The Morning Gift is a confection of a tale, a combination of Cinderella and Anne of Green Gables for adults. It’s romantic and sweet but also explores a number of serious issues, including gender roles, standards of beauty, class distinctions, and the behavior of bystanders to the Nazi onslaught. Ibbotson herself once said her books were “for the intelligent woman with the flu.”
As the story begins, Ruth Berger is a lovely vivacious girl in pre-World War II Vienna, who enjoys assisting her zoologist father with his investigations. All her parents’ friends and her father’s co-workers are charmed by Ruth and by her love of music, expressed most concretely by her devotion to Heini, a piano prodigy who lives with Ruth and her family. But Ruth, like her father, plans to be a scientist.
When Ruth, now 20, gets stuck in Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss [the incorporation of Austria into Germany in 1938], one of her father’s colleagues – the British paleontologist Quin Sommerville, tries to rescue her. It turns out the only way he can get her out is to marry her, and so they have a “paper” marriage, with the intention of getting an annulment as soon as Ruth is safe.
Once in London, Quin delivers Ruth to Belsize Park in North London, with her family and other newly-poor refugees. Quin goes to his stately home in Bowmont in Northumberland, and charges his London attorney with the task of getting the marriage dissolved. But in spite of their intentions not to see each other, Ruth becomes Quin’s student at Thameside University, and soon they are enmeshed in each other’s lives.
During the course of this delightful and predictable-but-who-cares romp, we also get to meet Ruth’s fellow students, Quin’s family and friends, and a cross-section of the Belsize Park Jewish refugees. They are each endearing or dreadful in unique ways, and add drama, humor, and layers to the plot. In fact, it is quite impressive how real the secondary characters become despite the fact that most of them receive relatively little coverage. Ibbotson’s deft conveyance of a world through a phrase makes us feel like we have known them all of our lives.
The resolution to the story fulfills Ibbotson’s sina qua non (according to her son) “that people will eventually find the right person for them and find the right place to be.”
Discussion: There is so much to recommend in this book aside from its Cinderella aspects. It is, for one, a good look at what life was like for one upper middle class family that managed to get out of Austria before it was too late. In fact, the bare outline of the story comes from the author’s own life. She was born in Vienna to non-practicing Jewish parents. (In the book, both of Ruth’s parents are non-practicing, but one is Jewish and one is Catholic.) Ibbotson’s father, like Ruth’s, was also a scientist and lecturer at a university. After their escape from Vienna, Ibbotson and her mother (the parents got separated), settled in impoverished Belsize Park in London. And like her character Ruth, Ibbotson intended to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Ibbotson takes the opportunity afforded by every Cinderella story to contrast the lifestyle and pressures of the lower and the upper classes, and invariably sets up some of the upper class for ridicule. Some, however, are drawn sympathetically – particularly the handsome-prince-to-be. But she does not vitiate her credibility by portraying the lower classes as a uniform collection of saints. Her work is quite nuanced, even if the heroine is a bit too beautiful and entrancing, albeit definitely not without faults.
(In this regard, I was a bit appalled that so much of the story was devoted to singing the praises of Ruth’s golden-haired, snub-nosed beauty, specifically stated to be in direct contrast to what she might have been expected to look like with a Semitic background. I’m not sure what Ibbotson’s agenda was with this, or if it was even conscious.)
The story also delves into the attitudes of the British about the onslaught of war refugees inundating London. Anti-semitism played an important role in Britain in the 1930s, and included violence by “Blackshirts” against Jewish refugees from Nazi terror. And, as in the U.S., there was much political resistance to accepting further Jewish refugees as their numbers threatened to balloon. Ibbotson seamlessly weaves into her story the attitudes and erroneous preconceptions of the upper classes toward such “foreigners,” including of course Ruth, her family, and fellow refugees, who were definitely considered undesirable. Although the distaste would have been extended to rich as well as poor Jews, part of the problem for the British upper class was that Jews were forced to leave their wealth behind in Germany, and so appeared to be like paupers (and indeed, were often transformed into beggars). Thus they aroused class disgust as well as ethnic prejudice.
Finally, Ibbotson does not hesitate to take on gender roles, contrasting Heini’s egregiously self-centered traditionalist expectations of Ruth with Quin’s more enlightened approach to women.
Evaluation: I loved this book and I love Ibbotson’s style of writing. I have enjoyed every moment I have spent with the two books of Ibbotson’s that I have read so far, and fully intend to catch up on her entire oeuvre.
Published by St Martins Press, 1993