Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review - Eva Ibbotson's A Countess Below Stairs

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson
Published by: Speak
Publication Date: May 10th, 1981
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy
Anna and what is left of her family have fled Russia. The Royal family is dead, as are countless friends and relatives. They have lost everything. The opulent lifestyle of St. Petersburg has been replaced by the drudgery of London. Not that Anna has ever let that deter her! In order to hide their need from her mother she takes a job in a country house as a maid, telling her family that she is a guest, not a housemaid. Mersham is getting ready for the return of Rupert, the heir and Count of Westerholme, not that he ever expected to be heir, but a war does tend to upset the natural order of things, just ask Anna. He is going to be married to Muriel, who espouses the beliefs of Dr. Lightbody for a master race. Not that Rupert actually knows this or much else about Muriel except that she nursed him back to health after he was wounded in the war. The staff are quickly won over by Anna despite her lack of experience. Anna's willingness to learn and her ability to placate Rupert's handsy uncle, Sebastian Frayne, go a long way, as does her sunny disposition. Soon she is the darling of the household and even the butler Proom's elderly and often hostile mother is won over.

But once Muriel is in residence, with her very "progressive" thinking, will she bring all the goodwill and happiness of the community and the staff to a standstill? Viewing everyone as beneath her expectations, she cuts the Herring family out of Rupert's circle for being Jewish, and Rupert's best friend Tom and his little sister Ollie are soon devastated by Muriel. Not only is Tom in love with the Herring's daughter, but his sister Ollie, who was over the moon about being a bridesmaid has been told that cripples aren't allowed to be bridesmaids for Miss Muriel. All of these horrors she commits with a smile and a secret, making sure that Rupert never knows just what has happened. If only the staff could find some way for Muriel to break with Rupert. Rupert is such an upstanding man, he would never do anything to hurt Muriel. He would marry Muriel because of a promise... despite his growing love for Anna everyday.

I've had this book sitting on my shelf for many a year waiting to find the time to pick it up. Well, I have been suffering from severe Downton Abbey withdrawal. I mean, really severe, plotting in my sleep ways for Matthew Crawley and Mary to work things out severe. One of my favorite authors, Lauren Willig, has started a new weekly blog post called "If You Like." She usually gives a book (or sometimes a TV Show) saying if you like this, then you'll also like this. She has always been spot on in her book recommendations, so when she said, if I like Downton Abbey you'll like The Countess Below Stairs, I went into the other room and immediately began to read it. Yes, the withdrawals where soon going to be in the shakes stage, this was a timely intervention. But more than that, it was "like" Downton. It's not just a love story with the fiance who's in the way. It's not just a simplified tale of masters versus servants. Downton and it's predecessor, Upstairs Downstairs dealt with issues of the day and politics, as does The Countess Below Stairs. Here we have race issues and budding Nazism. Physical deformities and cultural pride, even if I could have done with a little less untranslated Russian. Not to mention insanity. This book does not shy away from the issues, instead it confronts them and sometimes uses them to comedic effect while never being derogatory. Well, except for the Nazi nut, I think Nazis are fair game right? This elevated the book into something more real and poignant. Not only capturing a bygone day but also capturing a bit of what life must have been like for Eva Ibbotson, having to flee before the Nazis. Plus, if you've read any of the autobiographies of the Mitfords, the Nazis and those who held similar beliefs, where into inveigling themselves with the upper classes of England. Hitler would love Miss Muriel, I can say that for certain. She is just someone, as a reader, you love to hate.


I kind of want to try Downtown Abbey because all of the people I like enjoy it.

And A Countess Below Stairs sounds good, although I haven't read any Eva Ibbotson yet.

Oh April you HAVE to try Downton Abbey. I was hooked like 10 minutes in, by the end of the first episode I was so invested in the characters I was talking to the tv.

A Countess Below Stairs is my first Ibbotson as well (though I know many a fan). I really enjoyed it. She's not the smoothest of writers, the words don't flow, so there's a little choppiness to it. But the characters and the world she creates makes you forget any flaws.

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