Eva Ibbotson on love and war
Eva Ibbotson’s characters are haunted by the war. Which war? It depends on which romantic historical novel we’re talking about, but one thing’s for sure: neither her brave heroines nor her strong heroes can ever go back to Vienna.
Ibbotson (1925-2010), the beloved and bestselling author of chapter books for children such as Which Witch? and Journey to the River Sea, also wrote a number of charming historical romances during the 1980s and 1990s, all recently reissued as YA. (Ibbotson wrote them for adults and was surprised at their popularity among YA audiences.) In each book, a headstrong heroine finds herself in an unfamiliar situation (for instance, the Russian countess, exiled after the Great War, who works as a servant in an English country house in A Countess Below Stairs) where she eventually charms everyone and finds love. The characters are immediately relatable, and their emotions are deeply felt.
Ibbotson and her family fled Vienna for London on the eve of World War II, and that flight colors these novels, where love always comes after struggle, and the happily ever afters are always bittersweet. It is the two world wars that shatter the illusion that St Petersburg (A Countess Below Stairs) and Vienna (A Song for Summer, The Morning Gift) will ever be the friendly, carefree places where her heroines grew up surrounded by love.
The books have flaws, of course. The villians are entirely too villainous: Rupert’s fiancee in A Countess Below Stairs is entirely hateful, a eugenicist who insults and mistreats the mentally disabled kitchen maid and the kind Jewish neighbors; and Harriet’s closeminded father in A Company of Swans, who refuses to let her dance in the ballet company (or matriculate at Cambridge, where he is a famous professor) is a one-note caricature of the kind of family one would run away to South America with a ballet company from.
There is always an idyll in these books, a sense that joy is too good to last. This is pronounced in A Song For Summer, where Ellen, the practical daughter of suffragettes who is unaccountably gifted at housekeeping, becomes the matron at an alternative school in Austria and transforms all the rich, eccentric students and teachers with her kindness and levelheadedness. Ellen falls in love with the school’s caretaker, a Czech concert violinist who has resigned his position in protest against the Reich. Everything is about to end. Ellen and Marek will find each other again after the war, changed. We, the readers, know that the beautiful valley, the children, the storks, the still lake, and Ellen and Marek cannot stay there forever. But how we wish they could.
Suzanne Fischer is a historian and writer who lives in Detroit. She cares about people, places, and things. Find her on Twitter as @publichistorian