I could not believe I had not heard about this author until around the time of her passing in 2011. I simply couldn't believe it because her stories were so interesting. I really must have been living in a hole my entire life, or some cave. This was my first book of her's and it was definitely just the beginning.
Written before my birth apparently, pulled me out of a completely reading vortex of tar back when I read it in 2011. At that time, I was also passionately and desperately waiting for her last book.
I wanted that book so bad I went a little crazy like, wanting to fly to Europe and buy that particular book first. Although flying to Europe to buy a book was a little too crazy even for me…although buying the book from a UK store and having it shipped here would not be. Only exorbitantly pricey. So, while I waited for A Boy and His Dog I tried to catch up on some of her older books.
A Countess Below Stairs – Eva Ibbotson
The basic story was a bit of cinderella, rag-to-riches (except it's reverse, like riches-to-rags-to-riches), family dynamics, and quite a lot of romance towards the back. The story revolved around 19 year old Anna, a countess (very high born) in Russia, but had escaped with her mother to live with her governess. Not wanting to be a burden, she convinced the housekeeper and butler at Mersham to hire her as a maid while keeping it a secret from her family (especially younger brother that was away at school). From there, her personality and hard work won the staff and family over. Robert, the current Lord of Mersham after the death of his older brother, returned from the front with a fiance that he doesn't remember proposing to in tow and things change more from there. It became heavier on the romance later on, but mainly revolved around many of the characters. This was mostly the story of the resilience of Anna.
The prologue was a great set-up of the past…a very long prologue that went through most of Anna’s childhood to her current predicament. Right after the First World War, Russia went through her own cultural revolution into the Soviet Union. Politics aside, what struck me as most poignant was Ms. Eva’s utter portrayal of people. Her ability to mix the politics without judgment nor lectures made this book all that much better. I have never read such a book where such a precarious time was written with such honesty and sincerity that I would totally have discounted had I written the book. My emotions and prejudices would've overtaken the characters and stories. Eva Ibbotson, master that she was, dealt with so much more.
What was dealt with?
Anti-semit: A family in the story were Jewish and it dealt with how they were being treated. I felt there were times that the characters fell into certain stereotypes, but at the same time were not used as a short-cut to characterization. They were simply part of these characters. Instead, we saw how they were treated merely because they were Jewish. Not outright cruel, but those subtle backhanded prejudices and treatments meant to hurt without being able to call out and slap the perpetrator.
Eugenics: It may sound horrible, but I laughed so many times while reading this in the book since the absurdity of such an idea was handled so well. Oh, I do believe Ms. Eva did a great job making fun of the people with these illogical notions. She was really much too kind to those fools even as she illustrated the horrors and ignorance eugenics actually brought.
Disability: This was actually very well tied in with the eugenics issues. We have the Honorable Olive, Win, and Mrs. There was no magical cure. These were real problems, but what Ms. Eva showed us was the people behind the disability.
Also, one thing I really enjoyed was the inverse of beauty and the pitfalls being beautiful brought. It was both internal and external: how people treated those they deemed beautiful. It could've been very cliche or annoying, but the author was very subtle and tried to make it a real issue. To Sergi, Anna’s handsome Prince cousin, it brought nothing but troublesome women old and young. It was utterly hilarious at times. For Muriel, the love rival of our protagonist, her beauty made people blind to her faults, but only initially. Her physical perfection hid her nasty character. People made immediate judgement based on their looks. With Anna, she was described as very plain looking and a very thin body (probably a nice way of saying no curves), but her innate elegance and grace overshadowed physicality. It was also interesting about the mannerisms...ex) Anna's actions and words gave more away than she intended, such that the staff originally didn't want to hire her because it was apparent that she was from a high class family.
This was also something I really enjoyed: the fact that Anna and her relatives were willing to work. Instead of being waiting on hand and foot or even expecting people to help them just because they were royalty, Anna went out to work because she didn't want to burden the person that took her in. Everyone wanted to contribute in their own way.
If I had one complaint? Anna was too perfect. Absolutely, wonderfully perfect. Elegant, compassionate, smart, generous, understanding, funny… She was way too perfect. Of course, dear Ms. Eva reiterated several times, Anna was very simple looking. Compared to Muriel, the supposed perfect genetic specimen, Anna’s features were not striking and that she was rather thin. Anna was not written as a beauty. It was her graceful nature, the larger than life personality, and her all accepting attitude that drew everyone in. So, other than every character trying to drive into the fact she wasn't a looker, Anna was pretty much perfect.
Overall, the characters were all unique and their voices very clear and strong. Humor was also a big factor throughout the book. The secondary characters, even the "servants," almost took center stage at times with their quirks and individuality. This book could've been a series and I would've kept reading about each and every single character, from the cook to the uncle. There was such realism that was involved. Granted, it was not a book without faults, but the overall enjoyment of this book overshadowed the tiny minor pitfalls.
This, honestly, would’ve made a heck of an adult romance novel. Then again, the author intended it as such although recent publications have listed it as young adult/teen.