I read my second Eva Ibbotson novel, and it was a pure concoction of delight. It was A Countess Below Stairs, and the heroine, Anna, is a fabulously rich, privileged scion of Russian nobility who nonetheless does not possess a snobbish bone in her body. We get a quick sketch of her enchanted childhood in Petersburg, growing up in a palatial mansion under the tutelage of three governesses (English, French, and German) and the eyes of her adoring parents. Then comes the shadow of the Revolution. In 1917 her father dies heroically defending the Tsar and the penniless family flees to England, where Anna secures a position as a housemaid at a grand country manor. I swear to God if someone were to write a manual delineating all the tropes I most enjoy in YA historical romance, this book is a good approximation of the end product:
- Preternaturally mature, soulful younger sibling, check. Petya is considerably younger than Anna (9 years) and his relationship with her is, early on, one of the ways that we establish Anna’s essential selflessness & generosity. When Petya was born all the grownups braced for temper tantrums + major sulking from Anna, who had been up till then a rather spoiled only child, but instead she treated him like a shiny new toy, told him stories, rocked him to sleep. He doesn’t really have enough pagetime to qualify as a well-rounded character, but his very existence is a testament to the fact that Anna will go to any lengths to protect those she loves.
- Aristocrats working as servants ~incognito, check.
- Second sons who unexpectedly inherit in the wake of tragedy, check. Rupert never wanted to be an Earl, his brother was ever so much better suited for the job, groomed for it since birth, etc. Aforementioned brother perished in WWI and Rupert reluctantly relinquishes his ambition to be an archaeologist/anthropologist/One of Those White Dudes Who Spends His time Backpacking Across Exotic Locales and Writing Books About It. Instead, he settles down to run the estate – but lo! The estate is on the brink of financial ruin.
- Personable canine companion, check. I am a sucker for dogs. No lie, half the time I like the Stark kids’ wolves better than the kids themselves. Rupert’s dog happens to be the most unbearable snob – refuses to interact with servants or enter the servants’ quarters – and becomes instantly attached to Anna. Because she is Not A Servant, she is a countess obviously.
Ibbotson evokes the world of turn-of-century Russian aristocracy, as well as interwar England, with great piquancy and care, and it’s rare you find that caliber of world-building in a romance novel. That it’s a romance novel is in no doubt – the hero and heroine suffer a grave and completely avoidable misunderstanding before eventually sorting it out in the Final Reconciliation. That part did seem contrived – almost as if she had to separate them, make them pine for each other, because it’s what the genre demanded. It certainly didn’t feel like what the narrative or the characters demanded. It didn’t mar my enjoyment of the work as a whole, but when I went on to inhale two more of Ibbotson’s book within a week of this one, I began to identify some patterns that troubled me, which I will discuss below.
The Reluctant Heiress (1982) and The Morning Gift (1993) were both published after A Countess Below Stairs (1981), as was A Company of Swans(1985), which was my introduction to Ibbotson. There’s still a few I haven’t read yet, but I doubt I’ll like them as much as Countess. So, disturbing patterns in Ibbotson’s work. To wit:
- All her heroines are well-read, unpractical, idealistic, flighty – but a very fetching brand of flightiness, to be sure. Ibbotson likes to describe the heroine as “barely out of her teens.” She is invariably a diminutive bookish waif with no bosom to speak of, and her archrival for the hero’s affections? A majestic, statuesque older woman whose beauty is decidedly of the flashier, Helen of Troy variety. In the context of our culture that already fetishizes youth, penalizing older women both for displaying visible signs of age and for attempting to stave off such signs, this kind of . Plus the dichotomy between quiet fawnlike beauty and loud, dazzling beauty is a little too neat and consistent to be accidental, and it rubs be the wrong way. Ok I just reread this paragraph and I realized that to call Anna “unpractical” is a misrepresentation, since she is actually a very efficient housemaid. She’s also a very imaginative housemaid though? By which I mean she’s given to flights of fancy in a way someone brought up in less opulent circumstances would probably not have had the opportunity to become.
- With respect to villains and romantic rivals: at first I thought they were all insufferably vain, but that’s not it. It’s more that they prize the gifts their Creator endowed them with – beauty, music, athleticism – above the well-being of actual living breathing human beings, and there is a not-so-subtle commentary here about the value of interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, Ibbotson seems to be saying, your life is only as meaningful as the people you share it with. Which is not at all a message I object to; the problematic part is the way it’s delivered – like the villains are cautionary tales, almost. I will give her this much: She is aces at capturing the rationalizations we make to justify our selfish ends – “I’m doing all this for [my beloved],” goes the refrain in the villain’s head, even as it’s obvious to the reader that the beloved is only of instrumental value to him/her.
- In one scene in The Morning Gift a cantankerous old caretaker inveighs the heavens for “the girl who can save this place,” and indeed it is alarming how often the central romantic pairing is framed as a development that “saves” crumbling estates from financial ruin – English ones, Austrian ones, all kinds of estates. Sometimes she brings the money to the marriage and sometimes he does, and sometimes it’s the idea (or reality) of children that recalls him to his duty. The thing is that Ibbotson, as a rule, writes light fluffy YA romances so the question of why she’s so invested in the survival of the landed gentry as a social institution is left mostly unexamined.
- Sometimes I’m not sure if she’s lambasting certain views (voiced by unsympathetic characters), or tacitly acknowledging their validity? One would think that this being a contemporary romance, people ought to marry for love right? But you have an older woman reminiscing about her wedding night – which by all accounts sounds as bad as Cersei’s – and this is what she says: “Oak trees remained unfelled, parkland was tended because girls like her gritted their teeth. It is for England that one marries.” And I’m not sure that anything in the book actually subverts this assertion. Because the heroine does marry for love, sure; yet the main reason she and the hero are compatible is because – unlike his fiance! – she genuinely cares for his estate and his servants and his tenants. I see what you did there, Eva Ibbotson.
- What is up with the fixation on long hair? At one point Rupert spies Anna in a hair salon preparing to be shorn of her glorious golden tresses and – this is not creepy at all – walks in there and wrests the scissors out of the stylist’s hands. I understand that back in the day a woman with her hair down was like an invitation to sex, because in public they wore their (long, long) hair in elaborate updos, but wasn’t that more 17th or 18th century, not early 20th?
So originally I meant to read all her books and do a mega-post and squee about them, but as you can see it didn’t work out that way. You mustn’t think I love her any less just because I criticize her ideology; her books are so easy to sink your teeth into, it’s marvelously pleasant. They’re formulaic but I am not a girl who objects, on principle, to formulaic authors (cf. my Agatha Christie collection), since that is a dumb thing to do because everything is formulaic. But whenever I get like 4/5 of the way through and the Grave Misunderstanding That Sunders Our Hero From Our Heroine rears its ugly head again, you will forgive me if a resigned sigh escapes me.