Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review: A Countess Below Stairs/The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

Cover of A Countess Below Stairs, featuring the lower face and upper torso of a young white woman with curly brown hair. She wears a vaguely historical purple top and has a large emerald necklace around her throat.
Friends, there’s only one way a girl can possibly review A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS (aka THE SECRET COUNTESS1), Eva Ibbotson’s nonmagical historical fairy tale about an impoverished Russian countess who takes a job as a chambermaid and falls in requited love with the unattainable owner of the estate at which she works.

That’s right. We’re gonna gush.

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version (also the only version)

OMG YOU GUYS this book is the best thing ever no seriously it is my FAVOURITE I know the little description up there makes it sound like an average romance but it is not IT IS PERFECT it’s one of the eight books I’ve love straight from the first word2 to the last because it is so so so beautiful the prose is staggering Eva Ibbotson has this GIFT to reach straight into any given emotion and make it manifest so you don’t just read it you FEEL it I cried my way through the whole damned thing3 with some extra-intense wretched sobbing at the end4 Anna is so wonderful like she could easily be too perfect but she’s not because you REALLY SEE why everyone loves her and you love her too and her relationship with Rupert is so understated they mean so much to one another and they connect so beautifully but it’s all between the lines5 and it’s like that with every single character Ibbotson excels at showing by telling you meet a person and suddenly you know everything about them but it’s not overkill you WANT to know these things you LOVE them except the villain Muriel you don’t love her she is a terrible horrible person who’s all ableist6 and anti-Semitic7 and totally into eugenics which everyone initially thinks is about breeding chickens because Hitler hasn’t happened yet8 but it’s not she’s trying to make a master race OMG I HATE HER SO MUCH and you will too she does wrong by the Honourable Olive and NOBODY DOES WRONG BY THE HONOURABLE OLIVE AND GETS AWAY WITH IT8 and also there are a great many Russians and I’m still so bummed I can’t go to Russia perhaps the Russians are unrealistic but whatevs I love them so I don’t care if people don’t actually react to their changes in circumstance with such aplomb9 sometimes I call Murchie Pupsik10 and the Honourable Olive gets to hold Pupsik it’s a total awwwwww moment and don’t you even get me started on that fucking ball I will start bawling right here right now so help me bawling over a ball how appropriate is that DAMN I can’t even say enough about this book so I’m not even gonna try just believe me on this okay I acknowledge it’s not perfect because of Sebastien and the maids11 but everything else about it is spot-on and I give it seven stars out of five because IT IS MY FAVOURITE BOOK PLEASE READ IT12.


I always advocate your library as the best source for books, but I recognize it's not an option for every reader. What if your library doesn't have A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS? What if you don't even have a library??? (Horrors.) Should you need another way to read this wondrous book, you may obtain it from the following fine retailers:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.

  1. The book was originally titled A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS upon its 1981 publication for the adult romance market. This name is still appended to the American edition (which is now published as YA, even though Anna is 21 and Rupert is at least a few years older than that), but the UK/Commonwealth edition is currently called THE SECRET COUNTESS.

    It was originally recced to me as A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS. I read THE SECRET COUNTESS from the library, then bought A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS with a Barnes & Noble gift card during a trip to the United States. Then, when I set out to replace my paper copies of my most beloved books with easy-to-store digital editions, I bought THE SECRET COUNTESS because the UK edition was couponable and the North American edition was not.

    Titles, bro. They can get complicated.

  2. Here’s the first line:

    In the fabled, glittering world that was St Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

    I read that sentence and said, “I will love this book with all my soul.”

    And I did. And I do.

  3. I’m not joking. I kept letting out these weird little sobs because I was so overcome with a choice bit of imagery or a telling interaction. They probably sounded like giggles, the line between crying and laughing being what it is. Luckily, I don’t think anyone overheard me. It wasn’t like that time I read OLD MAN’S WAR and kept drawing strange looks because I was snickering in the common area.

  4. I had to take a short break so my tear ducts could recover. My eyes stung from all the crying.

  5. I suspect that if one were to go through the book and tally up the total number of scenes they spend together, there’d be little actual interaction between them. What we do get carries so much weight that it feels like they enact the most involved romance in all the land. Their few conversations do give their relationship space to grow, but we know they’re perfect for one another because the things they do when they’re apart are so completely complementary.

  6. There are a lot of disabled people in this book, from Win the kitchen girl (who is described as a “halfwit;” poor language which I’m gonna say is due to the established lingo of the early 80s rather than any disdain for Win on Ibbotson’s part) to the many PTSD-ridden soldiers we meet or hear about (including Rupert) to the Honourable Olive (who walks with a limp because one of her legs is shorter than the other).

  7. Ibbotson was herself a non-practicing Jewish woman whose family left Austria for England because of the Nazis.

  8. At first, you’re like, “Why isn’t everyone freaking out over this woman’s interest in eugenics???? It’s a dead giveaway that she’s bad news????” But then you realize eugenics used to be solely a farming practice and wasn’t widely known as a racist/classist/ableist thing at the time this story is set. People like Dr Lightwood, the eugenicist upon whom Muriel bestows her affection, were just beginning to gain traction.

  9. I will fight you over the Honourable Olive, as will every single character in this book barring the loathsome Muriel. The Honourable Olive is eight years old. She adopts a hedgehog named Alexander, with Anna’s blessing, and she would like to be a Russian when she grows up. She is a fucking treasure.

    Petya says that Olive is like a hedgehog in that she knows only one thing: how to make people love her. I figure she probably knows another couple of other things, too, but she is awfully good at collecting loved ones.

  10. Anna and her friends are upset they’ve been banished from the homeland they love, and they’re deeply distraught to have lost so many loved ones in the fight, but the financial losses seem to be far less of an issue. They’re not a nonissue, by any means--Anna takes her chambermaid’s job because she, her mother, and her young brother are fast running out of money--but they don’t sit around lamenting their sudden lack of jewels and enormous houses. Everyone tries to do something to live within their new circumstances, even if their schemes are wildly unrealistic.

  11. Pupsik is a dachshund with a terribly valuable diamond in his tummy, but his owner won’t allow anyone to remove it because the operation would cause poor Pupsik terrible distress. She’ll become a laundress instead, thanks. This is, perhaps, one of the book’s less realistic moments, but it warms my heart so much that I don’t really care.

  12. Rupert’s elderly uncle, Sebastien, fondles the maids and everyone just shrugs it off. “Everyone” does include the maids themselves, who believe Sebastien doesn’t mean any harm, but it’s heavily implied that Sebastien doesn’t ask permission before he gropes someone so it remains highly suspect. He also confines his attention to maids, since anyone of his own social class intimidates him.

  13. While A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS has ranked among my five-star reads since the moment I encountered it, it has only just ascended to the position of Favourite Book. I have no idea what took me so long because, as previously stated, it is perfect and Anna and Rupert are wonderful and I'll actually fight you over pretty well everyone, not just the Honourable Olive.

    I’ve convinced a handful of people to read it so far. It’d be awesome if you--yes, you!--were next.


  1. Sometimes ungrammatical gushing is all one can do.

    I realised yesterday there are new editions of all her romances in the UK with really pretty new covers and now I want to buy them all again.

    1. So lovely! Kobo automatically changed my in-library cover to that one, but I think the cover inside the file is still the old one. Very strange.

  2. I really need to read Ibbotson one of these days!