Review: Historical Fiction · Review: Romance

Book Review: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

If I continue to publish my opinions and reviews, you will definitely hear me praise Eva Ibbotson a lot. She writes like I imagine an angel would sing: pure, innocent and beautiful, making you see and love everything in the world not in spite of but with its faults. It’s a talent that can’t be rivaled, and I grieved her passing as sincerely as anyone ever could mourn a person one never knew in person. Because when I’m exhausted or sad, or the world has just lost its luster, I know that all I need is one of her books and the world will be beautiful again. Her writing is gentle and sweet and so very easy to read. It takes no effort or thought, because she opens your imagination without you having to put any effort into it.

Now, I’m usually the first to criticize an author for characters that are too fluffy. You know that thing I said in the introduction about not talking about books I dislike? I’m very tempted to break that right now (but I won’t, because if I break a rule while it’s fresh on my mind there’s really no hope for me). There are certain unnamed authors who don’t know how to round out characters. Their characters are beautiful, intelligent, and have no faults that don’t contribute to the plot.

Eva Ibbotson’s characters are intelligent, and always beautiful in your mind’s eye. They’re also usually so very good that you can’t believe there would ever be a person like that in real life. And yet you love them, because she makes absolutely everything beautiful, from the background characters to the scenery to the very prose.

But A Countess Below Stairs, also republished as The Secret Countess, holds a very special place in my heart. Why? I read it first. Not first of all her books—I’d read children’s books, like Which Witch, The Secret of Platform 13 and Journey to the River Sea—but first of her romances. In fact, I was in a phase where I had tried to read several romances, concluded that romances were little more than unrealistic fantasies bordering on porn for women, and promptly stopped trying. That was when my mother bought this book and handed it to me. As I mentioned in my introduction, I tend to read things before I denounce them (especially if I want to denounce them). So I read it.

Do I really need to tell you that I fell in love?

Anna is a Russian countess, who’s come to England as a refugee with her mother and brother and living with her British governess to escape the Russian Revolution; her once-wealthy family lost everything, and is working frantically both to keep her brother in school and to keep him unaware of how bad things really are. Rupert is an English earl, just returned from the Great War and finding himself in charge of the earldom in place of his elder brother: something he never expected nor wanted. Rupert’s engagement to a wealthy heiress means that his the household staff is frantic for extra hands to prepare the household for his homecoming and then the wedding. Anna is desperate for work, and the only job available to a well-educated foreign refugee is that of a temporary maidservant.

The premise is terribly cliched, yes. And yet it was not at all like what I expected.

Of course, I already knew the prose would reach unrivaled levels of beauty and carry me away into the magical world of Eva Ibbotson. But she doesn’t even use most of the devices that most authors seem to delve into with glee. If anything, she determinedly defies expectations. For instance, I expected that—like most books of this sort—Anna’s identity would be a secret, and a revelation of sorts. And in a way it was, but all the people to whom it should matter the most figure it out quite quickly. It takes Rupert maybe 3 conversations to figure out that she’s from the upper class, but the butler and the housekeeper figure it out immediately. At a glance. And they try to dissuade her, but really, they need the help and Anna needs the work.

What’s more, Anna doesn’t magically know how to do housework despite her upbringing: she has a “most beautiful book” called the Household Compendium in 3 volumes. And this becomes a running joke when all the rest of the servants grow sick of hearing about these books, and at several points question the validity or modernity of the book.

Amazingly, their trauma from the war isn’t overwhelming. In this sort of setting, I generally expect to see a depiction of the horrors of war. Usually, in a romance, it seems to be used to tie the main characters together. And while this book certainly doesn’t downplay the horror of war, nor does it in any way dominate the story. Yes, Rupert is traumatized from his experience in the military. Yes, Anna is grieving the loss of her father, her home and everything she once knew. But Anna’s joy at the return of people dear to her that she thought dead is equally great, and ultimately the book lets you remember the joy over the pain.

The love between Rupert and Anna is delicately woven, but by the time it gets acknowledged, it’s too strong to be broken.

One thing I truly adore about this book is the scene in which the two main characters realize that they’re in love. Without getting too spoilery, it’s a very (nonsensically and humorously) emotional scene—and not once does the word “love” get mentioned. In fact, the word itself doesn’t come up until they admit to each other how they feel, having each come to terms with their own feelings.

Lastly but definitely not least, this book cannot be mentioned without mentioning the background characters. It’s not just Anna and Rupert’s families, whose involvement is to be expected. It’s the servants in the earl’s household, each quirky and lovable in his or her own way; it’s the other blue bloods, from the snooty to the democratic; it’s the ladies and gentlemen of the Russian club. It’s an entire community, and some characters are only present for a page—and yet they stay with you, irrevocably part of this story, making it complete. Most importantly of all, there’s little Ollie Byrne, this most adorable little girl who is one of the most beautiful people in your mind not in spite of but with her limp and all.

This isn’t a book that takes a long time to read. It is effortless and quick. But it’s a book I can read over and over again, and derive strength from every single time.

I would unhesitatingly give this a 10/10.

Buy the book here:
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