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Archive for the ‘Eva Ibbotson’ Category

After months of anticipation, a very great event occurred last Sunday: I became an aunt.  Arguably, that was the least of the changes: my brother and sister-in-law became parents, two sets of existing parents became grandparents, and a small and rather wonderful girl came into being.

But as I am unable to comment on any of their mindsets with confidence, let us focus on me.

I am rather adrift as to what it means to be an aunt.  Literature provides few useful guides.  If I wanted to be a terrifyingly despotic aunt, or a meek spinster aunt, or an emotionally withholding aunt, I am overwhelmed with bookish inspiration.  Children’s literature runneth over with aunts you would never want to expose your children to.  But what about the kindly aunts?

Eva Ibbotson offers a few: the aunts in Magic Flutes are wonderful, as are the equally supportive aunts in The Dragonfly Pool, but they are a bit timid.  Perhaps more suitable inspiration lies with the suffragette aunts in A Song for Summer, who love their niece even if they can’t understand why she would throw away an education to work at an eccentric boarding school.  That sounds much more like me.

But Ibbotson also offers up some joyfully awful aunts in A Company of Swans and in some of her children’s books.  She was, she admitted, a fan of using aunts in her books and deployed them in all their various facets.

And, of course, P.G. Wodehouse created aunts so terrifying I run from them as quickly as their lily-livered nieces and nephews ever did.  There are some nice ones mixed in but who remembers them?

Jane Austen certainly had a flurry of memorable aunts floating around in her books, from the very, very bad (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice) to the very good (Mrs Gardiner, an excellent source of motherly counsel for Elizabeth Bennet) to the undefinable (Miss Bates – doubtlessly a good woman but who doesn’t pity Jane Fairfax for having to deal with her tiresome fussings and rather vocal timidity?).

But that does put me in mind of Fay Weldon’s excellent Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  If I could be the kind of aunt who dispenses sensible, non-binding advice while discoursing on Jane Austen I think I should be very happy indeed.  We may need to wait a few years for that though.  Until then, I will be content with cooing over her and buying obscene numbers of children’s books and looking forward to the day we can read them together.

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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

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A Company of SwansAs a child, there was no activity I hated more than my dancing lessons.  Ballet, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Highland…I loathed all those classes I was forced to take when I was too small for my preferences to matter.  My mother tried – goodness knows she tried – to instill in me a love of ballet, taking me to as many performances as she could, but though I enjoyed watching others performed I never understood why anyone would want to be a dancer.  I never understood, that is, until I was eleven and read A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson for the first time.

Set in 1912, A Company of Swans is the tale of Harriet Morton, the sheltered and bookish daughter of a Cambridge professor.  Withdrawn from school after showing alarming bluestocking tendencies, Harriet lives under the control of her strict father and humourless aunt.  Facing the prospect of marriage to an ambitious but terribly dull young zoologist, Edward Finch-Dutton, and with no friends to confide in, Harriet is quite miserable.  Reading alleviates her loneliness somewhat but it is no substitute for human interaction:

Loneliness had taught Harriet that there was always someone who understood – it was just that so very often they were dead, and in a book.

Her only joy comes from her dancing lessons, where she excels.  When the opportunity comes for her to join a touring ballet company, she does just that, running away from her joyless home and setting off with the company for South America.  In the Amazonian capital of Manaus, where its culture-starved citizens built a truly extraordinary opera house and where they enjoy nothing better than going there to see touring ballet, opera, and theatre companies from Europe and America, Harriet blossoms, enchanted by her exotic surroundings and warmed by her new friendships with other members of the company.  She also falls in love for the first time, with Romain Verney, an Englishman who has made his fortune in Brazil.  But Harriet’s father is determined to track down his runaway daughter and has sent Edward Finch-Dutton after her…

Like all of Ibbotson’s adult/young-adult novels, this is a romantic fairy tale and to my mind there are few people who can write such stories as well as she.  The exotic setting, the tantalizing glimpse into the outwardly glamourous world of ballet, the aristocratic love interest…she does all this perfectly and no matter how many times I read this book (and I have been reading it frequently for fifteen years now) it never fails to captivate me.  I love her descriptions of the Amazon – its sounds, its smells, its sights – and could so easily relate to the Europeans who fell in love with it, even as they longed for the refinements of home.  Ibbotson does the little details well and her description of the ballet’s opening night and the feelings of those about to attend is perfect: the young English wife who will, at least for a few hours, be able to forget her grief over the son who has recently been sent to boarding school; the Russian balletomane count, longing to see at least a little bit of home in Swan Lake; the Prefect of Police, who can gaze on the beautiful dancers before returning home with his sour wife; or the German doctor and his wife, who come out of the lonely wilderness to enjoy the gossip and company as much as the performance.  These aren’t characters who are important to the plot of the book but including them makes the story so much richer; even though we never see most of them again, we know they are there, some of them very happy, some of them not.

Ibbotson also acknowledges that not all the dangers in the Amazon came from nature, describing the mistreatment of native workers by European masters, which sicken Verney when he comes across them:

He had believed that he knew of all the cruelties which men had inflicted on the Indians in their insane greed for rubber […] Workers flayed into insensibility with tapir-hide whips for bring in less cahuchu than their master craved; hirelings with Winchesters dragging into slavery every able-bodied man in a village […] He himself had been offered – by a drunken overseer on the Madeira – one of the man’s native concubines, a girl just nine years old…

I find the story of Harriet’s affair with Verney quite satisfying, even more so now that I am an adult and can appreciate that not every author who writes such good and wholesome heroines can also allow them to go quite naturally to bed with a lover, but it is Harriet’s experiences in the ballet company that truly fascinate me.  She takes her dancing very seriously and all the rigour and pain that entails is recorded here.  But Ibbotson also manages to capture the beauty of dance and the joy that it brings to performers.  I hadn’t noticed on previous readings the references to War and Peace but now having read the book myself, I can see why other characters compare Harriet to Natasha.  Harriet’s improvised performance in front of a room full of rowdy men –charming them when they had come to be titillated – has all the enchantment of Natasha’s unexpected peasant dance:

She danced naturally and with a perfect innocence, making no attempt whatever to match the gestures of Marie-Claude, but to the men watching her she purveyed an extraordinary sense of happiness, of fun.  It was the delight of a young girl allowed to stay up for a party that Harriet shared with her audience – the excitement, the wonder of being awake in this glittering grown-up world – and the leader of the orchestra, getting her measure, quietened his players so that the showy, exuberant music revealed its charm and tenderness.

But it is really through the supporting characters that we come to understand the world of the ballet.  Ibbotson was always good at writing superb secondary characters and I think she was at her best in A Company of Swans.  I adore Marie-Claude, a dazzlingly beautiful French dancer with a hard head for business, who is Harriet’s closest friend in the company.  She is what ballet-mad men dream of when they think of ballet dancers, the kind of girl they would like to pick from the corps as their next mistress.  Marie-Claude knows this and exploits it but remains devoted to her fiancé back in France, protecting her virtue with a combination of cleverness and a long, sharp hat-pin.  She is the perfect companion for Harriet: worldly and confident, she gives her friend all the encouragement she needs.

The heart of the ballet company, though, lies with Dubrov, the ballet master, and Simonova, the aging prima ballerina whom he has loved for years.  Simonova is emotional and demanding, not to mention jealous of her understudy, but her fragility always touches me.  After so many years at the peak of her profession, her body is in constant pain and though she may threaten to retire to an alpine village to grow vegetables (a plan that has Dubrov shuddering, knowing how ill-prepared the champagne and cavier-fed Simonova is for rural life), as long as she can still move she will continue to dance.  No matter how much it hurts, it is her life.  Dubrov, who has been devoted to her since she was just a dancer in the corps, has focused his whole life around her; when she exiled herself to Europe after a fight with her company in Russia, he sold his business interests there and followed, setting up a new ballet company for her.  It is a tumultuous but tender relationship and one that always brings tears to my eyes, especially when – feeling tired and defeated – Simonova whispers her fondest memories of St Petersburg, still denying – but not convincingly – that she has no desire to return to Russia.

A Company of Swans is not my favourite of Ibbotson’s adult novels, but that means nothing.  I may prefer The Morning Gift or Madensky Square but I love all of these books, whether they be sent in Austria, England or Brazil.  Ibbotson is romantic and humourous, and has a sensibility that is an intriguing combination of nostalgic and modern.  There is no one quite like her and when I am in need of a comfort read, she is the first author I turn to.

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A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories by Eva Ibbotson is an interesting (though difficult to obtain) book, a volume of short stories first published in 1984.  They were written early in her career as she was still developing an authorial voice, so while many of the themes and characters are classic Ibbotson, her style and skill can vary widely between stories. While I loved the most Ibbotson-esque stories, I think what I most enjoyed about this volume was reading some of her early experiments, seeing how she played with different stories, different characters, and different perspectives while developing herself as a writer.

Most of the stories are plain, simple Ibbotson romances and family tales and most are carried off with her usual charm, though lack the conviction and joy she was able to infuse into her novels.  But they are entertaining, the perfect light tales to dip into before bed.  There is “This Beetroot is Not Screaming” about how an earnest young agricultural student upsets the faculty with her soft-hearted attitude towards animals, ultimately gaining the affection of the narrator, one of the teachers; “Osmandine” about a free-spirited actress who assumes a position as a pharmacist while the real one is hospital and cures the ailments of his customers  without resorting to silly things like their doctor’s prescriptions; and the excellent “The Little Countess” about an uncompromising young English governess and her struggles to sort out the needlessly but humourously complicated lives of the Russian family she works for.  “The Little Countess” also added something a bit different in how it was told, giving us the limited perspective of an essentially comic character, related by yet another character. This was probably my favourite story, the one that came closest to creating the vivid places and people I’m used to from Ibbotson, as well as including all of her excellent humour:

It was only in the evenings that my grandmother began to feel the strain.  For just when she began to think of a light supper and an early night after the day’s work, everyone at Yaslova woke up.  The Count came in from the stables.  The Countess, a devout and dedicated hypochondriac, left her bed.  Petya abandoned his books, neighbours arrived by troika or on horseback and the samovar was carried out on to the veranda which ran the length of the house.

And there, drinking interminable glasses of tea with raspberry jam and being bitten by mosquitoes, everybody, said my grandmother sadly, just sat and sat and sat.  Sometimes they talked of the hopelessness of Russia’s destiny; sometimes they discussed the total uselessness of their beloved ‘Little Father’, the Tsar.  Occasionally, the old tutor would read aloud from Pushkin and everybody would explain to my grandmother (in the French they all spoke, even to say their prayers) how much more beautiful, inflected and sensitive the Russian language was than any other language in the world.  And no one, said my grandmother sighing, ever went to bed.

The Amazon, Vienna, Russia, Paris, England…Ibbotson’s favourite locations are all present and accounted for but she bounces gleefully between decades.  I’m so used to reading her historical novels that when I came across the first of her stories set post-World War II, I couldn’t quite believe it.  Mentions of mini-skirts, bikinis, etc may have momentarily thrown me for a loop but it was enjoyable to see her handle more modern subject matter (including a hilarious international beauty competition in “This Year’s Winner”).  That said, not all of her modern stories worked: there are two first-person narratives about adultery that are particularly unoriginal and unconvincing.  But I did still enjoy reading them, seeing how she tried to approach a topic, characters, and a style so different to what she was generally drawn towards.

I read this at the end of November and it is the perfect book to read before Christmas, not just for its generally warm, comforting tales but because it contains no less than three Christmas stories.  Persephone Biannually readers may remember “A Question of Riches” from the Autumn/Winter 2010 edition.  There are also “Vicky and the Christmas Angel”, about a young Viennese girl’s discovery of who really brings the children’s presents, and “The Great Carp Ferdinand”:

The role the Great Carp Ferdinand was to play in the life of the Mannhaus family was simple, though crucial.  He was, to put it plainly, the Christmas dinner.  For in Vienna, where they celebrate on Christmas Eve and no one, on Holy Night, would dream of eating meat, they relish nothing so much as a richly-marinated, succulently roasted carp.  And it is true that until you have tasted fresh carp with all the symphonic accompaniments (sour cream, braised celeriac, dark plum jam) you have not, gustatorily speaking, really lived.

…But the accent is on the word fresh.

The story follows the impact Ferdinand the Carp has on the Mannhaus family in the days leading up to Christmas, while he occupies the maids’ bathtub and endures frequent visits from members of the household, who come and pour out their thoughts to him.  Growing up terrorized by stories of bathtub-dwelling carp and the amazing effort that it took to kill them (the first Christmas after she was widowed was the only year my grandmother ever tried to kill the carp on her own.  It, to say the least, did not go well.  Every year after, she compromised on freshness to spare herself the battle) I was highly entertained by all aspects of this story, particularly the arsenal of weapons the men folk armed themselves with when preparing to do battle with Ferdinand.  There is a romance here too and a rather charming family but it is Ferdinand who steals the show.

And, in the last, busy few days before Christmas, I am feeling particularly drawn to this description from “Vicky and the Christmas Angel”:

But the angel in the household of Herr Doktor and Frau Fischer had help.  In the kitchen Katrina, fat and warm and Czech like all the best cooks in Vienna, produced an ever-growing pile of gingerbread hearts and vanilla crescents; of almond rings and chocolate guglhupf.  Vicky’s mother, pretty and frivolous and very loving, helped too, whispering and rustling behind mysteriously closed doors.  As for Vicky’s father, erupting irately from the green baize door of his study shouting, ‘Bills!  Bills!  Nothing but bills!’, he possibly helped most of all.

A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories is far from perfect but I loved it nonetheless.  A number of the stories are truly excellent, balancing humour and drama, creating interesting plots people by intriguing characters.  Other tales only hit one note, but, generally, it is an unobjectionable one that hardly distracts from the reader’s enjoyment of an excellent story.  Indeed, my main problem with this book is how difficult it is to find!

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Sometimes after reading a book, I become incoherent with delight and utterly incapable of forming a response much beyond “this is the greatest book ever and you must read it now.”  When these moods strike, I try to wait a while in the hope that I will eventually be able to better articulate myself.  Well, I’ve waited a few weeks since reading The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson so let’s see if I am now able to lucidly explain why this book is amazing.  It is delightful in so many ways and very recognizably Ibbotson’s work, from the doting aunts to the domestically-minded heroine to the scientific interest shared by her most admirable male characters.

The book begins in 1939, in the spring.  Tally Hamilton has been awarded a scholarship to Delderton Hall, a boarding school in Devon, under the influence of one of her father’s grateful patients. And though Dr. Hamilton and his sisters, who have helped raise Tally since her mother’s death, and all the neighbours and patients who love the kind, cheerful and very considerate eleven-year old, are upset to be losing her, the threat of war hangs over the city and everyone agrees that the country is the safest place for their beloved Tally.  Everyone, that is, but Tally herself.  Tally is terrified by the prospect of boarding school, especially after hearing what her priggish cousins have to say about the many rules at their own schools.   Even Tally’s aunts are a bit anxious, after reading a number of girls’ boarding school novels to prepare themselves for Tally’s future, causing them to worry “about how Tally would get on, having to say ‘spiffing’ and ‘ripping’ all the time, and shouting, ‘Well played, girls!’ on the hockey field.”

But then Tally sets off for Delderton and, meeting her new school mates on the train, realises immediately that this is not going to be the kind of school written about in books and certainly not the kind her cousins attend.  It is a school without uniforms, where you are not required to attend classes if you don’t wish to, where biology lessons can start at four in the morning and where teachers are as likely to cry themselves to sleep with homesickness as the students.  Tally settles in wonderfully, making eccentric but close friends.

And then one day at the cinema, she sees a newsreel about the little kingdom of Bergania, whose king has just defied Hitler, refusing to let the German army move through his neutral country.  She feels an immediate connection to the beautiful, alpine country and its brave leader so when the chance comes to attend an international children’s folk dance festival there, she is determined to go.  For Tally, whose selfless father and kind aunts have taught her to believe in man’s responsibility to stand up for what is right, to defend the weak against the strong, to champion good in the face of evil, Begania is a symbol of those values.  So, after gaining the headmaster’s permission, convincing her friends to form a dance group, and somehow teaching the group a sort-of Morris dance, off the children go to Bergania, with their much-adored and mysterious biology professor Matteo uncharacteristically volunteering as one of their adult escorts.

Meanwhile, in Bergania, crown prince Karil spends his days inside the palace, surrounded by stuffy adults and no children.  Even his adored father doesn’t seem to have much time for him anymore, always being pulled away by one crisis or another.  When children from around Europe begin arriving for the festival, all Karil can do is watch them play and laugh through his telescope since he is not allowed to go play and laugh with them himself.  But Karil and Tally stumble across each other in the hills one day and instantly form a crucial bond that will change their lives in the days to come.

This book has everything.  It begins as a boarding school novel, and I always love those, and then turns into a first-rate, old fashioned adventure novel, which I adore.  With assassins, the Gestapo, and a race across Europe, the book is far from dull.  The final section of the novel, with Karil once again separated from his new friends, is much quieter and can’t match the earlier bits for intrigue or excitement, but is no less interesting or satisfying.

But mostly, I love Ibbotson’s optimistic view of the world.  Have faith in your fellow man, she implores, and they will help.  There are definite baddies here – what would a children’s novel be without villains? – but they are outnumbered by those who want to help.

I would have adored this book as a child, perhaps even more than I did now as an adult reader.  I would have adored the Prisoner of Zenda-esque adventure but, more than anything, I would have adored Tally.  Indeed, when I started reading Ibbotson’s adult novels when I was eleven or so, a huge part of the appeal was her heroines.  I’ve read so many stories with heroines who are too passive and many, many more that are cursed with the dreaded spunky heroine, the kind of girl who spends all her time talking back, who always wants to do what the boys are doing, and who is supposed to win your affection by being more than a bit offensive.  I always longed for someone who fit in between those extremes and that is the kind of heroine Ibbotson writes.  Her girls and women are clever and brave and loyal and would generally rather be helpful and of some use than rush into a dangerous or upsetting scene.  They worry about how to solve other people’s problems since, being loving, loved sorts, they don’t usually have many personal problems of their own – until, inevitably, they do and all the people who’ve helped come back to assist.  An Ibbotson heroine is capable of great adventure and drama but would be much happier making cocoa, studying her favourite subject and counselling friends.  She is recognizable as someone who we would like to know and as someone we would rather like to be.

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Baking with Eva

There needs to be an Eva Ibbotson companion cookbook.  Really.  All of her books are full of the most delicious sounding meals and sweets, many of which I have not the slightest idea how to recreate.  The snow-white meringue swan from A Countess Below Stairs? The unnamed but lovingly described Brazilian delights from A Company of Swans and Journey to the River Sea? No idea where to start. But, thankfully, when it comes to one of her most frequently mentioned treats, vanilla kipferl, I know exactly what to do. Theoretically. I mean, I’ve eaten enough over many Christmases that I should know exactly what to do! In practice, they’re not quite as I had remembered them but they are very, very close (I used store-bought vanilla sugar rather than homemade, which I think is difference I’m tasting and I had a lot of trouble making them as small as they really should be).  Ibbotson’s are always made with almonds whereas our family recipe calls for walnuts but I’m willing to overlook her misguided preference (not that almonds wouldn’t also be delicious).  For now, these are the perfect accompaniment to my reading of A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories.

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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.

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Ah, New Year’s Eve.  While others will be heading out on the town tonight, laden with high spirits as well as alcoholic ones, I will most likely be curled up on the couch with a book until I go to bed at some absurdly early hour (generally, one so early that even senior citizens look at me askance).  Life is good.

But it also means that today is the last day of 2010 and therefore my last chance to get a review up in even a remotely timely manner (because if you’re reviewing books from last year, even if that was only yesterday, it just doesn’t seem right).  So I bring you not one, not two, but three reviews, which conveniently gets my total number of books reviewed this year up to 120.  And how better to end the year than with the delightful novels of Eva Ibbotson?

Magic Flutes may be my least favourite Ibbotson novel, though as I love all of her novels that isn’t a particularly impressive distinction.  It was only her second adult novel, after the more successfully executed A Countess Below Stairs, but somehow reads like a first attempt.  Her petite heroine Tessa is an orphaned Austrian princess with a costly castle and a love for music.  The novel opens in 1922 with Tessa in Vienna working backstage for an opera company while her aged aunts occupy the family castle, hopeful that a buyer will appear.  And appear he does in the form of the mysterious English millionaire Guy Farne, who buys the castle and hires Tessa’s opera company to perform The Magic Flute in the castle’s private theatre in a grand gesture aimed at Nerine, his first love.  But, of course, Guy and Tessa fall in love, complicating matters somewhat.

The plot itself is eerily familiar to A Countess Below Stairs, from the nobly-born young woman working a menial job to the heroine’s childhood friend slash intended husband to the hero’s narcissistic fiancée.  And A Countess Below Stairs does a better job with all of these characters, making both them and the situations they find themselves in almost believable, unlike in Magic Flutes.  Tessa and Guy are shockingly forgettable, to the extent that when I wrote my notes up on the book only hours after reading it I actually had to look Guy’s name up since I’d already forgotten it.  The supporting cast of impoverished nobles and eccentric musicians supply most of the comedy and all of the memorable characters.  Prince Maxi, Tessa’s dim-witted intended, is particularly wonderful with his dual passions of hunting water fowl and watching (and re-watching ad nauseum) silent films.  The adoring ballet dancer Heidi is a perfect match for him.  Indeed, I cared more about their strange relationship than I did for Guy and Tessa’s.  Guy is not present enough to make a real impact and Tessa has no bite, leaving her with a rather insipid personality.  Still, that didn’t keep me from enjoying this fairy tale and warming to their happy ending.

Madensky Square, on the other hand, is probably Ibbotson’s most skillfully written novel and certainly her most mature, both in terms of characters and themes.  Set in Vienna, of course, in 1911, it follows a year in the life of Susanna Weber, a dress-maker, a devoted mistress, a loyal friend, and an altogether charming heroine.  We learn about Susanna’s life prior to moving to Vienna, her youth in the country, an early love affair and the daughter it produced who was then given away, and her introduction to the General, her great love.  But mostly we learn about Susanna’s life in Madensky Square where her salon is located.  We know her neighbours, her employers, her friends and her customers.  We love and loathe them as she does.  We long to taste the one pear her forlorn pear tree has born, to listen to the child piano prodigy Sigi as he practices for hours each day, to watch life go by in the square. 

Susanna is unique among Ibbotson’s heroines in that she is mature and independent, most assuredly a woman and a force to be reckoned with.  Her love for her General and for her lost daughter shapes but does not control her.  She has other interests and concerns, is a friend and a neighbour and, delightfully, a match-maker between the bluestocking Edith and the butcher Huber.  The people of Madensky Square love and lust, physically as well as intellectually.  My sensible, Methodist exterior with its disdain for alcohol and parties hides my romantic, Catholic interior that longs for beautiful clothes, frivolous nightgowns and large feather beds.  These two identities are always at war: my sensible Bachelor of Commerce reality versus the future as a Viennese opera singer I denied as impractical years ago when I was being urged to go there to train.  Ibbotson makes it seem that not only is it natural to image and long for such things, it is imperative to the Viennese way of life.  I want to live in Ibbotson’s Vienna with its opera-goers and soldiers, mistresses and anarchists.  It is a city intent on sensual pleasures and this attitude gives all its residents a certain glamour.

And, finally, The Morning Gift.  Intellectually, I know the more nuanced Madensky Square should be my favourite Ibbotson novel.  But it’s not.  I love The Morning Gift.  I love it to the extent that when I finished reading it I seriously contemplated starting it right over again just so that I wouldn’t have to part from it so soon.  It has all my favourite things: Austrian refugees, a wealthy, scholarly hero, a marriage of convenience, and largely academic setting.  Knowing that Persephone wanted to publish this title but was unable to gain the rights might make me love it even more (but, oh, if that had been able to publish it how wonderful that would have been!).

Ruth Berger is left behind in Vienna in 1938 when her family flees to England after the Anschluss.  Unable to leave on her own, family friend Quin Somerville proposes a marriage of convenience that would allow Ruth to leave as the wife of a British national.  The two arrive in England, Ruth is reunited with her family and Quin resumes his normal life of teaching at the University, squiring elegant women about town, and planning his next scientific research trips while the lawyers begin the complicated process of annulling the marriage.  But, of course, it’s not as simple as that.

Ruth is wonderful in that she’s less fantastically perfect than many of Ibbotson’s other heroines.  She’s also a very serious student, which is rare and always appreciated.  On the other hand, like all of Ibbotson’s heroines, she’s devoted to music and nature and has a remarkable gift for making friends everywhere and at all social levels.  But I love Ibbotson’s heroines because they are that way.  Fantastical as they may be, that doesn’t keep me from wishing there were more (any?) people like them in the real world.  Her heroes, on the other hand, usually leave a lot to be desired.  By that standard, Quin is rather good.  Frankly, after the over-loaded Marek in A Song for Summer, anyone is going to look fantastic.  Yes, Quin’s a bit broody and emotionally distant (strangely at war with his compassionate treatment of so many European refugees) but he’s not too over the top and generally seems quite human and intelligent, which is what makes the critical miscommunication between him and Ruth so particularly frustrating, as neither had come across as proud or stubborn until that key moment.

Ibbotson preys on a particular weakness of mine: scientific men, particularly naturalists out in the field.  The combination of adventures, athleticism, and academia is a potent mixture, one that fueled many a childhood day-dream.  Quin is the personification of these fantasies with the added bonus of a personal fortune and seaside estate.  If such men exist (if, indeed, they ever existed outside of books) is it too much to ask that one may find and fall in love with me?

Though I make rank some more highly than others, I love all of Ibbotson’s novels.  I love the comfort I derive from them and the way that each of them transports me into a fantasy world of pastel-coloured Austrian castles, the green English countryside, and straightforward but sophisticatedly-executed romantic plots.  Ibbotson died this fall at the age of 85, leaving readers the many joys and delights found in both her adult and children’s books but still you can’t help but wish there had been more!

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To say that the last week has been rather stressful would be a most impressive understatement.  Usually, my remedy for any kind of stress is to curl up with a Georgette Heyer or an Alexander McCall Smith.  But, for perhaps the first time ever, they failed me.  After I recovered from the shock, I looked to my bookshelves for further inspiration and saw Eva Ibbotson.  How could I have forgotten about her for so long?  I loved her comforting, light, romantic books when I was a teenager but because I only own one of them (A Countess Below Stairs) seldom reread the others.  For me, comfort reads are usually the ones I can grab off my shelf at three in the morning as the mood takes me.  Obviously, this signals a gap in my personal library that will have to be remedied through visits to used bookstores in the future.

Happily, my library had a copy of A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson that arrived at just the right time.  How could I not love a book that sends characters off to all my favourite places: England, Austria, Bohemia, and British Columbia?  And place does play a very important role in this novel: all of the characters are concerned with going home, making a home, or finding a home.  Most of the book is set in Austria in 1937, when young Englishwoman Ellen Carr arrives to take over as housekeeper at an experimental school containing eccentric adults and unchecked youths.  As usual when Ibbotson writes about her homeland, the Austrian countryside is beautifully described and the village of Hallendorf is idyllic.  Romantic in the extreme, I am ready to move there now.  Reading it at lunch on Friday, I actually forgot about my snowy surroundings and felt like I was at Hallendorf:

They had rounded the point and suddenly Schloss Hallendorf lay before her, its windows bathed in afternoon light, and it seemed to her that she had never seen a place so beautiful.  The sun caressed the rose wall, the faded shutters…greening willows trailed their tendrils at the water’s edge; a magnificent cypress sheltered the lower terrace.

But oh so neglected, so shabby!  A tangle of creepers seemed to be all that held up the boathouse; a shutter flapped on its hinges on an upstairs window; the yew hedges were fuzzy and overgrown.  And this of course only made it lovelier, for who could help thinking of Sleeping Beauty and a castle in a fairy tale? (p.14)

Like all of Ibbotson’s heroines, Ellen is good and pretty and brings joy wherever she goes, complete with children and animals frolicking about her.  She’s intelligent but wants to be a housekeeper rather than a scholar or professional, to the disappointment of her suffragette mother and aunts. (Aside: Ibbotson excels at writing aunts.  I remember reading somewhere that if she was ever stuck with a story she just introduced aunts).  Ellen prefers kitchens to labs, children to professional colleagues.  She’s a very unfashionable heroine by modern standards but I couldn’t care less.  I want to believe that people like her exist and, what’s more, I want to be like her.  Considering that my favourite Louisa May Alcott book growing up was An Old Fashioned Girl with the virtuous Polly rather than Little Women with the spunky Jo, my preference for this kind of heroine is hardly a new development.  Ellen’s scarcely a pushover but it seems that any heroine who isn’t overtly ambitious and aggressive is deemed a wet blanket and a poor role model these days.  Pfui.  I find all those spunky heroines obnoxious and tiring.  The restful, maternal Ellen is a charming alternative.    

Marek, on the other hand, is a tiresome hero.  I am predisposed to forgive him many of his sins as he is a) Czech and b) possessed of one of my favourite names.  Unfortunately, he is meant to be too many things to too many people and as a result comes out as a strange amalgamation of talents with little individuality.  Sensitive musical genius, selfless resistance fighter, landed gentry, gardener, pilot, fencing instructor…he pretty much does everything except emote.  I wanted desperately feel some real attachment to him but was never able to, not with him coming across as temperamental and immature just when he needs to be practical and constant.  It wasn’t all bad though: the musical storyline, centered on Marek, did give me a desperate urge to listen to Der Rosenkavalier again.  I do love Strauss and such a romantic musician is well suited to this romantic book.    

Ibbotson never makes things too easy for her characters.  There are frustrating twists and turns that probably add some much needed angst to the plot.  Ibbotson’s wit and energy, as always, save this from becoming sappy or trite.  I am romantic enough that I like things to be simple but in wartime, and particularly with a hero as pointlessly noble as Marek, things are never simple.  It does make for an interesting book though and a very enjoyable read; absolutely the right thing for this moment in my life.

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