“This is the kind of book that you want to read on a rainy day curled up with a cup of hot chocolate.”
Well known English children’s author Eva Ibbotson passed away recently at the age of 85. She is best known for her fantasy and adventure novels for children such as The Secret of Platform 13 and The Star of the Kazan. However, I discovered her through her historical romance novels (orginally published for adults) which have, in the past few years, been reissued for teens by Penguin Books.
The novels themselves are straight out of another era, being sweet, old fashioned and overly romantic but definitely not too sexy unlike much of the romance fiction being published today. They all take place during World War II or just before and are set in either England, Austria or in one case, the Amazon Jungle. Most of them feature Jewish characters, or have an academic setting and heavily feature the performing arts. Ibbotson, as a child, immigrated from Austria to England in 1933 with her Jewish scientist parents. The heroines, in the romances, are always beautiful, smart, kind, endlessly sensible and the heros are gorgeous alpha males with relationship issues who are also, wealthy, brave, smart and tender hearted. The books are simplistic in plot and character set-up but they are well-written, romantic, escapist reads. These types of romances are just not being written for teens anymore but they still have a certain appeal. As one teen girl put it after reading A Countess Below Stairs, “This is the kind of book that you want to read on a rainy day curled up with a cup of hot chocolate.”
A Countess Below Stairs
After the Russian Revolution, Anna, a young countess, is forced to flee her home for England with her family. Now penniless and armed with a housekeeping manual, Anna hides her identity to obtain a maid’s position in the home of the young Earl of Westholme. Complications arise when the newly engaged Earl begins to fall for Anna and Anna must contend with his nasty fiancée. (Probably my favorite one.)
The Morning Gift
As the Nazis march into Vienna, British scientist Quin Somerville must save the young Ruth Berger who stubbornly stayed behind when her Jewish parents immigrated to England weeks before. The only way to get her out of the country is with a quickie marriage – the idea being they get a quickie annulment once in London. However, complications ensue and Quin and Ruth must keep their marriage a secret as Ruth enrolls in one of his classes at college and Quin is pursued by another woman.
The Reluctant Heiress (a.k.a Magic Flutes)
In 1920s Austria, the penniless “Tessa,” born Princess Theresa-Maria of Pffafenstein, is the heiress to a broken-down castle and couldn’t be happier about it. It allows her to become the anonymous junior wardrobe mistress to a struggling Vienna opera company. The dashing, Englishman Guy Farne has recently bought Pffafenstein castle and plans to hold a lavish ball there to woo his snobby fiancé and he hires Tessa’s opera company to perform at it. Romantic hilarity ensues as the star-crossed lovers deny their attraction and Tessa hides her true identity from all involved.
A Company of Swans
In 1912 Cambridge, England, Harriet’s only escape from her dry, dull, restricted life is ballet. When she meets the ballet master for a dance company she runs away to join the company’s corp de ballet for it’s South American tour. They travel up the Amazon River performing Swan Lake for rich and culture-deprived rubber barons. On their last stop, she meets the mysterious and roguish British exile Rom Verney and gets swept away unaware that her father and would-be fiancé are on their way to drag her back home.
A Song for Summer
Ellen, raised by her suffragist mother and aunts to live a liberated life in 1930s London, rejects that lifestyle to study the culinary arts and homemaking. She ends up taking a job as housemother at an eccentric, run-down boarding school in Austria where she transforms the place with her beauty, kindness and hard work. It is there that she meets and falls for Marek, the school’s mysterious handyman and fencing instructor. As the Nazis invade Austria the two lovers are torn apart.
Eva Ibbotson obituary from The New York Times (October 28, 2010)