Title: A Countess Below Stairs (UK Title: The Secret Countess)
Author: Eva Ibbotson
Genre: Historical, Romance, Young Adult
Publisher: Speak (US) / Young Picador (UK)
Publication Date: 1981
Paperback: 400 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel.
Why did we read this book: We are ashamed to say that this is our very first Eva Ibbotson book! We have of course heard wonderful things about this author and her young adult work, but it took until our Young Adult Appreciation Month to finally pick up one of her novels – and we decided on the Cinderella retelling, A Countess Below Stairs.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
After the russian revolution turns her world topsy-turvy, Anna, a young russian countess, has no choice but to flee to england. penniless, Anna hides her aristocratic background and takes a job as servant in the household of the esteemed westerholme family, armed only with an outdated housekeeping manual and sheer determination. Desperate to keep her past a secret, Anna is nearly overwhelmed by her new duties—not to mention her instant attraction to rupert, the handsome earl of westerholme. to make matters worse, rupert appears to be falling for her as well. As their attraction grows stronger, Anna finds it more and more difficult to keep her most dearly held secrets from unraveling. And then there’s the small matter of rupert’s beautiful and nasty fiancée. . . .
Thea: This was my introduction to Eva Ibbotson, and if the rest of her books are anywhere near as lovely as Countess, then I foresee a huge dent in my wallet in the near future. This reimagining of Cinderella with a swingin’ twenties-ish, Russian twist was absolutely delightful. I think I fell in love with Ms. Ibbotson’s writing from the first sentence – as I was telling Ana, Eva Ibbotson’s writing is a young adult romance in the style of Lisa Kleypas’s wallflower series; it has the same sparkling characters, detailed settings, and happily ever after fairy-tale feel. A Countess Below Stairs is light and bubbly like a good champagne – sparkling, heady, and irresistibly delicious, even if it isn’t exactly deep.
Ana:Thea read Countess first and emailed me to say that the book was “like Lisa Kleypas for teens”. Needless to say, I dropped everything at once and started to read it. And I loved it. If I had to use one word to describe this book I would go with: Delicious. Countess is an abso-freaking-lutely delicious book. From the fairytale-ish prologue right to the all-encompassing happy end, via absurdly hilarious situations and enough poignant moments to make one sigh with happiness, Countess is a gem of a novel.
On the Plot:
Anna Grazinsky is a darling daughter, firstborn of two doting parents. And, she also happens to be an unspoiled child, who grows into a beautiful countess. When war and then revolution strikes her home in St. Petersburg in 1917, however, Anna’s comfortable, loving world is cast asunder. First, her father passes away on the frontlines of battle in the war; and then shortly after, her family is forced to flee Russia or face a terrible fate of imprisonment or death at the hands of the rising Bolsheviks. The Grazinskys leave their family fortune of jewels in the hands of a trusted servant, but are brutally betrayed when the housemaid seemingly disappears with the Grazinsky treasure in tow. Anna and her mother are forced to rely on the hospitality of Anna’s former governess, the similarly doting and understanding Mrs. Pinny, and take refuge in her London home. Soon, however, Anna grows restless. Unwilling to simply accept Pinny’s ample generosity, Anna takes a temporary job as a maidservant in the country estate of the mysterious Earl of Rochester. Though she knows not a thing about housekeeping or the machinations of English servants, Anna is set on something with herself, and armed with the (ridiculously dated) encyclopedic tome, Selina Strickland’s Domestic Compendium, she feels that her determination and spirit can handle anything. And, as usual, Anna wins over all of those in her exuberant presence.
When the handsome Earl of Rochester returns home from his tour during the war, recovered fully from his injuries, he can’t help but take notice of the strange new Russian maid that has captured the hearts of everyone in his household. And though the Earl, Rupert, is engaged to a beautiful heiress who nursed him to health after his crash, he cannot help but start to notice the differences between the calculating, cruel Muriel and the warm, vivacious Anna…
Thea: Ah, l’amour. One cannot read A Countess Below Stairs without a huge silly smile plastered on one’s face, and I certainly was no exception. YES, everything was so quaintly predictable, the characters all unquestionably good or unflinchingly evil – but sometimes a little romantic escape is exactly what you need. And if you’re in the mood for a frothy, sweet romance, then this is the book you need to read.
The plotting is simple – a displaced heroine with a heart of gold strikes out to make it on her own, and finds her true love in the process. But it’s so much more than the simple love story – for Countess is also an ode to the glitz and glamour following the WWI London, and a love letter to the romantic ways of the displaced Russian aristocracy. Some of my favorite scenes in this book were with Anna and her family members, dancing, singing, eating and drinking, and sharing tales of their beloved homeland. Ms. Ibbotson manages to bring the era to life with her descriptions and wordsmithing, creating a lovely – if somewhat deceptively happy – look at two very different cultures. (Though, to be fair, in balance of the idealized vision of post-war London and the Russian nobility, there is the nefarious glimpse of a precursor to the intolerance of WWII with the rise of the Eugenics movement, of course advocated by the two villains of the tale, Muriel and “Doctor” Lightbody. Hint: They are anti-semites too)
Also, I would be remiss not to mention how damn well Ms. Ibbotson writes. Anna feels completely Russian, reflected even down to the cadence of her speech. It was impossible to put this book down once I started, and I truly cannot believe that I hadn’t picked up one of Ms. Ibbotson’s works before this.
Ana: Eva Ibbotson does something rather incredible with Countess: she creates a fairytale that is still deeply seated in reality. Anna’s story is whimsical and happy but there are enough glimpses of life in England and Russia after the First World War that is definitely real and painful for the changes in the lifestyle and the loss of lives in both countries. I absolutely loved how the author incorporated these elements in a story that is otherwise so light and funny.
I am a fan of historical romances and it was welcoming to read one that is NOT a Regency or set in Victorian times and the early 20th century proves to be an incredibly rich period to set a book in. Eva Ibbotson manages to bring an era to life by showing the early stages of new technologies like the telephone or cars. And the descriptions of day to day life are so vivid, it was almost like I was there.
An aside: I live in England, as I was reading Countess, I mentioned it to one of my co-workers. As it just so happens, her roommate is of Russian descent and his grandparents, escaped from Russia in the very same year that Anna’s family did in the book, in the very same manner and route! All they managed to bring with them were a couple of heirlooms: a silver bowl and a silver jug. She told me how they struggled with poverty but never even considered selling the pieces – and they now adorn his parent’s house. This piece of information made me love the book even more.
Also, it helps that the romance was so sweet and endearing. It doesn’t take a lot of the pages in the novel, it is a rather subtle romance with a few encounters here and there but oh boy, when Rupert and Anna are together it is ever so romantic in a very gentle manner.
On the Characters:
Thea: As with the plot, the characters too are basically all fall into two very distinct categories: the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Anna, heroine and displaced Countess, is unquestionably, unerringly Good. She’s beautiful, and kind, and despite her rich upbringing she is anything but spoiled – she’s also tenacious, smart, and graceful. Even though Anna by all accounts should be a sickeningly sweet Mary Sue, even my jaded eye could not help but fall in love with this passionate young woman! And, I think the observation made by her the Butler, Mr. Proom, is the reason why:
“I can’t help wondering why they accept her, Proom? They must know she comes from a totally different world.”
“Yes, my lord. They do.” He paused, considering how much to put into words. “Perhaps it’s not generally realized that what a servant dreads is not hard work, it’s boredom. Housework can be extremely monotonous. And Anna…well, you can say a lot about Anna, but not that she is boring.”
Indeed. Anna might be sweet as pie, but she’s also a spunky, hilarious heroine. And though many a Mary Sue is an irritating yawn to read, Anna certainly is not boring.
Similarly, her prince charming, Rupert, is a sweet, dashing hero – his only failing being his unerring sense of honor – even when he discovers exactly what his fiancee Muriel is, he cannot break his engagement out of his deep sense of honor. Rupert is dramatic and funny in his own way, but he’s not really the star of this book.
The other true standout characters in my opinion, were the Honorable Ollie and the evil Muriel. Ollie, that is Olive Jane Byrne, is the youngest child of the neighboring Viscount Byrne, good friends of Rupert’s. Ollie’s mother died in giving birth to her, and ever since, Ollie has struggled with illness and physical challenges. When she was born premature and her health in dire straits, she surpassed all expectations, pulling through and growing into a determined young girl. Her stepmother, the American Minna Byrne, immediately became beloved by all four of her new husband’s children when she joined the family – especially by Ollie, after Minna stayed by her side, traveling long distances to be with her after Ollie contracted tuberculosis of the hip at the age of 5. Ollie is a true delight – at the ripe age of 10 in Countess, she is a wise young thing, but incredibly endearing in her hopes and dreams, and her budding friendship with Anna. The Honorable Ollie is a showstopper.
And then, of course, there’s Muriel. The beautiful, full-figured, rich Muriel Hardwicke is as wicked as they come, but in a very sneaky, subversive way. Her tactics in Countess to ensure she gets the wedding of her dreams are works of manipulative genius and almost all rooted in her devotion to the Eugenics doctrine of her beloved Dr. Lightbody. That’s to say, Muriel is of the unflinching belief that the weak or infirm should be rooted out, such that the beautiful, hale and healthy procreate for the good of humanity. As such, she refuses to eat certain foods, consume any alcohol, and she demands her surroundings live up to her standards of human perfection – matching footmen of at least 6′ tall, a riddance to any incompetent or handicapped servants below stairs, and, worst of all, her determination to keep the “crippled” Ollie out of her wedding. (Also, did I mention she’s anti-semitic?) Yeah, she’s ridiculously eeeeevil – but every fairy tale needs a villain, and Muriel fulfills this role perfectly.
Ana: For all the vividness of the setting and the fabulous writing, the greatest strength of Countess lies in its cast of wonderful characters. Every single one of them was a great pleasure to read about – the Downstairs characters and the Upstairs characters, from the footman to the Dowager , all of them had at least one line, one paragraph in which to shine. Yes, most of them were Good and Honourable but I did not care one iota about the lack of shades of grey because they were all full of heart and warmth.
As Thea said, Anna, the protagonist, could have been an unbearably annoying Mary Sue character but she just isn’t and for me, this is due to the way Eva Ibbotson infuses her character with a sense of humour and for the absence of the Martyr Complex ever present in stories like that. Anna never once feels like she needs to endure the suffering because there is no suffering. By accepting her fate and her new circumstances, Anna decides to make the best of it and the aforementioned humour (like, how she is adamant about following the advice of The Domestic Servant’s Compendium by Selina Strickland), balances what could have been a boring character.
Plus, another aspect that seemed unique to me, is how Anna doesn’t “save” or disrupt the lives of the other characters creating a new reality in which she is the “saviour” like many fairytales – instead she becomes a part of an already established routine. Yes, she adds some flavour to it and makes a mark, but it not as though everybody in that household were frozen in time or unhappy and Anna came to change them all.
As for the other characters, how can one not love the wise 10 year old Honourable Ollie? The title alone made me giggle every time she made an appearance and she is the protagonist of some of the most emotional scenes in the book. Likewise, Proom the Butler has a major role to play as do Rupert’s cousins – the way they are woven in the story, at first appearing randomly until the moment where they have to play their part in the hilarious, ludicrous climax of the story. There is also a very complicated relationship between Rupert’s best friend Tom and a Jewish girl Susie, and that secondary romance is as beautiful and aw-worthy and the primary one between Rupert and Anna.
Lastly, but not least, we have Muriel, the villain. Very rarely do I get this overwhelming need to jump inside a book and strangle a fictional character but Muriel is definitely one of them. What makes her the worst kind of villain is how she is evil without really being evil. All of her actions are imbued with a sense of righteousness and she is virtually blind to all the pain she causes around her. This is what makes her even more scary and abhorrent; the fact that she doesn’t believe that she is inflicting anything other than order for the good of humanity. Muriel is an ugly character especially when compared to all others and completely, totally hated her. Which of course, only goes to show how good a writer Eva Ibbotson is.
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Thea: My first Ibbotson novel went over with huge success – the light, romantic A Countess Below Stairs is the perfect escapist read, and was just what I was in the mood for. It might be a bit simplistic, a bit predictable, but it is written with such wit and sparkle that I cannot help but love it. Absolutely recommended – this is a quintessential summer read. And I cannot wait to read more from Ms. Ibbotson’s backlist!
Ana: Great writing style, sweet heart-warming romance, a cast of enchanting characters in a fabulous setting and infused with whimsical, peculiar, hilarious details: this is a Book Made For Ana. It reminded me of vintage Julia Quinn; of summer breezes, stolen kisses and bear hugs. It is comfort reading at its best and I wholeheartedly recommend it. And I too, am, prepared to go binge reading this author’s backlist.
Thea: I loved the part where Anna takes Ollie on a trip around London to raise her young spirits.
“Do you know what is best of all? When one has been hurt or saddened, then suddenly to turn everything upside down and be very happy. So I think we should have an absolutely beautiful afternoon — an afternoon that you can lie in bed and remember for years and years.”
“Can we do that?” asked Ollie.
“Most certainly,” said Anna.
Anna was as good as her word. It was into an enchanted world that she now lead Ollie Byrne […] Pinny’s house was only the beginning. Anna had run upstairs to change into her only “good” dress — a green velveteen which Kira had sent from Paris. The Countess Grazinsky gathered up shawls, leaking packets of tea and lorgnettes, and when Pinny was satisfied that the little girl was properly rested they set off for the Russian Club.
For the rest of her childhood, if anyone asked Ollie what she wanted to be when she grew up, she always replied: “A Russian.”
The scene continues to tell of Anna’s ancestors and relatives, of customs and food and drink and dancing. It’s a lovely, lovely part of the book.
Ana:THEA! I had this as my favourite quote as well! Fine. Since you went with poignant/sweet, I will go with funny. This is a quote from when Rupert finds out that Anna is a Countess and that she was so rich as to play with famous jewellery, like the Infamous Crown of Kazan, which she once let her brother Petya play with.
“You wished to dismiss me because Petya had cut his teeth on the Crown of Kazan?”
“All right, I know it sounds absurd but -”
“Absurd? It is crazy! Sergei has always said that the English aristocracy have brains like very small aspirins and now I believe it. In any case, the Crown of Kazan was very heavy. Niannka was always angry with Mama when she wore it because it gave her a headache.”
“Niannka? Is that the lady with the mummified finger?”
Anna dimpled, but her eyes were sad, for Niannka’s desertion had hurt more than anything in the dark days of the revolution. “Yes. It was the finger of St Nino, who lived in the monastery at Varzia, where she was born. He has many fingers, that one, perhaps three thousand, the monks are such rogues!”
Thea: 7 – Very Good
Ana: 8- Excellent
Reading Next: The Giver and Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry