Does my pleasure in reading A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson come from the story itself or from the warmth I feel towards that which I know so well? Having read four of Ibbotson’s other adult novels so recently I thought this might suffer by comparison, particularly as it was her first book for adults, but it really doesn’t. It’s just as entrancing as all her other works and easily ranks as my second favourite of Ibbotson’s novels, after The Morning Gift.
All Ibbotson plots are rather silly but this one is sillier than most. Countess Anna Grazinsky fled her native Russia with her mother, brother, and English governess in 1919, her father having been killed in the war and the family’s assets seized by the Bolsheviks. Now, penniless in London, the practical Anna seeks out a position as a housemaid at Mersham, the seat of the Earl of Westerholme. Armed with The Domestic Servant’s Compendium by the redoubtable Selena Strickland, Anna takes to her new work with determination, earning her place among the other servants at Mersham, even if they suspect that the new housemaid would be more naturally suited to life above stairs. But then Rupert, the young Earl, returns with his fiancée and it does not take long for him to discover his odd new servant who curtsies like a ballerina and is fluent in three languages. Things, as always, spiral from there.
I love Anna. Yes, she has the Disney Princess-esque traits that Ibbotson imbues all her characters with (beauty, goodness, effortless charm, and most likely the ability to call small animals to dress her in the mornings) but so strong are these characteristics that I am powerless to resist them. And because she’s Russian she is much more fun than any of Ibbotson’s other heroines. Slavs do things with such style, even fictional ones. While all of Ibbotson’s characters are generally gifted with sharp tongues (thereby redeeming them from their otherwise unrelenting perfection) Anna’s is also coupled with the extreme confidence of one who has had a position of authority and who has been obeyed all her life.
Rupert might tie (or perhaps best) Quin Somerville as Ibbotson’s best-written hero. He’s modest and quiet, loyal and intelligent, and scientifically-minded (why must she taunt me this way?). Unfortunately, he’s stupidly noble when it comes to refusing to jilt the odious (but hilarious) Muriel. The relationship between Rupert and Anna also feels closer and more real than those found in any of her other books. There is genuine warmth between them that grows not just from their mutual attraction but through conversation and interaction.
But it’s the secondary characters who steal the show. This is usually the case with any Ibbotson novel but here they are truly magnificent. The various poverty-stricken Russian émigrés are delightful but Ibbotson is unusually brilliant with her upper-class characters as well. The Rabinovitches, who play such a small role, are intensely memorable though they of course pale in comparison with the Honourable Olive Bryne. The butler Proom is most deserving of all the praise heaped upon him when he emerges as the hero of the most pivotal hour of the novel but the true genius went into the creation of Rupert’s fiancé Muriel and her hero, Dr. Lightbody. Muriel is fabulously narcissistic, obsessed with her appearance and her status. The perfect compliment to these obsessions is the study of eugenics, of how to make her family just as perfect as she, which is how she became associated with the charlatan Lightbody. He’s amazing. As his wife is dying in hospital, he asks a nurse if she thinks his wife might be able to handle a bit of sewing since he needs a costume for a ball at Mersham. As for his title, it is an honorary one that he generously bestowed on himself.
For many years this has been the only Ibbotson novel that I’ve owned (this should change soon, provided a certain package ever arrives – it’s been two and half weeks already). I’ve read it so many times that I’ve lost count but yet I never grow tired of the story, the characters, or the genuine contentment I feel when that last page is turned and the tale ended in a more than satisfactory manner.