Well, this is it, I’ve finished Eva Ibbotson’s YA ouvre. Eva Ibbotson writes romance novels set in the early twentieth century, and they are invariably heartwarming, brimming with sensational goings-on and dramatic reversals. My god, I make it sound like a soap opera. But there is an insuppresible effervescence about her stories that renders them joyous rather than pathetic, so that even if I disagree with her politics I still care about her characters. She reminds me of C.S. Lewis that way. In fact, her prose shares a much closer affinity to Lewis than, say, John Green: it’s not snarky or gritty, it doesn’t aim to deconstruct anything, it plays all the tropes straight. I think in a lot of ways Young Adult Literature is still living in J.D. Salinger’s shadow. The problem with this – leaving aside for the moment how much I hate Catcher in the Rye – is that even when YA authors produce a story with overtly fantastical elements, it still feels postmodern (cf. Kristin Cashore, Philip Pullman). Eva Ibbotson’s work makes me feel the same way Anne of Green Gables or A Little Princess does – that is to say, comfortable; which is not a synonym for uncomplicated since there is plenty to unpack, but there is no angst in the sense that modern teenagers understand the word. There’s just … problems that the protagonist encounters.
Our protagonist, Ellen, is a young British woman who accepts a post at an unconventional boarding school in the German countryside. She arrives on campus to find a turtle zooming around on wheels. Eventually she falls for the guy who made them, because why wouldn’t you fall for a guy who makes wheels for handicapped turtles right? Bonus points if he’s living incognito/running away from his past/really rich and famous but she doesn’t know it. Anyway, while Ellen and Marek are great, I do think the ensemble cast is a bit weaker than in previous Ibbotson books. There are all these faculty and students and villagers plus a bunch of random people from the Viennese opera scene, and the only ones I can recall by name are Ellen’s and Marek’s exes. (By contrast, I was so concerned about the fate of the secondary characters in A Countess Below Stairs that I reread the final few pages to make sure they were all accounted for.) None of the kids had personalities to speak of. Like, I only noticed Leon because I have a weakness for insufferably arrogant twats who turn out to be deeply vulnerable little boys hungry for affection (cf. The Avengers’ Loki). Leon becomes much more palatable – in fact he becomes outright endearing – when he starts hero-worshipping Marek.
So Ellen and Marek’s grand romance is put on hold because NAZIS. Which achieves the desired effect, I guess? ie. prolonging the suspense. After all, there is only one way the marriage plot can be resolved, and that is the nuptial payoff. On the way there, though, I have a couple comments to make:
(1) Ibbotson has written yet another novel about conscientious gentiles courageously defying the prejudices of their day by standing by their Jewish friends. And yet the focus is never on the Jews themselves. The scene when Marek returns from South America to attend Isaac’s concert – only to discover that Isaac has been hauled off to a concentration camp – is practically a carbon copy of the scene in The Morning Gift where Quin finds out that Ruth’s father has been removed from the university faculty. In both cases you have a male protagonist who is conveniently returning from an extended trip abroad (in an “exotic” locale, so news from the Continent would have been hard to come by), who is outraged by how the Reich treats one of his Jewish friends. Yes, the moral outrage is genuine. But it’s so clean; if it was this easy to stand up to the Nazis, 75% of Europe would warrant a place in the Righteous Among Nations. My issue with Ibbotson is not that she doesn’t depict the rise of the Third Reich realistically; my issue is one of representation. When we focus on how Hitler’s policies were so abhorrent to Aryan aristocrats like Marek or British peers like Quin, it feels disrespectful. It feels like we’re silencing the victims. Which, to be fair, Ibbotson was herself Jewish and The Morning Gift is about a Viennese Jewish girl (albeit one who is not religious and whose family has been mostly assimilated). Obviously I’m not arguing her books are anti-Semitic! What I am arguing, I think, is that a book’s commercial success depends on a variety of factors, and if you write about a character who is an ethnic/racial/religious minority you’re much more likely to be shuffled into a “niche” market. Remember Tom and Susie from A Countess Below Stairs? They were minor characters; Tom, the heir to a great estate, wants to marry Susie even though she’s Jewish and this is the 1920’s. Tolerance, it seems, is the cardinal virtue in our liberal age. Yet A Countess Below Stairs is not about Susie, just as A Song for Summer is not about Isaac; as, indeed, Schindler’s List is not about a Jew but instead about the man who saves them, Oskar Schindler. It’s curious, isn’t it, how we like to tell stories about tolerant gentiles? What I worry about is when the Jews – or the gays, or the African-Americans – become instrumental to the story, merely a means of establishing the protagonist’s liberal credentials. Again, this is not a criticism of Eva Ibbotson per se but of a worrying tendency that she happens to embody.
(2) I’ve written before on why I find Ibbotson’s treatment of older women distasteful. In three of her four novels, the youthful heroine displaces a much older previous love interest – but not because the other woman is middle-aged or ugly, oh no! When Marek declines to resume his relationship with Brigitta, she says, “It’s because I’m getting old. It’s because I’m nearly forty.” This accusation is meant to be discredited by her petulance in uttering it; we are meant to believe, basically, that “It wasn’t because she was young that he wanted Ellen.” It’s because Ellen’s beautiful inside, you see. And I’m not denying that she is! Ellen is a lovely young lady; Brigitta is a diva and a bully. I am only observing what a passing strange coincidence it is that ALL the young ladies have beautiful personalities and ALL the women in the their thirties or forties are bitter and cruel and self-absorbed. Finally, I love it when the ageism is compounded by sizesim: Ellen, in her own words, goes to the opera to “watch that overweight cow sing.” The cow in question being Brigitta, the most highly regarded soprano in Austria.
(3) As invested as Ibbotson is in the institution of traditional marriage + babies, I do have to give her credit for her treatment of female sexuality. In A Company of Swans there was premarital sex. In A Song for Summer there is extramarital sex. In both cases the experience is described as AMAZEBALLS (which is unlikely since they were virgins but whatever, good on you girls for doing it). I think for Ibbotson sex is sacred, not because marriage is a sacrament, but because sex without love is a kind of profanation? That’s why in The Morning Gift Ruth’s assignation with Heini ends in coitus interruptus – not because (as I believed at the time) she’s technically married to Quin, but because she doesn’t love Heini. It’s the same deal in A Song for Summer: Ellen and Kendrick have a marriage of convenience, but Ibbotson doesn’t let them consummate it. Ellen remains a virgin until she finally sleeps with Marek. And while I want to side-eye the concept of ~saving yourself~ for your true love, I have no problem getting behind the message that SEX IS SACRED. If only more people thought so!