The Secret Countess : Light historical romance from a fantasy author

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva IbbotsonThe Secret Countess (aka A Countess Below Stairs) by Eva Ibbotson

As a Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer enthusiast, I’m always on the lookout for historical novels in that mold, with manners, a little romance and lots of deliciously witty dialogue. I previously was familiar with Eva Ibbotson solely from her 1994 children’s fantasy The Secret of Platform 13, in which a magical door at Platform 13 of King’s Cross Station in London opens every nine years for a nine-day period, leading to a delightful kingdom where humans, mermaids, giants, hags, nymphs and other magical creatures live. (The similarities to Platform 9¾ in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, published three years later, did not go unnoticed, but Ibbotson held no grudges.) When I found that Ibbotson also wrote some historical romances, I had to give one of them a try.

The Secret Countess, previously published as A Countess Below Stairs, is an appealing historical romance. Anna Grazinsky lives a charmed life as a child in Russia in the early 1900s. When her father, Count Grazinsky, dies in World War I and her wealthy family is threatened in the Russian Revolution, Anna, now age eighteen, her mother, and her younger brother escape from Russia and take refuge in England. They give their priceless jewels to the children’s nanny to smuggle out of Russia, but she disappears without a trace, leaving the family destitute. So when they settle in England, Anna insists on taking a job as a housemaid to help make ends meet and enable her brother to get an education. With the help of a massive volume entitled The Domestic Servant’s Compendium, which she studies religiously, Anna is certain she can be a model housemaid. She convinces the butler and head housekeeper at Westerholme to give her a chance on a temporary basis.

When Rupert, the Earl of Westerholme since the death of his older brother, returns home from World War I, he is attracted by Anna’s charm and personality ― but he’s also about to be married to an extremely wealthy young lady, Miss Muriel Hardwicke. Muriel is quite beautiful and initially seems quite nice (though how nice can she really be with a name like that, in a romance novel?). It turns out that Muriel, in addition to being completely self-absorbed, has a deep and abiding passion for the philosophy and practice of eugenics. As Muriel’s true colors gradually become apparent both above and below stairs, and Anna and Rupert gradually become aware of their feelings for each other, the plot deftly mixes both comedy and sorrow.

The Secret Countess is a fairly lightweight romance that wears its heart on its sleeve. It suffers from some slow pacing in the middle, and several of the characters (Muriel in particular) are one-dimensional, although some of the servants are quite well-developed characters. Anna herself is a Mary Sue type, not particularly beautiful, but attractive, kind, talented, and beloved by all. She escapes being annoying by dint of an enthusiasm for all aspects of life, a sense of humor, and a charming Russian accent. Rupert, wounded physically and spiritually by the war, is notable primarily for his kindness and his commitment to keeping his word, even at the cost of his own happiness.

The Secret Countess has some extremely funny moments, culminating with a farcical scene where the servants play upon Muriel’s horror of people with mental and physical disabilities. Ibbotson’s unexpectedly literary writing really caught my attention in several places. The plot also explores the eugenics movement that became popular in England in this time period, and the hold it had on some people’s minds, as well as the effect of their intolerance on others. The tragic background of the Russian Revolution and World War I isn’t dwelt on, but we see the secondary effects of these events in their impact on the lives, minds and hearts of the characters.

Although I wouldn’t recommend The Secret Countess to readers who are uninterested in sweet (clean) romances in a historical setting, for those who are, this is an intelligently written, heartwarming tale that’s above the general cut of romance novels.

Publisher: Eva Ibbotson’s charming and warm-hearted tale, A Secret Countess was originally published as A Countess Below Stairs. Anna, a young countess, has lived in the glittering city of St Petersburg all her life in an ice-blue palace overlooking the River Neva. But when revolution tears Russia apart, her now-penniless family is forced to flee to England. Armed with an out-of-date book on housekeeping, Anna determines to become a housemaid and she finds work at the Earl of Westerholme’s crumbling but magnificent mansion. The staff and the family are sure there is something not quite right about their new maid – but she soon wins them over with her warmth and dedication. Then the young Earl returns home from the war – and Anna falls hopelessly in love. But they can never be together: Rupert is engaged to the snobbish and awful Muriel – and anyway, Anna is only a servant. Or so everybody thinks . . .

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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3 comments

  1. It sounds fun, and I love the cover in the top image!

  2. This sounds lovely, I will definitely have to read

    • I hope you enjoy it, Ray! My local library has several Ibbotson books, and I plan on reading a few more of them in the next few months. Historical romances are fun brain candy when I want to relax with something heartwarming.

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