Book: A Countess Below Stairs
Author: Eva Ibbotson
My wonderful avid readers, I can already hear you all echoing ‘not another historical fiction novel review’ and yes you are quite right. ‘A Countess Below Stairs’ is yet another novel in my much loved historical fiction genre that I am about to review. I am most apologetic for my recent obsession with this genre. However it can not be helped, I am simply magnetised to this wonderful category of books at the moment and must share my infatuation with you all. Unfortunately I do not have as much time as I would like to write this review, so regrettably, it will be much shorter than previous entries.
So to begin, let me take you back to the class dominated era of the early 1900s. The First World War and The Russian Revolution have just occurred. The royal and rich of Russia have been usurped of their wealth and power. Violence and terror have resulted in many Russians fleeing their homeland, their families and their fortunes, to seek shelter in countries such as England, where they now must work to earn their keep and keep their families fed. From living in palaces to now living in tiny little flats with families often sharing the one room, the life of luxury they once knew, has now gone forever.
It is in this world, that our main character, Anna Grazinsky, daughter of a Russian Count and Countess, resides in. Anna and her family have managed to escape war torn Russia, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Having tragically lost her father to the war, the family now reside, penniless, in a small flat in London, Anna decides that enough is enough. She must earn a living to support her family. So without further ado, Anna takes up the role of servant in the Westerholme family estate, hiding her identity to protect her family. Here she takes her job very seriously, even regularly carrying around a ‘how to’ book called ‘The Domestic Servant’s Compendium’, which being so out dated, and over the top, regularly provides the novel with a little humour, as Anna is so keen to do her job to the utmost perfection and believes this book to be the bible of housework and servant duties. The rest of the staff are utterly enchanted by this young Russian, who has a bizarre approach to any housework she takes on but is so ridiculously kind, they can’t help but adore her. It appears to the reader that Anna is not your typical royal. She strives to make others happy and truly respects all characters in the story, regardless of background or class.
In regards to the estate Anna works for, the Westerholmes, although being viewed as a family of esteemed reputation, considering the son of the family is in fact an Earl. However the family estate is close to bankruptcy and the eldest son, the heir has been killed in the war. It is left to Rupert, the younger son and now Earl of the family, to take it upon himself to save the family estate and marry into a wealthy family. Here enters the title obsessed and pure blood fanatic character of Rupert’s fiancée, Murial Hardwicke, who uses her wealth to buy her own status. Rupert is blind to her evil side as with all stories such as these. Despite being engaged, Rupert regularly finds himself seeking out the company of Anna, which should be frowned upon due to the fact she is a servant, but she is unlike any female Rupert has ever met, and her mystery and her clearly well educated conversations, have lead him to become quite besotted with Anna. Anna is also deeply attracted to the young Earl. Nonetheless the issue of Rupert being engaged and Anna’s mysterious past threaten to separate them.
This novel is your classic Disney storyline. In fact there are so many ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Anastasia’ type moments in the book, it is difficult not to feel as if one has witnessed or experienced this plot before, many times. However having said that, it is truly a heart warming story. Anna as a character is beautiful, and I’m not speaking of her looks, more of her attitude to life and her wonderful personality. She constantly seeks to help others in need and she genuinely cares for every type of human being, regardless of social background. (Homage to snow white anyone?). Rupert is the classic knight in shining armour who needs to just wake up and realise what exactly he is marrying into. Murial is an excellent antagonist, a spoilt, racist, self-righteous, interfering know-it-all, who provides all the much needed drama needed to make this novel entertaining. Also I must say I absolutely adored the downstairs staff moments of the novel. It literally reminded me of the goings on in shows such as ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, a must read for fans of those shows.
This book is probably classed as a young adult book, however there are such seedy moments in it, I’m not sure if I would recommend it for young adults. For example the character of Dr. Lightbody is so disturbing. His desire for pure bloodlines has led to a slightly perverted obsession with Murial. He is also a married man, whose description of his home life is horrible in comparison with the sugary moments of the rest of the novel. The doctor literally made my skin crawl and his impure thoughts regarding Murial are not quite appropriate for the younger audience. Such racism does occur throughout the novel by characters such as the doctor and Murial and so at times it can be uncomfortable but I do think that this is a sign of good writing, when you actually feel horrified at characters in the story. So I congratulate Ms. Ibbotson on this note.
I have heard others complain that this story has so much dialogue, that is dragged out and lengthy to read and caused confusion. I can see where they are coming from but I don’t know if I would agree with that. In my opinion, the author has a lovely way with language and her descriptions of events in the story and the surrounding are quite magnificent at times. I think with books such as these, one needs to be in the correct mind frame to read them. I will admit I found the story a bit predictable, as with so many Disney inspired moments it would be. It is also sugary sweet, once again like Disney stories, that a reader might feel like they have had a sweetness overload. Sometimes I found myself wishing the character of Anna to be a bit malicious, even just for a second to try to get one over Murial or even just to change up her usual happy go lucky personality. The book also, is slow to get going but once it picks up pace, it is most entertaining and most certainly kept me reading.
Overall I would only recommend this book to fans of the era and to those who love predictable stories with a happy ending. As previously mentioned, this reflects Disney movies to the maximum. It is a beautiful story and well written, the characters are engaging and the plot, after the first few chapters, does keep the reader absorbed. While being slightly over the top in sweetness, it does have darker moments and I would describe it almost like the Grimm brothers version of fairy tales, a happy love story told with some disturbing junctures. With any book there are pros and cons, with this book slightly more than I would like but I am honestly glad I read it. It isn’t as terrible as other reviewers have mentioned. It is a charming read and I would definitely recommend it to those who love ‘Downton Abbey’.
Finally I would like to stress that no book should be judged by it’s cover, and that every book deserves a chance. I therefore ask you all to give this novel a chance. It may not suit you all, but it is a touching story that deserves some recognition.
As always, would love to hear some feedback on here or my twitter page.
The Avid Reader 🙂