ST PETERSBURG, 1917
Anna’s world is under threat. The eighteen-year-old countess has lived in luxury all her life, but revolution is tearing Russia apart – and her family must escape…
Now penniless, Anna is working as a servant for the aristocratic Westerholmes. But as she falls in love with the young earl it becomes harder to keep her true identity a secret…
The Eva Ibbotson romances were some of my favourite books as a teenager. They combined my interest in history with my then idyllic notions of love. ‘The Secret Countess’ was the one I read the most – I’m surprised my copy held up so well.
‘The Secret Countess’ really showcases Eva Ibbotson’s talent for writing likeable characters, especially making ridiculous characters seem completely credible. All of the residents of Mersham are hilarious misfits. Rupert’s widowed mother who sends her staff to deliver messages from loved ones beyond the grave to people in the village, and Proom the stately butler who buried her badly knitted socks in the garden to spare soldiers from them are just two of a whole cast of awesome people. The main character Anna Grazinsky is practically a Mary Sue, but her quirks are so giggle worthy that she is the only Mary Sue I’ve ever enjoyed reading. Her habit of curtseying deeply to her superiors makes me laugh every time, as did her interactions with the snobbish mastiff Baskerville.
The relationship between Rupert and Anna is also well written: Ibbotson does an excellent job showing their growing attachment even as they both try to prevent that attachment from occurring. The growing distance between Rupert and his fiancée Muriel is used as a good foil to this, as the two learn more about each other and both come to realise that their marriage of convenience will not be a happy one. Neither party wishes to end the arrangement, and Proom’s inventive solution is both hilarious and supremely effective.
Despite Ibbotson’s talent for characterisation, I can no longer reconcile myself to the character of Uncle Sebastien. I have no objection to his being a veritable hermit in his set of rooms. I quite like the fact that he is a skilled musician who was never able to pursue a career because of his perceived status in life. What makes me seethe is the fact that his penchant for groping the maids is portrayed as a harmless quirk instead of predatory and disgusting. The maids actually defend him whenever someone reacts negatively to his actions, which honestly makes my skin crawl. This book is aimed at young women: it should not be telling them that their being touched without consent is okay.
As a teenager I loved the romanticised historical setting, but on every reread it irks me a little more. Other than brief mentions of anarchists, Ibbotson glosses over Russia’s near century of military and civil unrest before the Revolution. Instead, she describes the final years of Tsarist rule as prosperous and peaceful, and blames the First World War for the fall of the aristocracy. The Grazinskys and other Russian émigrés are described as innocent victims of irrationally angry peasants who rose up with no warning, instead of the beneficiaries of a system that exploited others to provide them with their jewels and palaces.
Despite its flaws, I still enjoy reading ‘The Secret Countess’. Eva Ibbotson has a true gift for character description and comedy, and I’ll always keep my copy to reread as a guilty pleasure.