Review of “A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson

Note: This book is called The Secret Countess in the U.K.

This very predictable but oh-so-charming Cinderella-like tale with a Russian flavor is a joy to read.

Anna lives a charmed life with her wealthy parents, the Count and Countess Grazinsky in St. Petersburg, until the 1917 Russian Revolution forces them to flee to London. Anna and her mother take refuge with Anna’s former governess, Miss Pinfold, but it is crowded and they are short of funds, so Anna obtains a temporary position at Mersham, the manor house of the Westerholmes. Rupert, the only heir to survive World War I, is coming home, and he has instructed the servants to get the house in shape. Thus, Anna becomes part of the cleaning crew, and in no time endears herself to everyone both downstairs and upstairs with her hard work and cheerful disposition.

Rupert, now Earl of Westerholme, returns and brings a surprise with him: Muriel Hardwicke, a fiancé, whom he met while recuperating from a war injury. Muriel is beautiful, but cold and cruel, and in no time alienates everyone, even Rupert, who would never, however, go back on a promise. And in fact, Rupert is becoming more and more fascinated with Anna, even while Muriel is more and more taken with her eugenicist mentor, the evil Dr. Lightbody.

Another family plays a rather large role in this tale: that of the Byrnes, neighbors and friends of the Westerholmes. Tom Byrne is Rupert’s best friend. Tom’s little sister Ollie is everyone’s sweetheart. Tom is in love with a local girl, Susie, from a Jewish family. Tom keeps proposing, and Susie keeps saying no. In my favorite passage of the book, Tom begs to know why she won’t marry him:

“Susie studied him carefully. ‘Tom, have you ever looked at me? At me? Not someone you’ve made up inside your head.”

…’I’m plump now,’ she continued in her level, unemotional voice. ‘In ten years I’ll be fat, however much I diet. I have a hooked nose; most of the time I need glasses. My hair is frizzy and my ear…‘

‘How dare you!’ Tom had seized her shoulders; he was shaking her, hurting her. The famous Byrne temper, scourge of his red-haired ancestors since Doomsday, blazed in his eyes. ‘How dare you talk to me like that! You are insulting me!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘How dare you suppose that I don’t know who you are or what you are? That I don’t understand what I see? Do you take me for some kind of besotted schoolboy? It is unspeakable! You could weigh as much as a hippopotamus and shave your head and wear a wig and it wouldn’t make any difference to me. I never said you were beautiful. I never thought it. I said that you were you.”

The ending comes out as you might think in a Cinderella story, with those assisting the heroine being the downstairs help rather than a fairy godmother or cute little birds and mice.

Evaluation: There are some splendid characters in this book, from Rupert’s lonely old uncle to Anna’s Russian friends and relations, the whole downstairs crew, and even the dog Baskerville: they are all drawn quite fully but with felicitous economy. When Mr. Proom, the head butler at Mersham, explains that he wants to help Rupert be happy because “well, I taught Mr. Rupert to ride a bicycle,” you know everything you need to know about his feelings for Rupert.

Rating: 4/5

First published in the U.S. by Avon Books, a division of Hearst Corporation, 1997; published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2007

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20 Responses to Review of “A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson

  1. Marg says:

    I am planning to read this in the next week. I am really looking forward to it especially seeing as I already know that I am somewhat partial to books with a Russian setting

  2. nymeth says:

    I love how she uses little details like that to convey a whole world of emotion. Now you need to read The Morning Gift! It’s even more charming 😀

  3. Sandy says:

    Now THAT is love! I should show it to my husband! Ha! You know I think Heather gave me this book and then I think perhaps it disappeared upstairs to my daughter’s room. I wonder if she has read it yet? One never knows, her room is like a black hole. Another Cinderella re-do, but I’m going to take your word for this one.

  4. brolee says:

    Yet another book I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own, but you’ve completely convinced me. The scene you posted was gorgeous and sold me entirely. Thanks for the rec!

  5. Care says:

    I love books set in Russia that aren’t written by old (dead) male Russians.

  6. I’ve been loving all of the fiction set in Russia that I’ve been coming across lately. I’ll be putting this on my TBR!

  7. Barbara says:

    Oh great – now I have the Disney mice in my head singing, “Cinderelly, Cinderelly” in their high squeaky voices. I’ll never get them out of there being as there’s so much empty space for them to dance in. Cinderelly, Cinderelly and bluebirds carrying garlands of flowers . . . 😀

  8. And yet another book goes on to my to-read shelf after reading your review… 🙂

  9. I’m not sure about this one, but would give it a try since you liked it so much.

  10. zibilee says:

    Oh, I am so glad that I can raid my daughter’s shelves and find this one, because I know that I just bought it for her for Christmas! It sounds so wonderful, and I am so excited by this review, that my fingers are flying in leaving this comment. I LOVED the quote you provided and need to read this one soon. Fantastic review today, Jill! So thrilled I will be reading this one!

  11. Steph says:

    I just read a really wonderful review championing Ibbotson over at Jenny’s Books which really made me sit up and take notice. Her books sound so delightful and diverting… I really need to find some authors that remind me how fun reading can be since I have literally only read 3 books this year! Can you imagine?!?

  12. Kailana says:

    This is an author that I have been hearing about for years and never actually read. I really need to remedy that.

  13. How strange, I bought this in the UK in about 1996 and it was called A Countess Below Stairs and firmly marketed at adults, not YA. I’ve got all of Eva Ibbotson’s books for older readers and they’ve all got grown up covers. I wonder who decided to aim them specifically at teenagers, I think it does her a huge disservice as she deserves a much wider audience and the – ahem – more mature reader could well be put off by those sugaary covers.

  14. I love the whole story..will be adding this title to my school collection. I just added The Ogre of Oglefort to my school shelves yesterday! 😀 Completely different but equally charming.

  15. Jenny says:

    I just finished reading this! It made me feel all warm and snuggly, as Eva Ibbotson’s books do. Except (Ana had this problem too!) for the uncle that groped the maids. He groped the maids! Too bad for him to have to have a mean nurse! He shouldn’t GROPE THE DAMN MAIDS because that is gross.

  16. Julie P. says:

    Now this sounds like a YA book that I would love!

  17. Alex says:

    I read and loved Ibotson’s “Journey to the River Sea”, but had the same problem with “Countess Below Stairs” I usually have with Georgette Heyer: the notion that aristocrats are different from ordinary people. Both Ibotson and Heyer make us things that just because you have blue blood, from birth you look differently, talk differently and move differently. That people look at you “know” that somehow you are more refined.

    I’m a bit too sensitive on this issue, but can’t avoid it!

    • You definitely raise an interesting point. But I would think that with rigid (and even not so rigid) class systems, there would be vast differences in education, elocution, nutrition, etc. that allow more or less correct superficial evaluations to be made. The question is the evaluative one though – does “refined” signify “better” and that (to me) would obviously be no. But generally the lower classes are socialized to think so; certainly in the case of this book.

      • Alex says:

        Yes, I was thinking about it while I wrote my reply. Anna was already grown up, so it’s normal that she would talk and act differently. The extreme example is Heyer really: she switches babies from different backgrounds at birth, but when they grow up, the farmer’s son educated as an aristocrat still has red cheeks and is more comfortable around animals and in the open air, while the girl raised in the farm has a perfect skin and walks like a queen. GRRRRR

  18. Bookworm1858 says:

    I love Ibbotson’s historical fiction romances (my favorite is A Company of Swans because I love the ballet aspect) but all of them are so charming.

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