I have loved Eva Ibbotson's books ever since I picked up The Secret of Platform 13 back in 1994. This one is not a fantasy novel, like many of her books - it is set England during World War I. Our heroine is Anna, a young Russian countess who, at the beginning of the book, is wealthy beyond compare, with an extremely loving family and servants who dote on her. But in spite of all these blessings, she is not spoiled. She is spirited and a bit headstrong, but also very kind and loving with a keen sense of honor.
Her English governess tells her stories about England, making Anna long to travel there and see the marvelous green, warm countryside for herself. Unfortunately her wish is granted in a way that means the end of her family and way of life. After the revolution Anna and the surviving members of the family flee, penniless, with Anna's governess, who provides a place for them to stay. But Anna cannot bring herself to live there on charity, and when she finds an opportunity to take a temporary position as maid at a neighboring estate, she seizes it. She knows nothing of life as a servant, but she has her trusty copy of The Domestic Servant's Compendium to guide her. She is determined to keep her past a secret, and is laughably unaware of how obvious her gentle upbringing appears to those around her. Still, good servants are difficult to come by, and Anna's determination to do the exhausting work required of her, along with her impulsive, kindhearted nature soon endear her to the entire household, from the master's enormous dog Baskerville to the butler's eccentric invalid mother.
The plot of this novel is nothing new, and much of it is, in fact, quite predictable. But the way Ibbotson tells the story is so engaging that it is a joy to watch events unfold. Rupert, the handsome Earl of Westerholme, returns home from the war, the surviving younger brother who never imagined - or desired - to inherit the estate. His beautiful, wealthy fiancée will help solve the financial problems plaguing the property, and he will be able to keep the house, as he promised his older brother he would. Little does Rupert know that the Russian maid, gathered with the rest of the household staff to greet him upon his return from the war, will turn his life upside down.
The novel does have this element of romance, but it is mainly about a remarkable young woman finding her place in a new and strange world. When I closed the book I was truly sorry to let go of the many wonderful characters, whom I'd come to know and love in a way that only the very best novelists can inspire.
Virginia Gal, you will love this book!
A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson (Speak, 2007)
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