Review: Historical Fiction · Review: Romance

Book Review: A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

This is part 1 of the Eva Ibbotson Tour. If you have not read the book, note that there will be some minor spoilers. Major spoilers begin half way through the Misunderstandings heading and are clearly marked.

Summary

Harriet grows up in a stifling household. Her father is a misogynist professor who teaches his daughter Greek and Latin to be of use to him, only to be scandalized by the thought of her going to university. Though intellectual and bright, Harriet is pulled out of school to keep her under the thumb of her father and aunt, safe from the “upstarts” who would dare to entertain thoughts of further education for her. She has nothing left but her dance classes, to which she applies herself with zeal. To her surprise, Harriet is noticed by a ballet company and is offered a job with them to tour in South America. Her father and aunt do not allow this, of course; but an encounter with a little boy from a crumbling home who seeks rescue from an elusive figure known only as the Boy on the Amazon gives her the courage to run away to join the ballet company.

Harriet finds the Boy very quickly—only he isn’t a boy at all anymore, but a man called Rom. An attraction quickly blooms between the two even as her father sends his choice of a suitor after her.

My History With This Book

This was the second or third Ibbotson romance that I read after A Countess Below Stairs and perhaps The Morning Gift. I enjoyed it, but ultimately it fell short of the other two. Its “flaw” was a very basic one: the attraction between the main characters is a touch too far on the side of lust rather than love for my taste.

Yet every time that I reread this book, for as long as I am lost in the pages, it carries me away and leaves me happy and satisfied.

I can generally rank Ibbotson’s romances into two categories: my favorites and my least favorites. I enjoy them all, don’t get me wrong—but this is the only way to rank them reliably. When I read any given book from the “favorites” category, it tends to become my favorite of them all; when I read any given book from the “least favorites” category, it becomes my favorite among the others in that category.

This one tends to fall into the “least favorites” category—unless I’ve read it recently, in which case it leaps into the favorites and stays there for a while before falling back down again until I read it again.

The moral is that it’s very difficult for me to rank Ibbotson’s books.

The Setting

There was no lovelier view in England, Harriet knew this. To her right, the soaring towers of King’s College Chapel and the immaculate lawns sloping down to the river’s edge; to her left, the blue and gold of the scillas and daffodils splashed in rich abundance between the trees of the Fellows’ Gardens.

So begins the novel, beginning to weave the beautiful picture of Cambridge that will become so integral to the characters.

The story is set in 1912 in Cambridge, England and Manaus, Brazil. I needn’t say much about the portrayal of Manaus: Ibbotson loves Brazil dearly and revels in writing about the plants, the people and the environment. If her portrayal of Brazil in this book pales in comparison to the likes of Journey to the River Sea, that is not a point against this book but a huge endorsement of the other. Ultimately, as a narrative, it makes perfect sense that A Company of Swans would have a paler portrayal of Brazil than Journey to the River Sea. In the latter, Brazil becomes the characters’ utopian home, the place where they belong. In this book, however, much as the characters enjoy Brazil, it is never home. Harriet and Rom both ran not to Manaus, but from Cambridge.

Cambridge is the utopia of this book. Harriet, though she suffers coldness and neglect in abundance, loves the town in which she has grown up right from the beginning. Rom too loved his childhood home dearly and deeply. Though they both ultimately run from the place to escape the harm done to them by their families, in their hearts they love the town and yearn to return.

The Protagonists: Harriet and Rom

As with all Ibbotson heroines, Harriet is the sort of person that people automatically like. From her father’s colleagues to her teachers to her fellow dancers, nearly everyone that she meets is sympathetic to her and willing to help her. Yet I consider Harriet to be less of a blindly “beloved” character than other Ibbotson heroines. Where Ibbotson’s women often lead difficult lives of hardship and tragedy, they tend to overcome those hardships with their heads held high, smiling and passionate. Specifically, I am comparing Harriet to Anna (A Countess Below Stairs), Ruth (The Morning Gift) and Tessa (Magic Flutes): two political refugees, one orphaned and forced to sell her home and everything she owns. Each of them comes to be beloved to everyone around them quite quickly. These three are given towards outbursts of their thoughts and emotions, which are most often optimistic and joyful. They all have their moments to be otherwise, of course, but those are discussions for other reviews.

While Harriet is certainly passionate, she is also described as solemn and quiet. She does not complain of her misfortunes, which are obvious nonetheless. Because she has been so obviously mistreated and neglected, people are rush to flock to her aid. Yes, they like her; but it is obvious that part of the reason for their compassion is knowledge of what her father and aunt put her through. She is adventurous; she begins to come out of her shell in Brazil, especially in Rom’s company. She also appears to be almost more willing to help out her new friends than they are to help her.

Rom is a wild child. He reminds me most of Guy (Magic Flutes), if Guy had a gentlemanly demeanor and a less volatile temper. Rom is described as dark and intelligent and utterly wild and out of control as a child. He is shown to run his businesses in Manaus with great respect for people, white or native. He speaks Portuguese fluently, favors employing natives and is extremely sensible, looking down upon luxury for luxury’s sake. This leads to a small red herring in the form of his laundry, which he is known to ship to and from England—because he owed the business owner a great debt. Rom loves plants and nature fiercely. In fact, all of his loves are long and true, to read between the lines. As far as one can see in the book, he has only ever loved one woman before Harriet. It is implied that he’s bedded many women (the implication is in the “many,” not in the “bedded,” which is overt), but he has only had one love. His feelings for Harriet are instantaneous and powerful, and lasting above all.

The Antagonists: Prof. Morton and Aunt Louisa

[Harriet’s parents] married and returned to the tall, gray house in Cambridge where the Professor’s elder sister Louisa—a gaunt and iron-haired spinster who kept house for him—welcomed with outer resignation and inner chagrin the foolish, useless girl who had ensnared her brother.

Unusual for Ibbotson, the antagonists are—in a true Cinderella scenario—Harriet’s father and aunt. To write of a cruel, abusive family is unusual for Ibbotson; when she does, it is usually a distant relative rather than immediate family. This is, to my knowledge, the only Ibbotson book in which a father and an aunt are so devastatingly destructive to the mental and physical health of a main character. There is no doubt as to their dispositions from the very beginning, where we are told the tragic story of Harriet’s late mother. The Professor (Harriet’s father) and his sister (Harriet’s Aunt Louisa) run a household which is designed to be proper above all. They subscribe to a definition of “proper” for women that would have been backwards even for the day and age in which the story takes place. The Professor teaches Harriet Greek and Latin, but only to be “of use” to him because the thought of women in universities is inappropriate to him. Aunt Louisa dictates Harriet’s life from her clothes down to her schedule. At the beginning of the story, they have already picked out a man for her to marry by their own standard. We get to know Harriet struggling between a rock and a hard place: her family and her fiance.

But this is only the beginning of their mistreatment of Harriet.

The Ensemble

Always without fail, Ibbotson’s books have a colorful ensemble of characters that surround the main story and make it that much more of a delight to read. A Company of Swans has no shortage of fascinating characters. The most important, of course, is Henry: Rom’s nephew whom Harriet comes across by chance one day, for whose sake Harriet decides that she must speak to Rom about saving Henry’s home. Henry is sweet and charming and lovable as any major child character in an Ibbotson romance is.

Edward Finch-Dutton, the man that Harriet’s father and aunt intend for her to marry, is an entomologist with very little on his mind besides his work. He comes off as extremely oblivious, but he is certainly not malicious. His storyline reflects this.

There are Simonova and Dubrov, who run the ballet company that Harriet joins: Simonova being the prima ballerina and Dubrov her manager and lover. Their interactions are a delight to watch, and the love between them, though unconventional and never smooth, is heartwarming.

There are several members of the ballet company that get their moment in the spotlight, but Marie-Claude is principle among them. She is described as a small, beautiful French girl on whom everyone dotes. She, however, is extremely practical and found her beauty extremely troublesome until she met her equally practical fiance Vincent. Though devoted to her fiance, she does dance for gentlemen in the century-old equivalent of strip dancing: this she does without Vincent’s knowledge, but for the money to support the dream that she and Vincent share.

There are several others: Aunt Louisa’s social group, Harriet’s friends, Rom’s friends and staff… The list goes on. Perhaps this ensemble is not as colorful or engaging as in some of he other books, but they are delightful nonetheless.

The Misunderstanding

As with all romances, the main driver of the tension is the conflict between the two leads. How does one establish such conflict when the leads are good, loving Ibbotson characters? —By way of misunderstandings, of course!

This is where A Company of Swans is the best starting point for a tour of Ibbotson’s romances, because this book milks that plot device for all its worth. This book is founded upon the Misunderstanding: so much so that it becomes a running theme within the text. Very early on, after they’ve already had their first misunderstanding, the subject comes up when Harriet and Rom are discussing the seeming imbalance between the beautiful Marie-Claude and her less beautiful Vincent:

“[Marie-Claude] gets very annoyed with people like Romeo. He should have got a chicken feather, she thinks, and laid it on Juliet’s lips to see if she was breathing, not rushed about and killed himself.”

Ah, I love that line. My favorite line in the book, and also my shared opinion regarding Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Because of this, chicken feathers become a theme. Why? Well…yep, Rom is a Romeo. (Not really—his full name is Romain. But I doubt that the similarity of the contraction was a coincidence.) Rom is, in fact, so much of a Romeo that there is barely a point in this book after he and Harriet meet that he isn’t in the throes of some kind of misunderstanding.

Which is not to say that Harriet is faultless. Harriet certainly does her fair share of jumping to conclusions. But instead of being a literal chicken feather scenario, the wires tend to get crossed between Harriet and Rom because they don’t communicate very effectively. (This isn’t a criticism of the writing. Plenty of people are this bad, or worse, at communication in real life.)

Here is where I have to stray into the territory of major spoilers.

Warning: major spoilers ahead!

Okay, let’s be specific. There are three major misunderstandings that drive the plot:

  • When Rom thinks that Harriet stayed behind to sleep with him.
  • Rom thinks that Harriet is in love romantically with Henry his brother, not platonically with Henry his little nephew.
  • Harriet thinks that Rom wants to marry his old flame Isobel (Henry’s mother) and Rom interprets the distance as Harriet valuing her dancing over his love.

To be fair, that last one is a bit of a double-misunderstanding. But the story bundles the whole mess into a major plot point, so I’m calling it one.

The thing is, the first two misunderstandings are very easily overcome. After the second, Rom even remarks that it was a situation of the chicken feather. Yet it takes quite a while after the third misunderstanding results in a separation before it occurs to him to wonder if perhaps there was another chicken feather situation afoot. But I always end up forgiving this, since the idea comes to him with the appearance of an actual chicken which the text itself describes as a deus ex machina, which delights me.

Does self-awareness excuse flimsy plot points? No, not usually. Yet this plot point relates to communication, which…well, let’s face it. These sorts of situations arise all the time in real life because of bad communication. All that Ibbotson did was give Rom a reason to go back and double check things, which turns a sad ending into a happy one.

My Analyses

On Rom and Misogyny:

Here is my major gripe with this story: Rom comes off as a misogynist. No, scratch that: by today’s standard, he is a misogynist, and very much so. We know for a fact that he’s slept around. Not blindly, not against anyone’s will, but he does have sexual experience. Perhaps only a handful of women, perhaps more.

The fact of the matter is that if Harriet had come to him wanting to sleep with him, that would have been a deal-breaker to him. He treats her with contempt when he thinks that that was her aim, but was going to sleep with her anyway. This comes at a point very early in their relationship, where they have only spoken a little. Rom is very much aware that he is attracted to Harriet, but Harriet still hasn’t quite made up her mind. It isn’t the premarital sex that bothered him. Later on in the story, when Harriet initiates such a relationship between them, he is more than willing to comply. I’m not sure what to make of this.

On one hand, we could give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he thought that she was going to use sex to manipulate him. Perhaps this is how the other women always were: prostituting themselves to him for favors or money. Perhaps it was simply that he didn’t think they knew each other well enough yet for such a relationship to be true. Yet he had already made up his mind to court Harriet.

The alternative is the idea that for a woman to deserve his romantic attentions, she had to be “pure.” Unfortunately, this does appear to be Rom’s thinking, for he is extremely reassured when he figures out that she is “pure.” By today’s standards, this is definitely misogynistic, though perhaps not quite so much so by the social standards of 1912.

1912. This is what it all ultimately comes down to: a time and place very removed from the world we know today. In this world, it was true that masculine sexuality was far more acceptable than its feminine counterpart. One cannot fault Rom for living with ideals instilled in him by his environment.

And ultimately, psychologically speaking, this matters to no one but Harriet. For Harriet’s purposes, this one misogynistic outlook is of no consequence, because it was one that she could live up to. Rom grows to love her and strives not to hold her back from life. His disposition is otherwise extremely open to Harriet: he cares for her opinions, for her desires, for her wishes and he honors them all, in the end.

Isobel: The Choice of Comfort over Love

When I was younger and first read this book, my mother did so as well. My mother offered me some of her thoughts on Isobel at the time. “I don’t think she was always like that,” my mother said of the uncaring, uncomprehending Isobel that we see in the novel. “But once she’d made the choice that she did, she had to become someone who could live with that choice, and she had to become the person that she became.”

I might be paraphrasing. At any rate, I adopted that idea and it became my interpretation of Isobel.

But not anymore. During this last read, I pondered some details that I never had before. For instance, Rom and Isobel’s love is described as “passionate and violent.” Isobel is, in fact, a little put out about getting Paradise Farm over Stavely Hall. She dreams of changing Paradise Farm to make it the social center, more than Stavely Hall.

I also noticed that Rom’s gentlemanly ways, his refinement, were only acquired later courtesy of Madeleine de la Tour, the aforementioned woman in the laundry business to whom Rom owed a debt.

My interpretation is now this: Isobel and Rom were experiencing that sort of passionate attraction that we only rarely get to enjoy. But the fact of that sort of attraction doesn’t last. I certainly don’t believe anything would have worked between Isobel and Rom after he lost Paradise Farm. Isobel is too used to comfort: she would not have made for a pleasant companion for a penniless husband finding his way. I’ve come to have my doubts as to whether a marriage would have worked between Isobel and Rom even if they had gotten Paradise Farm. Isobel’s love was social events and Rom’s was nature. The moment that the passion between them cooled, I imagine there would have been too many problems to count. Their love would have turned to resentment and bursts of temper, I think.

This isn’t to say that I think that Isobel was unaffected by her decision. I agree, it probably made her more unhappy. I’m sure it haunted her. But not enough to alter her personality on the whole.

Perhaps she treats Henry as coolly as she does because he is the son of a man she was ashamed to have chosen. But perhaps she never had it in her to love a child so much as she loves herself.

I have to say, Isobel isn’t neglectful. She isn’t half as loving or attentive as her son deserves, but she also doesn’t seem to deal him anything near the pain that Harriet’s father and aunt dealt her (though that isn’t a ringing endorsement). She does pay attention to him, she does offer him affection. It’s simply that she doesn’t seem to be ever fully there for Henry, always caught up a little in her own world.

Conclusion

In summary? Well, it’s an Ibbotson romance. I love it. Yes, it’s not my favorite, and in a ranking it does tend to fall quite low on the list. But I still enjoy it and it makes me laugh. It has the magic and beauty of the world in its words. And to me, an Ibbotson romance that’s not my favorite is still one of the best romances out there. I do recommend it. Especially to those who love ballet!

Buy it new, used, or on Kindle here.

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