Book:“A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson
Publishing Info: Speak, May 1981
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: After the Russian revolution turns her world topsy-turvy, Anna, a young Russian Countess, has no choice but to flee to England. Penniless, Anna hides her aristocratic background and takes a job as servant in the household of the esteemed Westerholme family, armed only with an outdated housekeeping manual and sheer determination.
Desperate to keep her past a secret, Anna is nearly overwhelmed by her new duties—not to mention her instant attraction to Rupert, the handsome Earl of Westerholme. To make matters worse, Rupert appears to be falling for her as well. As their attraction grows stronger, Anna finds it more and more difficult to keep her most dearly held secrets from unraveling. And then there’s the small matter of Rupert’s beautiful and nasty fiancée…
Review: I am on a bit of a historical fiction kick currently, it seems. And this story, with its mixture of “Downton Abbey” themes and motifs combined with a main character who survived the Russian revolution, sounded just about perfect right now. While there were definite strengths and weaknesses of this story, I ultimately very much enjoyed it.
Anna, whose family lead an idealic life in the Russian aristocracy before the revolution overcome their country, has now fled to England with the remaining members of her family, and is broke and facing a new life for which she is completely unprepared. Luckily, she finds a place as a housemaid in the household of the Earl of Westerholme. I say “luckily” because, while the book description leads readers to believe that Anna struggles with this transition, she manages to find herself in one of the best households one could imagine. Her co-workers are hardworking and, while initially very skeptical of her clearly inexperienced background (though they only think she is untrained, unaware of her high born status), they are supportive and recognize her hard work and effort. And the family all end up loving her immediately as well, even the family dog!
This speaks to one of my largest criticisms of the book. Reading the book description, I was looking forward to a story about struggle, hope, and the ability to overcome the tough hand life had dealt Anna. But ultimately? She seemed to glide through it all with barely a misstep! Her childhood, before the revolution, is described in rosy hues and she’s pretty much the perfect child, notably never spoiled, always humble and cheerful. And then, thrown into a position as a maid, she seems to adjust instantly and everyone love her! The dog, the eccentric uncle (they bond over classical music), the senile mother of the butler (Anna gives her something to do!), Ollie, the young neighbor girl who struggles with her health (Anna never makes her feel like an outsider!). Anna was bit of a “special snowflake,” I guess is what I’m saying.
While this aspect of her characterization was a bit much, there were also very funny bits. For example, to learn to be a housemaid, Anna reads a 3 volume tome about the do’s and don’ts of service and is eternally quoting it at the other workers, much to their chagrin. She also curtsies elaborately to everyone, like so:
Ultimately, it was the villain character that made this book so fun. I found myself wanting to rush through the story just to get to the parts where Rupert would realize how completely terrible his fiancee really was. And she’s not villainized in the typical way (I was concerned that this was going to be a bit of a “evil for being popular” trope). Instead, Muriel has a keen interest in eugenics and “perfecting” the human race. So, you can guess where that was going! She was delightfully horrible.
My second criticism of the book was the ending and how it was resolved. Rupert is a rather bland leading man, and I was waiting for him to actually make some choices and stand up for his family and household whom he had exposed to the workings of his cruel fiancee. Instead, things are wrapped up in a way that seemed a bit out of left field, and by periphery characters. I feel that this could have been handled a bit better.
I listened to the audiobook version of this and very much enjoyed the narrator. She had a very “Dowager Countess of Grantham” type style which was lovely. The quality of the recording was a bit lacking, but I generally enjoyed it.
If you want a short, sweet historical story and can tolerate a bit of a “Mary Sue” type leading lady, definitely check this book out! Like I said, the villain is lovely to hate.
Rating 6: Solid story with a unique addition of the Russian revolution, but the leading lady was a bit too perfect and the ending a bit too much of an “easy out.”