Thursday, October 29, 2009

Delicacies to Delight: The Books of Eva Ibbotson

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?


Santa said...

My daughter and I are new fans to Eva Ibbotson. My daughter has read and re-read (it is quite tired looking now) Countess Below Stairs earlier this year. I have also read it and was delighted.

I had no idea she had such a backlist. Naturally, we will explore it. They look like books my other two would enjoy.

Anna Campbell said...

Janga, what a beautiful post. And as you know, about one of my all-time favorite writers and one who doesn't get nearly the attention she deserves, in my opinion! I'd add 'humble' but we both know that's not true, LOL! I discovered A Countess Below Stairs at the Brisbane Central City library way back in the early 80s and I must have borrowed it about ten times before I found a copy and bought it. Since then, I've read that book about a hundred times and I never fail to smile at all those wonderful characters. Proom and his mum, Bascombe the hound, the Wagner-loving uncle, the wonderful Russians, the honorable Olive - now, there's a character who I want to have her own story. And best of all, the gorgeous Anna who is as sweet as sugar and as strong as stone and the gorgeous Rupert. Actually Gideon in Captive of Sin has elements of Rupert - as I'm sure you'll notice! He's one of the loveliest heroes in romance. I always cry at the Waltz of the Flowers scene. I think that's just pitch perfect - a miracle of beautiful writing.

Oh, dear, I'm raving!

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Hey Janga! Popping over because Anna said you were talking about one of my all-time fav authors, Eva Ibbotson.

Anna and I bought the Countess Below Stairs about the same time, I see. Ha! I cannot even count the times I've read it. It's a comfort read and I adore it just as much when I pick it up as I did the first time. Now since I just reread it, I'm going to be snarky darling Anna and tell you the dog's name is Baskerville. Grins. Always the critic, aren't I? Sorry! I went and looked it up because I thought, "Is that his name? Is that right?" Grins.

I love the scene where the dog, snooty as a Lord, MUST find comfort, must find Anna, and deigns to degrade and debase himself totally by going below stairs. It's priceless.

Janga, there were several you listed that I'd not read. I've not read the childrens' books and I must, I tell you! Poste haste!

I adore the Magic Flutes, and the Company of Swans. That one is brilliant. Just Brilliant. I had not read Song of Summer, so I'll be buying that as well.

However, I always return to Countess. As Anna said, the characters stay with you. I frequently think of the dressmaker with an "unfortunate way with the set of a sleeve. But no one in Maidens Over expected to be able to lift their hands over their heads..." And the conniving cousins. And Olive.

PUHLEEEEEESE, Ms. Eva, tell Ollie's story. I've never forgotten the evocative scene where Anna takes The Honorable Olive to the Russian Club where it was "possible to be instantly and completely happy." Ohhhh, and Pupsik, the dachsund. GOT to know what happened to Pupsik.


TerriOsburn said...

I've not read Ibbotson though I've heard you mention her on many occasions. And Anna as well. It sounds like my daughter is at the perfect age to start these YA books.

Right now she's addicted to Jessica Burkhart's Canterwood Crest series, but she's about to finish the most recent and will need something to fall in love with until the next book is released.

I'll be checking our library catalogue this afternoon. Oh, and these books sound exactly like your stories. I look forward to the day others are writing odes to you. :)

Janga said...

Countess Below Stairs is a great one to begin with, San, as both Anna and Jeanne's comments affirm. If you read the others, let me know what you think. And how great that you can share them with your daughter!

Anna, hearing that Gideon has elements of Rupert makes me even more eager to read Captive of Sin. "Pitch Perfect" is such an apt description of many Ibbotson scenes. I find myself stopping to admire the exact rightness of physical and emotional tone. The cemetery scene in Magic Flutes is such a scene for me.

Janga said...

Jeanne, I didn't know that you were an Ibbotson aficionado too. Isn't she marvelous? One of the most remarkable things about her books is that the secondary characters are so memorable. I'd love to read the Honorable Olive's story. I feel certain that she did extraordinary things. :)

Terri, Isabel may be a bit young for the romances, but I bet she'd love The Secret of Platform 13. You should try Patricia Wrede and Hilary McKay's Exiles with her too. You should read Ibbotson's romances. I know you're so short of things to read. LOL!

Anna Campbell said...

Pupsik, the dyspeptic dachshund with a diamond in his gut! Oh, man, how cool was that? You're right - it's Baskerville! Sorry about that, EI fans! I always kill myself laughing at the chook stuff at the end. It's masterful!

Jeanne, I'm with you. I love the others but Countess just pips them out. And there's so much beautiful heartfelt writing that's often so simple but so perfect. The bit about some of the light going out of Anna when her father is killed by his own soldiers. That was sooooo sad. She didn't linger on it but it was just done right. Sigh.

Oh, and the scene in the hairdresser! That always gives me goosebumps!

Anna Campbell said...

Janga, now you know to be on the lookout for it, I'm sure you'll pick up on the connections. I just adore Rupert!!!!! ;-)

cheryl c said...

I have never read any of Eva Ibbotson's stories, but I am intrigued now. It sounds like I need to start with A Countess Below Stairs. Thanks for the recomendation! :-)

Maggie Robinson w/a Margaret Rowe said...

You've inspired me to check out The Countess Below Stairs from our high school library. It just came back in and it's tempted me for a while.:)

irisheyes said...

I've never read Eva Ibbotson, Janga, but as always when reading your recs am intrigued. I'll have to check our local library and see if I can hunt down a copy of A Countess Below Stairs. It sounds right up my alley.

I'm trying to get my 14 year old daughter into some of these romances but she just won't bite. I did get her to sit down and watch Sense & Sensibility with me a couple of Friday's ago and she loved it. So maybe there is hope.

quantum said...

Janga, these blogs of yours are quite superb.

I may not comment on all of them but I do read them and have now started to collect them.

I had never heard of Eva Ibbotson before reading this.

As there are some children expecting Christmas presents from me, I intend to investigate further.

Thanks for another stunning presentation. :)

Kris Kennedy said...

I never heard of her, but I'm so excited to be educated! Thank-you so much for your post--I can't wait to dig in.

Janga said...

Cheryl, I hope you'll try Ibbotson. She really is a gem.

Maggie, did you check out TCBS? I know you don't have much reading time these days, but I hope you find time for this one. You know you want to yield to temptation. :)

Irish, the DD may have to come to enjoy your faves gradually. Have you read any YA books together? There are such wonderful books being written for young readers. I recently read Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, a YA book about science, gender roles, and budding feminism in late 19th-century Texas. I loved it!

Janga said...

Dear Q, you are so kind.I'm glad that you drop by the blog--comment or no. And I'm delighted if I hepled you with your Christmas shopping. :)

Kris, it's great to see you here, and I consider it a privilege to have introduced you to Ibbotson. I hope you enjoy her as much as Anna, Jeanne, San, and I do.

Victoria Janssen said...

I love Ibbotson! Thanks so much for this post!

I started with her romances and have moved from there to her childrens' books.

Sherry Thomas said...

I love MADENSKY SQUARE beyond reason!

Janine said...

Thanks for pimping Eva Ibbotson -- one of my favorite romance authors, who deserves to be much better known than she is.

Thanks for quoting me too. Just to clarify, I post on AAR as LFL (my posting there predates my joining DA and choosing a J name as Jane and Jayne invited me to do). So you quoted me twice. Sorry for the confusion!

My favorite of Ibbotson's books for grownups is Madensky Square, but I think Magic Flutes/The Reluctant Heiress is my second favorite. That said, I still haven't read A Song for Summer or her book of short stories, A Glove Shop in Vienna; I'm saving them for a rainy day.

Ibbotson is such a wonderful writer; it is hard to believe she is so little known. I'm really thrilled that most of her books for adults have been reissued, and hope that Madensky Square will be reissued eventually too.