nerine's gift was her own beauty.” Ibbotson makes a woman who uses the only tools at her disposal sympathetic even as we wish her to Hades for the potential unhappiness she may cause.

    Nerine is probably my favorite of her villains so far. Muriel is a bit less well rounded, but still, there are times when Ibbotson almost makes you feel sympathy for a horrid woman. There is a scene for example, where Muriel has just heard from Dr. Lightbody that in order to produce a eugenically superior child, she should only reproduce at certain times. So she is trying to contemplate how to tell Rupert that he can only approach her on a set schedule, and has no idea how to go about such a thing. It was hilarious, but at the same time, it also added dimension to Muriel’s character because Ibbotson made me feel Muriel’s trepidation at that moment, and I was actually a little bit sorry for her, for a second there.

  19. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 18:15:26

    Thank you for this review!

    You’re welcome, azteclady! I really enjoyed your review of Morning Glory today, too.

  20. Ciara Stewart
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 18:24:27

    What an eloquent review! I was surprised at the post-WWI time period, after hearing recently that Nobody publishes romance novels in that historical period. Good to know it isn’t true. Thank you for the review – I always enjoy being introduced to new fabulous authors and books!

  21. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 18:28:39

    Thanks! A Countess Below Stairs was first published in the United Kingdom in 1981. I think that settings may have been less restricted back then, and I also wonder if British publishers have different considerations than American ones. But then again, maybe not. It was reprinted in the U.S. and reissued recently. Jayne has an uncanny talent for unearthing romances with unusual settings, so she would be a good one to put the question of whether anyone still publishes romances in that period to.

  22. vanessa jaye
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 19:12:19

    Thank you for this great review, Janine. Now I get what ‘the big deal’ is about Ibbotson. I’m going to have to track this book down.

  23. Meanne
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 20:41:07

    Oh Janine, I understand perfectly about wanting to hoard a book to save it for a rainy day…After going through a frenetic phase of devouring her books in record time and being captivated by each one of them, I forced myself to stop… to remind myself that she doesn’t really have a huge backlist. So I haven’t read her award-winning book Journey to the River Sea yet because I want it to serve as one of my delicious and heartwarming comfort reads in the future…

  24. AB
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 21:07:15

    This is one of my favorite books period. For years I had to content myself with borrowing the library copy as it was out of print. When it was recently republished, I had it pre-ordered months in advance.

    Did you know that Ms. Ibbotson’s mother was a novelist as well?

  25. Patricia Briggs
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 21:34:42

    Oh I love Ibbotson. I picked up The Countess Below Stairs at a Safeway when I was in high school (oh so many years ago). Safeway being the major bookstore in my hometown. I don’t know by what freak of chance the grocery store happened to stock this book — since at the time (and for many many years afterwards) Ms. Ibbotson wasn’t on the “bestselling books” list.
    It was the first Ibbotson I had read — but not the last. Finding her books in the era before Internet was an daunting task. These books became family treasures, to be carefully mailed from one of my sisters to another. I am very grateful fot the rising popularity of her children’s books that brought her adult novels back into print.

    I have read elsewhere that Ms. Ibbotson’s husband of many years passed away a while ago, and since his death she has not felt able to write her romances anymore. While I enjoy her books for children, I am deeply saddened at no more dancing swans or diamond swallowing dogs.

  26. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 21:55:01

    Vanessa — I hope you enjoy it. I would love to hear from any of the people who are going to try it, how you all liked it.

    Meanne — I enjoyed Journey to the River Sea but not quite as much as most of her adult novels. Still, I was happy to see that she has another interesting-looking YA book coming out this May, called The Dragonfly Pool.

    AB — I managed to get my hands on all of Ibbotson’s novels except The Morning Gift when they were out of print in the US. But I’m still very glad to see some of them come back into print, and new readers discover them.

    No, I had no idea that Ms. Ibbotson’s mother was also a novelist. What is her name and what did she write?

  27. Janine
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 22:13:13

    Oh I love Ibbotson. I picked up The Countess Below Stairs at a Safeway when I was in high school (oh so many years ago). Safeway being the major bookstore in my hometown. I don't know by what freak of chance the grocery store happened to stock this book -‘ since at the time (and for many many years afterwards) Ms. Ibbotson wasn't on the “bestselling books” list.

    I think it is true of magical books, that we remember years later how they found their way into our hands. I wouldn’t have discovered Ibbotson’s books if it hadn’t been for the internet, and I’m so very grateful.

    It was the first Ibbotson I had read -‘ but not the last. Finding her books in the era before Internet was an daunting task. These books became family treasures, to be carefully mailed from one of my sisters to another.

    How lovely that you and your sisters were able to share them. I’ve mailed my copy of Madensky Square out once or twice, too.

    I am very grateful fot the rising popularity of her children's books that brought her adult novels back into print.

    Me too.

    I have read elsewhere that Ms. Ibbotson's husband of many years passed away a while ago, and since his death she has not felt able to write her romances anymore. While I enjoy her books for children, I am deeply saddened at no more dancing swans or diamond swallowing dogs.

    I too will miss them! Her YA books are worth reading, but not the same as her adult novels. And there are no other adult novels like hers.

    However, if you haven’t read it, you might also enjoy this charming piece on libraries that Ms. Ibbotson wrote for The Guardian.

  28. Robin
    Mar 17, 2008 @ 23:23:55

    I’m pretty sure I have this book lurking in a pile somewhere in my house, but I haven’t read it yet. This lovely review, though, makes me want to dig it out PDQ.

    I have read Company of Swans, though, and was thoroughly enchanted. It stayed with me for quite a while afterward and left a vivid imprint on my mind. I adored so many scenes in that book, especially the one where Harriet is thinking fondly about being “ruined.” I don’t know why I didn’t rush to read another Ibbotson right afterward, but I think there’s a certain richness to her prose and the fairy tale quality of her books that makes it difficult to gorge on her work.

  29. Jennie F.
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 02:15:42

    Thanks for reviewing this wonderful book! I just finished The Morning Gift a couple of months ago – it was the last Ibbotson romance that I hadn’t read. I am sorry not to have any more romances from her, but I am so grateful for the chances I’ve had to read her books. Just reading Ibbotson’s prose makes me smile.

  30. bettie
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 02:22:00

    Ooh, this sounds great! And I have a soft spot in my heart for England and Europe between the wars. I can’t wait to read it.

  31. Marg
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 05:07:28

    I have had Ibbotson on my TBR list for a while now, since Jennie reviewed them. I am definitely moving them up the list following your review.

  32. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:35:05

    I'm pretty sure I have this book lurking in a pile somewhere in my house, but I haven't read it yet. This lovely review, though, makes me want to dig it out PDQ.

    LOL. I would love to hear what you think of it, Robin.

    I have read Company of Swans, though, and was thoroughly enchanted. It stayed with me for quite a while afterward and left a vivid imprint on my mind. I adored so many scenes in that book, especially the one where Harriet is thinking fondly about being “ruined.”

    A Company of Swans is maybe my fourth favorite at this point (not having yet read A Song for Summer), after Madensky Square, A Countess Below Stairs and Magic Flutes, but ahead of The Morning Gift. I too thought it was a very vivid book — the descriptions of the setting (Manaus, Brazil) were so striking.

    I don't know why I didn't rush to read another Ibbotson right afterward, but I think there's a certain richness to her prose and the fairy tale quality of her books that makes it difficult to gorge on her work.

    I like them better spaced apart too, since, with the exception of Madensky Square (which has an older, more mature heroine in a story that’s less of a fairy tale) her heroines are very young.

    I agree with you about the richness of her prose — my review was long enough so I didn’t go on about it too much, and hoped the excerpts would make that point for me. But yes, her language has a melt-in-your-mouth quality.

  33. Keishon
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:44:41

    I plan to read this book this year [fingers crossed] Don’t hold me to it, though.

  34. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:55:14

    I just finished The Morning Gift a couple of months ago – it was the last Ibbotson romance that I hadn't read. I am sorry not to have any more romances from her, but I am so grateful for the chances I've had to read her books. Just reading Ibbotson's prose makes me smile.

    I don’t look forward to the day I don’t have any Ibbotson romances left to read. I’ve been hoarding A Song for Summer for six or seven years!

    Actually this review came about when Jane posted about her dream anthology and asked what their dream anthology would be. I said that mine would be a historical romance anthology from four authors who either don’t write historical romance anymore or are in publishing limbo — Laura Kinsale, Patricia Gaffney, Judith Ivory and Eva Ibbotson. So then people asked who Eva Ibbotson was, and azteclady asked for a review, so I wrote one.

  35. azteclady
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:58:55

    So then people asked who Eva Ibbotson was, and azteclady asked for a review, so I wrote one.

    I feel so loved! :grin:

  36. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 11:00:54

    Bettie and Marg, I hope you enjoy it!

    Keishon, you too, if you read it. I won’t hold you to it if you won’t hold me to reading Julia Spencer-Fleming and Dennis Lehane, whose books have been sitting in my TBR too long. Actually, though I could be wrong, I have a feeling that you might like Madensky Square more than A Countess Below Stairs.

  37. Melanie
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 11:03:55

    This book was my first introduction to Ibbotsen and after about 50 pages, I was hooked! I think this is my favorite of hers, although A Song for Summer is also a close contender. I’m so glad to see her books on display in stores again! I really need to dig out A Countess. . . again – I need to read the chapter where Rupert returns home and is first hit with Anna’s curtsy. Oh, and the Honorable Olive’s visit to London. You know what? I’m just going to read the whole thing again.

  38. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 11:06:41

    LOL, azteclady! :)

  39. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 11:12:39

    Melanie, it is so great to hear from other Ibbotson fans. You are the second person in this thread to say that they liked A Song for Summer almost as much. Maybe I shouldn’t hoard this book. But then I would run out!!! What a dilemma.

    The Honorable Olive’s visit to London was great. There were too many wonderful characters in this book to describe them all in this review. Ollie was adorable, and I loved the happy ending she got.

  40. Leeann Burke
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 14:24:52

    I’ll have to hunt down a copy as well. I can’t believe I never heard of this author. The cover itself is beautiful.

    Great review Janine.

  41. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 14:45:31

    Thanks, Leeann. Hope you enjoy the book!

  42. AB
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 18:11:13

    Hi Janine,

    This is some info on Ibbotson’s mother; http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/pages/authors/anna_gmeyner.htm

    Enjoy :)

  43. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 21:18:39

    Ms. Gmeyner’s book Manja sounds fascinating. Have you read it, AB?

  44. Jennybrat
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 11:05:50

    I’ve not read this book but I remember enjoying her first book The Great Ghost Rescue enormously when I was a child and excitingly, it looks like 3 of her children’s books are in development to be movies! That would potentially generate more interest in her books.

  45. Janine
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 11:28:15

    It doesn’t surprise me that much that her children’s books are in development, what with the popularity of the Harry Potter and Narnia movies. It will be interesting to see if they get made, and if so, how good they are and how well they fare in the box office. If they do well, it could generate interest in her books for adults as well.

  46. Meriam
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 14:48:49

    Janine, I can’t tell you how much I’m hating this novel! I started it a few weeks ago and put it away at page fifty, laughing with disbelief (though, when The Other Woman has a ‘passionate interest in eugenics,’ I don’t know if I ought to laugh or cry). It’s beautifully written, a fairytale, but so many things are rubbing me the wrong way – I’m wondering if I ought to dedicate a blog entry to it.

    As I said, I love the writing, but everything else makes me want to scream.

    I’m going to finish it (I can’t not finish a book, even if it takes me months to get round to it) but maybe I’ll list the reasons I’m so unhappy at the moment, and then see if Ibbotson addresses them as the story progresses? Perhaps she’ll teach me not to draw conclusions so early in a book: Maybe the eugenicist will turn out to be a multi-faceted and worthy contender for Rupert’s heart…

  47. Janine
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 17:56:20

    I’m sorry this recommendation isn’t working out for you, Meriam. I consider it a light comedy, and where humor is concerned, I don’t require complete realism because humor often relies on exaggeration. That’s the light in which I see Muriel’s interest in eugenics, for instance.

  48. Meriam
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 19:56:04

    Hmm. My problem isn’t the lack of realism, per se (I think it’s impressively researched – I wish more historical romances were this assured), it’s the glossing over of so many issues that deserve more detail or at least some acknowledgment.

    For example, the little Russian Countess living her life of decadence before the revolution… I think of the feudal system in Russian and the millions of downtrodden peasants before the war, and (even knowing what comes next), feel no sympathy for the downfall of the aristocracy. So, right from the start, I don’t feel Anna’s loss.

    I think Anna’s enthusiasm for being a housemaid is like that of a rich girl slumming it for the holidays. Servants lived liked drudges and it was only during/ after the end of the war that the old class system finally began to crumble – and good riddance.

    Curtseying to the butler? Too much.

    Cleaning Milton’s marble head might be a pleasure for Anna, but I think grumpy, uncouth Louise (an actual housemaid) has my sympathy, because to her, all it will ever be is a bloody marble head she has to dust endlessly.

    The lecherous uncle, groping all the young maids – except Anna, because she shares his appreciation of classical music? I’m still feeling sorry for the actual maids. Lucky Anna, the ‘incandescent fledgling’, has some innate air of refinement that deflects casual sexual abuse the other vulgar, lower-class maids have to endure…

    You see?! I can’t read the book without prickling. It’s like the working class political student in me bristles every time I read a passage idealising the upstairs/ downstairs element of the English country house. It’s too twee.

    Similarly, eugenics, in that time and place… A significant portion of the English upper class shared Muriel’s interest, and there was considerable sympathy for fascism and Hitler (within the Royal family, for example). So whilst Muriel’s interest is utterly believable, I don’t find it comedic, because it isn’t an exaggeration. It’s the nasty, dirty secret of the English aristocracy. (Although, I do find it amusing as a romance reader: The Other Woman is often a skanky ho, or manipulative and evil. Closet Nazi? That’s a first).

    Anyway, I haven’t read your review yet, but once I finish the book, I look forward to finding out what makes it work for you. I hope you don’t mind my rant – when I feel this strongly about a book, I like to share….

  49. Janine
    Jun 05, 2008 @ 11:07:44

    Hmm. My problem isn't the lack of realism, per se (I think it's impressively researched – I wish more historical romances were this assured), it's the glossing over of so many issues that deserve more detail or at least some acknowledgment.

    For example, the little Russian Countess living her life of decadence before the revolution… I think of the feudal system in Russian and the millions of downtrodden peasants before the war, and (even knowing what comes next), feel no sympathy for the downfall of the aristocracy. So, right from the start, I don't feel Anna's loss.

    But how is that different, really, from the many earl and duke heroes that we see in historical romances? At least Anna’s family treated their servants well and was relatively egalitarian, and, if I’m not mistaken, Anna had sympathy for the downtrodden peasants. To me, Anna’s loss wasn’t about the loss of status or material things, but the loss of her home and the death of her father.

    I don’t feel that Ibbotson is unaware of these issues or that her sympathies are only with the aristocracy. In Madensky Square, which is set in Vienna around 1910, the heroine of the secondary storyline is a passionate anarchist.

    I think Anna's enthusiasm for being a housemaid is like that of a rich girl slumming it for the holidays.

    I don’t see it in that light. I think she’s trying to make the best of her situation, and that she’s the kind of person who would try to find something beautiful to delight in no matter where she was. I’ve said before that I think Ibbotson is influenced by Frances Hodgson Burnett and I see echoes of A Little Princess in A Countess Below Stairs.

    Servants lived liked drudges and it was only during/ after the end of the war that the old class system finally began to crumble – and good riddance.

    Yes, and I think that in some ways the book deals with this crumbling (for example, when Ibbotson talks about Proom working alongside the maids during the war). And again, I ask you, how is this different from so many regency romances and other historicals we read where the heroes are members of the aristocracy? At least in this book, the driving concern for Rupert and the reason for his engagement to Muriel is that the servants not lose their positions. He is willing to give up his freedom for that, which is more concern than most romance heroes show.

    Also, in this book, the servants are given personalities and treated as human beings worth caring about. They get almost as much page space as the hero and heroine. That’s not something I see in most of the historical romances I read.

    Curtseying to the butler? Too much.

    I agree, but this is exactly the kind of thing I mean when I say that humor requires some exaggeration. It was there for the reader to laugh at.

    Also, while it is too much, how would Anna know any better? She is not only not trained as a servant, but she is also an immigrant in what to her is a foreign land. She is bound to make mistakes even if she tries her best.

    Cleaning Milton's marble head might be a pleasure for Anna, but I think grumpy, uncouth Louise (an actual housemaid) has my sympathy, because to her, all it will ever be is a bloody marble head she has to dust endlessly.

    I don’t think Ibbotson wants you to choose between liking Anna and liking Louise. I think Ibbotson likes them both and treats them both with fondness.

    Also, some people actually enjoy cleaning, no matter how many times they do it. My mom is one. I on the other hand, never enjoy it. I don’t think the book makes a value judgment on that.

    The lecherous uncle, groping all the young maids – except Anna, because she shares his appreciation of classical music? I'm still feeling sorry for the actual maids.

    I agree with you on this one. I felt sorry for the maids too, although they didn’t feel sorry for themselves. However, I didn’t hold this against Anna.

    Lucky Anna, the ‘incandescent fledgling', has some innate air of refinement that deflects casual sexual abuse the other vulgar, lower-class maids have to endure…

    I don’t think it is innate — I think it was her love of the same music that the uncle love, which was something she had learned. Now if Anna was like the heroine of Heyer’s These Old Shades and had been raised as a commoner but was accepted by everyone as an aristocrat, I would agree with you. But since she was raised as an aristocrat and given the social polish they had by her parents and governesses, I don’t see Ibbotson as making any statement of innate worthiness in aristocrats here.

    You see?! I can't read the book without prickling. It's like the working class political student in me bristles every time I read a passage idealising the upstairs/ downstairs element of the English country house. It's too twee.

    LOL. I think most of Ibbotson’s books are fairy tales and I don’t think she is making any categoric statements about upstairs / downstairs life in the English country house. To the contrary I think she shows with Muriel’s approach that not everyone upstairs was a benevolent master the way Rupert’s family was. I don’t think Mersham is meant to be realistic or representative of the system. I think Ibbotson knows that it isn’t, and therefore, most of the things you mention didn’t bother me.

    Similarly, eugenics, in that time and place… A significant portion of the English upper class shared Muriel's interest, and there was considerable sympathy for fascism and Hitler (within the Royal family, for example). So whilst Muriel's interest is utterly believable, I don't find it comedic, because it isn't an exaggeration. It's the nasty, dirty secret of the English aristocracy.

    I think Ibbotson condemns it pretty strongly, as you’ll see if you keep reading. But I also think she uses it to poke fun at Muriel and Dr. Lightbody at the same time.

    (Although, I do find it amusing as a romance reader: The Other Woman is often a skanky ho, or manipulative and evil. Closet Nazi? That's a first).

    But, in the context of this story, Muriel isn’t an “other Woman.” She is the fiancee. Anna is the “Other Woman” — the woman Rupert is at least in his heart, unfaithful to his fiancee with. I’m pointing it out because I think it’s an interesting role reversal and Ibbotson’s books are often full of such.

    Anyway, I haven't read your review yet, but once I finish the book, I look forward to finding out what makes it work for you. I hope you don't mind my rant – when I feel this strongly about a book, I like to share….

    Nope, don’t mind at all. You might like Madensky Square better than this book. The heroine of that book is the mistress of a married man and the secondary heroine an anarchist, as I mentioned above. So there’s more moral ambiguity there, which it sounds like you are looking for.

  50. Joanna-Marie
    Jun 18, 2010 @ 13:41:08

    Dear Ms Ibbotson

    I am 13 years old and i have read every one of your books and i think that they are all so amazing, i mean truly amazing :) like a fairytale :)

  51. donna
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 08:37:50

    She writes well but didnt like the description of what was done to the dogs in one of her books…. the world is bad enough without that garbage being written..SHAME ON YOU EVA!!!!

  52. thebookishowl.com » Blog Archive » Goodbye, Eva Ibbotson
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 23:19:15

    […] Countess Below Stairs (1981, reissued as The Secret Countess in 2007) [reviews: AAR, Dear Author, The Book […]

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