Everytime I read one of her novels, I am swept into a world so unlike our own--a splendid, foreign country I wish would continue for another 300 pages. I actually relish the words and images. I just finished reading and re-reading A Countess Below Stairs...in two days. Well, actually, I re-read every single part dealing with Anna and the Earl of Westerholme. The narrative is utterly arresting.
A moment between Rupert (the Earl) and Anna:
"Ah, yes; my wedding." The word reared up to meet him, banishing the last traces of lunacy. He became aware of Rene staring at him salaciously, of Elsie, with her mouth open, clutching a towel..."You will be very attractive for my wedding," he said lightly. "For my funeral aslo, je vous assure." He lifted a hand, laid it for a moment on the rich dark tresses where they mantled her shoulders, then turned it, letting the backs of his fingers run upward against the shining waves. For an instant she felt his touch on her cheek; then he stepped back. "There that was my ration for all eternity. People have died for less, I dare say."
And another: And he understood that she was offering him this, her life, for all eternity and understood, too, where she belonged because her sisters are everywhere in Russian literature: Natasha, who left her ballroom and shining youth to nurse her mortally wounded prince...Sonia, the street girl who followed Raskalnikov into exile in Siberia and gave that poor, tormented devil the only peace he ever knew.
See how beautiful it is? It just evokes the senses through rich, elegant dialogue and prose. And of course, since it is historical romance, the description of the landscape, the history, is superb. Again, maybe it has special appeal to me since I teach world history and actually recognize the historical and literary references. But even so, I can not imagine that any reader would not be touched on some level by Ibbotson's writing: A patchwork country, flower filled and gentle , in which a smiling queen stood on street corners bestowing roses which miraculously grew on pins upon a grateful populace...A country without winter or anarchists whose name was England.
Wow. I love that last line. Somewhere later in the novel, Anna describes how her brother, Petya, was plagued by anarchists in his nightmares and by the shadows of religious icons floating on his walls from a nightlight.
As for the story line of A Countess Below Stairs, Anna, the image of a Slavic painting personified, is a young Russian countess with a glorious mass of chestnut curls who finds herself employed as a housemaid after her new status of political refugee. Although not exactly beautiful, her spirit and character illuminate all things in her presence. As it would be in many a great love story, her presence captivates the master of the estate, Rupert, the Earl of Westerholme. Her fluid curtsies, her demure physique, her bronzed waves flowing over her shoulder--all these things are Anna and all these things he begins to love. But, Rupert is engaged to marry. As a WWI veteran, Rupert falls in love while being nursed back to health by a volunteer nurse who comes from new money. The nurse, Muriel, is an angel of mercy during his stay at the hospital, but the very same woman soon proves to be much less with her plan to legitimize her wealth through marriage to a title and with her prejudice against those who are imperfect.
All can see Anna is not one for the mere occupation of housemaid. Her speech, mannerisms, and grace all point to an aristocratic, royal upbringing beyond even that of the Earl. Nontheless, she pours her entire soul into her work, breathing life into the estate at Mersham. Breathing life into the dream tormented Earl of Westerholme who will stand with honor, yet without love, at the side of his former nurse. Ahhh...the beauty of pain in love. The richness and poetry of a classic love story. Some might say it is too predictable, too long, too descriptive, too clean...but to me it is just perfect. Who tires of the classics, of Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice? No one, and A Countess Below Stairs (and all of Ibbotson's historical romances, I might add) follows in the same tradition.
Eva Ibbotson, hands down, writes the best historical romance. Her novels are strong in crossover appeal to young adult and adult fiction readers. There is nothing in any of her novels to keep them out of sight in a family room or out the hands of your daughter.