I love Eva Ibbotson’s work.
She writes in a way that draws me in and holds me there straight through to the last page. The worlds she portrays are beautiful and full of wonder, even as her characters live through unspeakable tragedies and struggles. They bring me joy and hope in such a way as few storytellers can. Ever since I first discovered her romances, they’ve been staples in my life. I almost always have at least one volume somewhere close on hand.
Ibbotson’s romances have the air of fairy tales: beautiful worlds and heroes and heroines who brave the world with a kind of fierce determination that is rare in reality. I’m well aware that if one chose to analyze the world and characters critically, they might seem simplistic, naive and childish. The main characters are too good; the villains are too evil. Characters frequently end up in situations that in real life would likely end in darkness and tragedy; in Ibbotson’s stories, they are rescued because that is what they deserve.
If I had to pinpoint the appeal of Ibbotson’s writing, it would be that simplicity. You always know whom to love and whom to hate when you’re reading an Ibbotson book. Yet that isn’t quite right either: you don’t hate, because Ibbotson’s characters rarely do. Simple on the surface, the complexity of real life is often still there beneath the surface. The protagonists make critical errors; the antagonists often simply have their own agendas that are in conflict with the protagonists’, as opposed to being “out to get them” or some similar construct. Friendship is strong and love is true in Ibbotson’s world, though not everyone is deserving of our love. People make mistakes but those mistakes are never fatal to their happiness.
My introduction to Ibbotson’s stories came in my childhood, earlier than I can remember properly. Was it Which Witch? or The Secret of Platform 13, or yet another book? I cannot even remember. Instead of recounting my introduction to Ibbotson’s stories, I’ll recount my re-introduction as a teenager, perhaps aged 16 or so.
This was still in the midst of the Harry Potter craze. An American author had sued J.K. Rowling for plagiarism. I heard it mentioned that Ibbotson had just as strong—if not stronger—case, owing to the parallels between the magical portal in platform 13 of King’s Cross Station in The Secret of Platform 13 and platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter series. I heard that Ibbotson had publicly declared that she had no interest in anything but commending Rowling for her work, stating that all authors borrow from one another.
I fell in love at once. I didn’t even know the name Eva Ibbotson at the time. I recognized the title of the book The Secret of Platform 13; I could vaguely recall that it was about a young witch looking for a boy who had been kidnapped and then swapped places with another boy 13 years prior, because the secret portal only opened every 13 years. I found the book in our collection and reread it. It was like stepping into a childhood memory: the details were still there, but it didn’t excite me as it used to—the magic of childhood was gone.
That didn’t deter me. At the time, I had been rereading Blyton’s Famous Five and Keene’s Nancy Drew books that I had loved as a child: I was well aware that books I loved as a child are almost always better in my memory than in reality. Yet this would not do as a conclusion for Ibbotson. I wanted to love Ibbotson’s books as much if not more than I loved Harry Potter. I looked up Ibbotson’s bibliography and realized to my surprise that I had not only read other books of hers—I knew that we owned them. I read Which Witch? and Journey to the River Sea. That last read sold me. I cannot recall whether that was the first time I had read it. Perhaps I had, but if I had, then it was one of those rare books which was better in reality than in my memory.
I finished that book, sighed and was satisfied. Journey to the River Sea was Ibbotson’s masterpiece that outdid the Harry Potter books for me. That was enough.
It was not the end, though. Some time later, my mother bought a copy of A Countess Below Stairs, read it and handed it to me. I remember this exchange happening without a word. She handed me a book; I saw that it was an Ibbotson, took it to my room and started to read.
It was magical. That book took me to a world of wonder, beauty and magic in the way that stories seemed unable to do since leaving childhood behind. I was entranced. With my love of that one book, my love and appreciation for Journey to the River Sea grew as well.
At the time, I’m not sure whom I thought Ibbotson was. I wonder if I thought of her as a young woman, sheltered and ignorant of life’s horrors; an idealist who only peripherally knew how devastating real life could be without understanding. Of course, I can now only speculate, because shortly after that I learned of her early life. I learned that she had been an Austrian Jewish refugee to England at Hitler’s takeover. You see, that knowledge shaped my understanding of Ibbotson so solidly that I cannot remember what I imagined to be true of her before. Every Ibbotson protagonist forces herself onward, refusing to bow to the crushing devastation of reality and persevering. Knowing what Ibbotson lived through, I began to see not idealism but reality in those characters’ awe-inspiring strength and will. It was this fact that ultimately cemented Ibbotson’s stories as comforting reads in my life, because even in my most cynical moments, the hope in her books inspires me.
Ibbotson passed away over four years ago in October 2010. Articles went up left and right for several months adulating her work and proclaiming her genius as a writer. I was just starting my graduate studies at the time and it scarcely occurred to me to make some sort of tribute in her honor. Now I shall remedy that. Please join me in comments to discuss Ibbotson’s work, even if you don’t enjoy it as much as I do (even if you don’t enjoy it at all, for that matter).
This is the Eva Ibbotson tour. Currently, I plan to do all her major romances. Madensky Square, I know, is not usually on this list as it is out of print. It is, however, my favorite, and so I am including it on the list. In the future, I may branch out to her other books; at present, I am excluding them simply because I have no access to them. Additionally, I’ve already written one review of A Countess Below Stairs, which can be found here.
Listed in the order in which I intend to post (subject to change):
- A Company of Swans
- Magic Flutes (also called The Reluctant Heiress)
- A Countess Below Stairs (also called A Secret Countess)
- A Song for Summer
- The Morning Gift
- Madensky Square