A Countess Below Stairs is a must read for any fan of Downton Abbey.
Anna and her family fled their native Russia during the Revolution to make a new home in London. Attempts to bring their valuables with them are foiled, leaving them penniless.
Anna takes a job as a housemaid in a grand house. In spite of growing up in a wealthy estate, she is kind and unspoiled. She decides that working downstairs can be a grand adventure. She clings to her copy of The Domestic Servant’s Compendium by Selina Strickland, determined to be the best servant ever.
Rupert is an unlikely Earl. He always assumed his charismatic older brother would inherit Mersham, the family estate. After his brother dies in the first world war, he agrees to be the Earl of Westerholme because his family expects it.
Rupert is engaged to Muriel who nursed him back to health after being wounded in battle. No one can deny that Muriel is beautiful and seems charming. Rupert is really not sure how they came to be engaged.
Muriel espouses an early Nazi philosophy known as Eugenics. She wants to apply the same principles of breeding racehorses to human reproduction, beautiful people mating with other beautiful people with no room for disease or decay.
Muriel fires one of the footmen because he is too short. She sends the mute servant girl to an institution where she can be with her “own kind of people.” She is distressed when she discovers that Ollie, the flower girl in her wedding, has a limp.
The tone of this novel is light and comical. As a romance, it is fairly predictable. The fun of the novel comes from a wide variety of interesting characters and vivid descriptions. It is clear early on that Anna is lovely and kind, spreading joy to everyone she meets. Rupert is obviously attracted to Anna but promised to Muriel. Both Rupert and Anna are committed to doing the right thing almost to the point of absurdity. No one can set up a scene or create characters like Eva Ibbotson. She is a master of vivid imagery.
I first discovered Eva Ibbotson through her children’s books, Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan. When I found one of her adult books on the library shelves, it looked quite nondescript. I would never have selected it if I had not known about the author. People say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do.
Her books were originally written for an adult audience. Ibbotson wrote mostly children books in her later years. Until recently, her adult title were hard to locate. In 2008, MacMillan publishing has begun marketing her older titles to teens. They simply changed the covers. I think both adults and teens will enjoy these chaste romances.
A Countess Below Stairs is sometimes published under the title, The Secret Countess.