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.
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