I've had a copy of Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square unread on my shelves for longer than I care to admit. I think I can even pinpoint when I bought it--I spent a year in Austria a long time ago and Ibbotson was born in Vienna. Madensky Square is set in 1911 Imperial Vienna and I suspect I bought it in the hopes of prolonging the magical year I spent living there. Reading about a place is almost as good as being there (part of the reason I love reading so much-being able to transport myself to another time and place). I'm afraid it's taken having one of Ibbotson's other books, A Countess Below Stairs, thrust into my hands by another reader for me to finally get around to reading her work.
Admittedly A Countess Below Stairs is not high art. You can pretty much be assured from the first page that things will turn out happily for the heroine, even if the path is a rocky one, but that doesn't lessen the pleasure it takes to get there for the reader. A Countess Below Stairs is a charming story very Cinderella-like in the telling, though Anna is in no need of a fairy godmother to help her get her happily ever after. With a little help from a servant's book on household management and a strong sense of determination, a very strong-minded and thoughtful Anna Grazinsky knows what it takes to shape her own future and help her family along the way.
You see Anna is a former Russian Countess. After the death of her father and the horrors of the Revolution, Anna must flee with her family to the safety of England. They arrive penniless however, and in order to help support her family Anna takes a position in a country house as a maid. What does a countess know about scrubbing floors and polishing silver? Anna is nothing if not resourceful. What she needs to know she finds in the pages of her book, but it's her unfailing will and a fair amount of spunk that enchants nearly everyone she encounters. Most certainly the new Earl of Westerholme, a younger son who has inherited the family estate after the death of his elder brother in WWI. His fiancé is another matter entirely, however.
Muriel was Rupert's nurse when he was recovering from wounds he received in the war. Naturally they fell in love, or maybe she took advantage of his illness and being an honorable man and feeling a sense of duty he asks her to marry him. It doesn't hurt that she is an heiress and Westerholme is in need of an infusion of cash to keep it running, though I don't think ready cash was his motivation. Whatever Muriel's faults, and she has many, Rupert will not renege on his offer. Even as he finds himself falling for Anna, a house maid but one with an almost (inexplicable) royal bearing.
The story is peppered with lots of interesting characters--both likable and maddening. My favorite, next to Anna of course, is the Honorable Olive Byrne, or Ollie as she's known to her family. Effusive in her excitement to be one of the bridesmaids for the upcoming nuptials between Rupert and Muriel, ten-year-old has the misfortune of having a discernible limp. And Muriel, a devotee of a growing eugenics movement, cannot abide any sort of human frailty. Ibbotson very cleverly will manage to put Muriel in her place without tarnishing the Earl's stalwart reputation.
I can see why Ibbotson's books have been reissued as YA novels. Although originally (am guessing) intended for an adult market, they really make perfect cross-over books. I can see how the fairy tale aspect of the story would appeal to a younger audience, though she writes, too, about other more sobering issues with a fairly light touch.
All in all an entertaining and undemanding read--a charming, frothy confection that was just right for the dreary January days that began this new year. I'm going to have to dig out my copy of Madensky Square sometime soon, too.