by Eva Ibbotson, (Originally published in 1981) 1983, European Historical Romance
Ulverscroft Large Print Books, $29.99, ISBN #0-708-90988-4
Countess Below Stairs was the first Eva Ibbotson romance I ever read, and I've been an avid fan ever since. Why? Because her stories are so vivid. In Countess Below Stairs, Anna, a White Russian in exile goes to work as a housemaid in a beautiful mansion called Meersham. The owner is titled, a young earl who survived World War I unexpectedly, and must marry money to keep the house in the family. Of course, the penniless Russian and the new earl fall in love. Unfortunately, he is already engaged to be married to a wealthy woman, and of course, in 1919, breaking an engagement was not a thing an honorable gentleman could do and still remain a gentleman.
Anna has carefully hidden from her family the fact that her latest career move is in service, rather than receiving it. Even the servants at Meersham recognise that she is out of place as a housemaid, however hard she works, and it is only a matter of time before her secret is out.
Meanwhile, Muriel Hardwicke, the earl's intended, is busy working out just how to change things at Meersham to suit herself, and with every act, her true, relentless personality emerges a little stronger, a little less admirable. She has plenty of money, but little heart and fewer scruples. Finally, she pushes the Earl of Westerholme too far. But even then, it seems that he cannot escape his fate.
Cliche? No. Every character is vividly drawn without being stereotyped, and Ms Ibbotson constantly overthrows your expectations scene by scene. Even after a re-read, the surprises still startle with their original, zesty spirit. Best of all, this book along with all her stories is a compelling blend of humour and romance. Real romance.
There is no explicit sex, but Eva Ibbotson imbues a waltz, a kiss, a touch of the hand with true sensual depth and physicality. Anna, the heroine, is good through and through, but never gooey, and the hero, Rupert, Earl of Westerholme, is sensitive, honourable and delicious. Even when things look bleakest for them, they behave with grace and dignity.
Eva Ibbotson came from Vienna, and continental Europe invades her books like a breeze of sophistication and old-fashioned, black and white movie glamour. Countess Below Stairs is no exception. The bad guys are never over the top nasty, and their comeuppance is not in your face gruesome. But the good guys do triumph, and throughout this scintillating, captivating romance, you are rooting for them all the way.
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