Monday, March 19, 2012

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Recently, there have been several lists of books going around which aim to provide reading ideas for fans of Downton Abbey. I would like to suggest that this book may be a contender. Yes, Anna isn't really a servant, but she spend a lot of her time downstairs as such, and so you do get to see the contrast between the two sets of people who live in Mersham, both below and above stairs, as well as their interactions.

Anna, her brother Peter and their mother basically escape Russia with only a few possessions. Even their jewels that would have given them a comfortable lifestyle have disappeared along with one of their most trusted servants.

Going from a grand lifestyle to sharing the house of her former companion, Anna and her mother are determined to shield Peter from just how destitute they are. He goes off to school blissfully ignorant of their precarious financial situation and Anna finds a job so that she can help meet their living costs. It sounds unusual, but many Russian aristocrats fled from their homeland only to find themselves doing menial, low paying jobs just to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.

Anna is employed to be a maid at Mersham, a grand house owned by the Earl of Westerholme. While Anna is ill equipped to be a maid (she relies on an outdated housekeeping manual to learn how to perform common tasks and how she should interact with other servants) she quickly wins over the staff at the house through her willingness to work hard and her endlessly cheerful disposition. The butler and the housekeeper are fully aware that Anna is not who she appears to be, but they aren't exactly sure who she is.

The reason why the house needs additional staff is that the Earl of Westerholme is returning to the house for the first time since he was wounded during World War I, and he is bringing his new fiancee. Rupert was the younger son and he had planned a life of archaeological digs in exotic locations, but when his older brother died, Rupert is elevated to the title. He needs to marry and marry well. Muriel Hardwicke is beautiful and, more importantly, independently wealthy, bringing much needed funds to the estate. She does, however, bring her own ideas of how Mersham should be run, and who should be staffing the estate and it isn't long before she starts making unpopular changes.

Eva Ibbotson's books are often referred to YA novels. Whilst some of them started out that way others, like this one, have morphed into that classification more recently. I can see why because they are very clean reads and there is a fairy tale like quality to them, but this book was originally published as an adult novel and as such there is complexity lurking beneath the fairy tale including touching on issues like anti-semitism.

Whilst this book was a delight to read, there were some issues with it. It may be part of the fairy tale but the good characters were all very good and the bad guys were all very bad! In this case, the bad guys were the fiancee I mentioned earlier, Muriel Hardwicke, and her dodgy eugenics doctor (albeit with a self proclaimed honorific) Lightbody. Muriel is beautiful and wealthy but there was nothing else to redeem her - she was mean to small children and animals alike - and Lightbody was almost maniacal in his pursuit of the ideals of eugenics which is the idea that advocates the improvement of the human race through selective breeding (obviously a very simplified definition).

One of the strengths of the novel is the fully realised cast of secondary characters ranging from the cook Mrs Park (I recently posted about her creation of a swan for a Weekend Cooking post), the butler Proom to Anna's cousin Sergei, who is working as a chauffeur and has all the ladies swooning over him and not forgetting the snobbish dog Baskerville! I am sure that I am not the first reader to be captivated by young Ollie Byrne, a young lady from a neighbouring family whose sunny disposition and attitude more than make up for her perceived difficulties in life due to her disability.

You may notice that I haven't said much about Anna and Rupert and that is mainly because the book is somewhat predictable when it comes to this particular aspect of the story. There are times though when predictability and comfort are exactly what you want in a story. That predictability is more than made up for in the quality of the exchanges between the two characters. A glance here, the slightest touch, the awareness of each other's presence, knowing that there are shared interests and so much more build the relationship up in a gradual fashion until the characters in the novel learn exactly what the reader has known all along.

One of my favourite quotes in the book wasn't actually about Anna and Rupert at all, but instead was about Susie Rabinovitch, daughter of a local Jewish family and Tommy Byrne. I thought I had written it down so I could share it, but I can't find it. I guess that just gives me a good reason to revisit this book in due course, as I do think that it would stand up to a reread really well!

I keep a list of books that I want to read some day, and sometimes I even manage to remember to put down whose review I read that made me want to read it! For this book, I read Jennie's review 4 years ago and added it my list. Since then I have seen it mentioned quite a few times on other people's blogs and each time, I have thought that I must read this book!

It took a book club meeting to actually get around to reading it! Melbourne romance author Anne Gracie was a guest of the romance book club that I am a member of, even if I only attend semi-regularly. Her book choices were her latest release (understandably) and then this book! I am glad that I finally found the incentive required to read this lovely book.

I own at least three more books by this author that I haven't even opened once. Time to rectify that I think.

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...

This book was also read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.


  1. This book has always sounded interesting to me, so it's great to finally read a review about it. I will now officially add it to my reading list... thanks for your review!

    1. Svea, I will wait to see what you think of it!

  2. I just got this on audiobook from the library, even though I have no idea when I'm going to find time to listen to it! Maybe I should have gone with a regular paper book.

  3. I read this several years ago and this was a nice reminder of a very good book.

  4. I am a huge Eva Ibbotson fan and I think this book was my very first encounter with her. For years, it was also the only one I owned so it is easily the one I've read the most often! It was her first adult novel so some bits are a bit rough but the spirit is essentially the same as in her later books. I find Dr Lightbody fantastically awful but vastly amusing in his awfulness - who else would visit his dying wife with the hope of getting her to do a bit of sewing for him?

    1. Dr Lightbody was shocking in his single-mindedness and inability to see anyone else around him! But yes, shocking in an amusing way too.

  5. Oh, I love Ibbotson's work for younger readers, so this one sounds like something I might enjoy, even if it is a little simplistic.

  6. So that is why I know her name! I saw it on another blog and could not place it. I do want to read this one

    1. I definitely intend to read more from Ibbotson!

  7. I absolutely loved this book! And based on the strength of it I've picked up more, but like you I haven't got around to them yet.

  8. I adore Ibbotson's "YA" books (I think there are five with similar covers and plots, all shelved in YA at my B&N-my fave is A Company of Swans). I think they stand up to rereading well and I hope to reread this one soon myself.



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