I have a deep affection for quiet books that are character-driven and invite me into a world where the extraordinariness of the ordinary is revealed, books that use language in such marvelous ways that I am forced to stop and read passages again and again to ponder the images and to delight in the rhythm. I have had such an experience this week. I have been rereading Eva Ibbotson.
Ibbotson said in a June 2009 interview with Anne Gracie at Word Wenches that she wanted to write “the kind of book I wanted to read myself when I had the flu.” I think she succeeds admirably. Reading one of her books for children, I become a child again and enter a world where magic is deliciously real and good can be depended upon to keep the darkness at bay. Reading one of her romances, I find magic of a different sort—a physical world rendered in such detail that I can hear the raindrops and see the faces of the flowers and an emotional world in which indifference and hatred loom large but never so large that love cannot insure a happy ending.
I discovered Ibbotson through her children’s books. I read Which Witch? to my nephews and enjoyed it even more than they did. We had such fun reading about Arriman the Awful whose boredom with all his evil doings prompt his search for a wife and Belladonna, the youngest witch whose best efforts to be a suitable bride and a dark witch only produce flowers. The boys grew up and started reading John Grisham and Stephen King, but I kept reading Ibbotson. I love them all: Dial-a-Ghost with its erroneously matched ghosts and loathsome villains, Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle; Island of the Aunts with its eccentric, kidnapping aunts, its wondrous collection of creatures--real and mythical, and its environmental message clothed in fantasy; The Great Ghost Rescue with its homeless ghosts displaced by commercial development and its young hero who has a heart for all endangered species, ectoplasmic or otherwise.
But my favorite is The Secret of Platform 13. The kidnapping here is much less benign than in The Island of Aunts. Nine years before the story opens the baby prince of a magical island is kidnapped by wealthy, small-spirited Mrs. Trottle when his nurses take him to London through a portal called a “gump” located under platform 13 in a railway station. Nine sad years pass, and the gump, open for nine days every nine years, once again allows passage to London. The time has come to rescue the prince. The rescue team, a motley crew made up of an ancient wizard, a fey, a mostly invisible, yodeling ogre, and a young hag named Odge, rescue their prince and the kitchen boy Ben. Nine years of overindulgence have made the prince a selfish, spoiled brat. If only the endearing Ben were the prince, and therein lies the tale . . .
Part of the joy of reading Ibbotson is the details she includes. She describes Aunt Etta in Island of the Aunts as “a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant mustache on her upper lip." The evil Mrs. Trottle in The Secret of Platform 13 wears a perfume called “Maneater,” and the mists that protect the magical island emanate from the mouths of mystical sea creatures who respond to music by producing mists. This same richness characterizes Ibbotson’s romance novels as well. If the children’s books are fantasies rendered real by detail and dialogue, the romance novels are stories set in the real world of wars and want transformed into fairy tales by Ibbotson’s humor and happy endings.
A Countess Below Stairs (1981), renamed The Secret Countess when it was republished for the YA market in 2007, is the story of Anna Grazensky, a Russian aristocrat who loses her privileged life in the Revolution. With the help of her English governess, she, her mother, and younger brother escape to England. Anna accepts help with her brother’s schooling, but she is determined to make her own way. In post-World War I England, jobs are scarce, and the only one Anna can find is the position of maid at Mersham, the estate of Rupert, Earl of Westerholme. With the 2000+ pages of The Domestic Servants Compendium, a book she is convinced will tell her “everything,” in hand, Anna leaves for Mersham.
The Cinderella connections are strong: Anna is awesomely good, Rupert is staunchly honorable, and the evil stepsisters are replaced with an evil fiancée, wealthy and beautiful but with a repulsive world view. But this is more than a fairy tale. Although good, Anna is, as the butler Proom declares, never boring. The effects of war on Rupert’s world are not glossed over:
More than most great houses, Mersham had given its life’s blood to the Kaiser’s war. Upstairs it had taken Lord George, the heir, who fell at Ypres six months after his father, the sixth earl, succumbed to a second heart attack. Below stairs it had drained away almost every able-bodied man and few of those who left were destined to return. A groom had fallen on the Somme, an under-gardener at Jutland; the hall boy, who had lied about his age, was blown up at Verdun a week before his eighteenth birthday.
Magic Flutes (1982), renamed The Reluctant Heiress in the YA edition, is another tale of an unconventional aristocrat. The setting is 1920s Austria after the war, and Princess Theresa-Maria of Pfaffenstein, known as Tessa, has forsaken her lofty role to devote herself to a rag-tag opera company, even to the point of sacrificing her beautiful hair to make a wig for the diva. Guy Farne’s journey is a reversal of Tessa’s. From his beginnings as an abandoned, nameless baby, Guy has become an influential industrialist wealthy enough to buy Schloss Pfaffenstein, Tessa’s family castle. Could there be a more unlikely pair? Yet from their first meeting to their shared love of Vienna and the music that permeates the story, the reader falls in love with these two characters as they fall in love with one another. Tessa and Guy are admirably supported by an astonishing number of secondary characters, each one a multi-dimensional creation. This is my favorite of the romances. I was enchanted from the moment I read these words in the prologue:
Certainly it would seem to need the magic of star lore to link the life of the tiny,
dark-eyed Austrian princess--born in a famous castle and burdened, in the presence of the Emperor Franz Joseph, with a dozen sonorous Christian names--with that of the abandoned, gray-blanketed bundle found on the quayside of a grim, industrial English town: a bundle opened to reveal a day-old, naked, furiously screaming baby boy.
Ibbotson followed Magic Flutes with A Company of Swans (1985), an Edwardian romance that opens in Cambridge, England and follows its ballerina heroine to Brazil where she meets Rom Verney, a wealthy adventurer, and Madensky Square (1988), an atypical romance featuring a Viennese dress-shop owner, her customers, her neighbors and friends, and her lover, the married Field Marshal Gernot von Lindenberg. Although the ending of the latter is as unconventional as its heroine, Ibbotson’s gift for making a place and its people come to life is unfaltering.
The Morning Gift (1993), my most recent Ibbotson reread, is the most clearly autobiographical of the author’s novels. Born in Austria in 1925, Ibbotson lived in Vienna until she was eight. Her father, a scientist, who was “technically Jewish,” secured a job in Scotland before Hitler took power, and Eva ended up in London. She recalled those days in a newspaper article (one that includes a heartwarming, real life love story):
We came to London in 1934, a bedraggled party consisting of my fey, poetic mother, my irascible grandmother and confused aunt, and rented rooms in a dilapidated house in Belsize Park which, in those days, was a seedy, run-down part of the city. The house was full of suddenly impoverished refugees facing exile. On every floor were lonely and muddled professors, doctors and lawyers, mostly from German-speaking countries.
This world is the world of The Morning Gift. The well-to-do Berger family flees Vienna for London in the early days of Nazi power in Austria. They think their daughter Ruth is already in England, but she is caught in Austria, hiding in her father’s office. Quin Sommerville, a renowned British scientist and a one-time colleague of her father, finds her and persuades into a marriage of convenience that will give Ruth British citizenship and allow her to leave Austria. The plan is to keep the marriage secret and annul it once Ruth is safely in England. Of course, the plan goes agley due to complications--legal and emotional. The love story is predictable, but Ruth and Quin are distinctly drawn characters, much beloved within the novel and within the heart of the reader. The courage of the emigrants struggling to rebuild their lives and the shadow of World War II looming ground the novel in the real world.
A Song for Summer (1997) is the darkest of Ibbotson’s romances, but it begins with humor. Ellen Carr, brought up by a feminist mother and two aunts and the recipient of the best education available for a young woman of her time, wants to attend Domestic Science College. Ellen accepts a position at Hallendorf, an Austrian boarding school "specializing in Music, Drama, and the Dance." She arrives to find the progressive school filled with wild children, eccentric faculty, and a world clearly in need of her good sense and order. In one laugh-out-loud scene, Ellen meets the infant daughter of a “Ph.D. in Dramatic Movement”:
"That's her Natural Daughter. She's called Andromeda. Hermine got her at a conference but no one knows who the father is."
"I didn't see any nappies," said Ellen.
"She doesn't wear any," Sophie explained. "She's a self-regulating baby."
"What a good thing I like to be busy," said Ellen,“ for I can see that there's going to be a lot to do."
In contrast, there is the mysterious Marek, part-time groundskeeper and fencing teacher, who proves to be Marek Altenburg, musical genius and gifted composer-conductor, who is smuggling Jewish musicians out of Germany. The tale grows grimmer when Hitler invades, but the young lovers achieve their happy ending even in a world where war can shatter lives. A Song for Summer has often been compared to The Sound of Music.
One of my grandmother’s special dishes was a chocolate pie, rich and sweet and nourishing. Eating a piece of Mama’s pie was a totally satisfying experience, a feast for the senses and a gift to be remembered. Reading Ibbotson reminds me of Mama’s pie. I’m not the only reader who compares Ibbotson’s books to food. Janine of Dear Author says in a review of A Countess Below Stairs, that her “books are the meringue kisses of romance novels: simple and sophisticated at once; rich and sweet and awfully charming.” LFL, a reviewer for AAR, calls Madensky Square a “true confection” and terms Ibbotson’s writing “so rich that it melts in your mouth.” And Angie of Angieville declares, “Opening up an Eva Ibbotson book is like biting into a hot biscuit smothered with butter and jam--at once perfectly satisfying and extremely comforting.”
If your taste runs only to romances with sizzling love scenes and convoluted plots, Ibbotson is unlikely to appeal to you. But if you have a taste for stories that are sweet but never saccharine, worlds peopled by characters who move you to laughter and tears, and prose that delights the mind and the heart, you’ll be another Ibbotson convert. You’ll find your own food metaphors for the books of Eva Ibbotson.
Are you an Ibbotson fan? What's your favorite?