REVIEW: Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson
In the spring of 1922, young Austrian Princess Theresa-Maria – known to her ancient aunts as ‘Putzerl’ – abandons her crumbling castle and her royal duties. Disguising herself simply as Tessa, she enrolls as under wardrobe mistress of the International Opera Company and soon loses herself in the intoxicating world of the Viennese opera.
But when Guy Farne, an Englishman looking to impress his new fiance, arrives in Austria and employs the Company to perform at his newly purchased Austrian estate, he finds himself fascinated by the under wardrobe mistress, and Tessa finds it increasingly difficult to keep her two lives separate . . .
Years ago I began to read some of Eva Ibbotson’s books and spent prodigious amounts of time and money getting out-of-print copies before then finally being able to buy new print copies. Now of course, most are easily available digitally. Yay! I have many of these sorts of books on my bookshelves – ones I tracked down back in the pre-digital age and set aside almost like a dragon with a horde of jewels. Well, it’s time to actually read some of them. So here goes.
As with many Ibbotson historical novels, this one is set in the early years of the twentieth century and as is also often the case, revolves around a heroine who has lost her position in life. Once Tessa lived in the upper echelons of Imperial Austro-Hungarian society. Her family lived in a centuries old castle, the Emperor attended her christening, and she was expected to Marry Well (a man with at least twelve quarterings on his coat of arms). Now after the end of World War I, she and her few remaining relatives – her great aunts – have joined the ranks of those aristocrats needing to sell off the ancestral piles in order to afford the little things in life – like eating. Unlike most of the others though, Tessa doesn’t mind.
Guy Farne is a self made man. Found as a day old infant, wrapped in sacking, on a dock in northern England, Guy has been a fighter all his life. Well, after all Guy looks like one of those “foreigners.” You know, Lithuanians. When he was (initially reluctantly) taken on as a foster child by Mrs. Hodge, he was certain he’d be returned after a month. When he wasn’t, he set about proving himself – all the way through Oxford and then on to making his first million. Several more millions have since followed but finally he sees the chance to get something he’s always wanted – or rather someone he’s always wanted.
And thus these two people start to come together. Guy is looking to provide his first, lost, love with social acceptance via buying Pfaffenstein Castle as well as the social cachet of the great-aunts in hosting a week long house (castle?) party attended by the remaining creme-de-la-creme of the Austrian Ancien Regime. Tessa is looking to provide her great-aunts with some comfort while she stays in Vienna and willingly works herself to exhaustion at a small opera company. Tessa lives to serve Art and eschews the trappings of a now-lost Imperial World. Guy has no love of pomp and lives to close his next big deal. It’s a love story that’s going to take a while to flourish.
Tessa and Guy have many similarities; as children, biting people who annoy or anger them (usually because of bullying). As adults they have no patience with pomp and circumstance. Tessa was forced into an aristocratic straight jacket of protocol while Guy is fiercely loyal to his humble roots and the remarkable woman who took a chance on him and gave him a home. Tessa is thrilled to be living a romantic life helping support art (her choices of what tourist attractions to show Guy in Vienna – imagine! Schubert’s great-niece in the flesh! show her devotion). Guy plans an amazingly romantic gesture for his first love – holding up a boombox to the nth degree. Too bad we soon know how little Nerine is worthy of it. Tessa is frighteningly efficient as the assistant wardrobe mistress-cum-everything else at the Opera. Guy is frighteningly efficient at making money.
Not only is it elegantly written, there is a lot of humor in the story. Guy’s tour, led by a Duchess and a Margravine, through his new castle digs, complete with stops at the charnel house and down the green slime coated steps to the torture chambers, is hilarious. The Ladies aren’t going to let him buy it with any sight left unseen. I amused myself a little in trying to figure out which Austrian Castles Ibbotson might have used as her inspiration for Pfaffenstein and finally settled on this one.
Among Tessa’s self imposed duties are helping the company’s wigmaker keep The Mother (an ancient yogurt culture) alive, scrubbing out the water bowl of the immense Romanian soprano’s dachshund, and pep-talking the moody Magyar maestro who is writing an atonal operatic masterpiece (for the past seven years). She also continues to fend off the efforts of her great-aunts (and seemingly half the Austrian aristocrats) who want to see her married to her childhood friend Prince Maxi. One of his (many) attempts to propose to her, watched by most of the castle inhabitants and guests, had me in stitches.
The 1922 post-war setting is very integral to the story. Tessa is such an anti-Empire republican. Guy isn’t all into “stuff” either (except if it’s transport related) but their wannabe spouses sure want the filthy lucre and noble trappings. It’s forward moving vs backward looking post WWI. I love that once they know Who She Is and Tessa has to make her Grand Speech to the opera company to be allowed to continue working herself half to death on their account, she uses lines from arias (that they’ve sung) to drive home her point that everyone is equal.
But as much as I liked the book it does have some aspects that drove me bonkers.
Guy has an unfortunate tendency to jump to conclusions. I can see that he would be inclined to do this as his business dealings sound as if he has to make snap judgements and “strike while the iron is hot” as well as how he was always ready to be disappointed based on his early years in the foundling home. But after the 4th or 5th time he becomes instantly, coldly enraged at something he imagines Tessa has done and ready to think the worst of her, I wanted to smack him.
Meanwhile Tessa’s tendency to be a Perky Pollyanna who just wants to serve art to the point of bony fingers, fainting from lack of food, and emptied bank accounts is taken to almost ludicrous limits. Even for a (slightly) fairy tale feeling for the story, it goes to extremes. When she’s taking Guy through the forests around Pfaffenstein, I almost expected to read descriptions of singing birds landing on her finger. During the scene of her showing Guy what brings her to a cemetery in Vienna, a red squirrel does scamper up to her feet. Yep, she’s a Disney Princess.
Still there is so much I did like such as Tessa’s unswerving loyalty to her friends, Guy’s unswerving devotion to the woman who raised him, and finally his brilliant scheme to rid himself of an engagement he was initially prepared to see through to its conclusion until one thing served as the camel’s back breaking straw. I also can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen to everyone in the story in 17 years. But since this is sort of a fairy tale, I will imagine that all will work out. B