In her native Russia, under the tsar's reign, Anna Grazinsky was born a wealthy countess. However, the Russian Revolution turned her world upside down, leaving her and her family penniless exiles in England. Knowing that something must be done about their financial situation, Anna is determined to seek employment. Against her mother and former governess's wishes, and armed with nothing but an outdated housekeeping manual, Anna takes a job as a housemaid at a beautiful country manor house that is in need of servants to prepare for their master's return.
Rupert Frayne, the Seventh Earl of Westerholm, fought bravely in WWI where he earned respect as an ace pilot. But he spent several weeks in the hospital after being gravely wounded when his plane crashed. As the second son, he never expected to become the earl, but when his brother died in the war, he inherited not only their family estate of Mersham, but also a mountain of debt. He's glad to be home, though, and the lovely new maid intrigues him with her vivaciousness and her ability to put everyone, including himself, at ease. But Rupert is already engaged to Muriel, the woman who nursed him during his convalescence. During those weeks spent with her, he came to care for her, and it doesn't hurt that she's a wealthy heiress, whose money will make it possible to fulfill a promise made to his brother to keep the estate in the family and return it to its former glory.
All the servants, including Anna, are excited about their master's engagement and eagerly prepare the house for his new bride, as well as make preparations for the upcoming wedding. But when Muriel arrives at Mersham, she turns everything topsy-turvy with her ridiculous demands. More importantly, though, her new ideas about eugenics seem to hurt the people Rupert cares about the most at every turn. Soon, he comes to realize the huge mistake he's made and the difficult life he'll be in for with Muriel as his wife. More and more the lovely Anna calls to Rupert's heart and soul, but he would never dream of going back on his word as a gentleman to Muriel. It will take a miracle - and perhaps a few meddling servants - to save Rupert from a life of misery and help him see that Anna is the one with whom he belongs.
A Countess Below Stairs is a delightful romantic tale that's reminiscent of fairy tales like Cinderella or Anastasia. I thought it was a unique twist to read a story that's set in an English country manor house but told partly from the perspective of the servants below stairs. It gives the book kind of an Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey vibe. It takes place in approximately the same time period too, immediately following the first World War, which is another unique element. I haven't really read any other stories, romantic or otherwise, that are set in that time. It's also rather rare to find Russian main characters in romance too. It all made for a very enjoyable and lively narrative that was a lot of fun to read.
In her native Russia, Anna was practically royalty. She lived a very privileged life growing up, but when the Russian revolution came about and the tsar was overthrown, the aristocracy had to run for their lives. Anna's old nursemaid was sent ahead with the family jewels, but she never made the rendezvous with the family, leaving them to assume that she'd betrayed them. It also made them penniless refugees in their new country of England. Knowing they desperately need money, Anna decides to take a position as a housemaid, against her mother's and former governess's wishes. I really love and admire Anna. She's a truly lovely person who her father nicknamed "Little Candle" or "Little Star," because of the bright vibrant quality to her personality. She's a very positive person who spreads joy and happiness wherever she goes, and this carries over to her new life as a servant. She's completely unpretentious. I don't know a lot about Russian culture, so whether this was a product of her heritage or simply a part of who she was, I couldn't say, although her cousin also embodied that quality. In any case, despite her lavish upbringing, Anna is very humble, never complains, and isn't afraid of hard work. Everyone seems to love her, and she always knows how to put each person at ease and make them feel special, because she takes the time to get to know and understand them. I enjoyed the exploration in contrasts between Anna and Muriel (the villainess). Both ladies were brought up in similar circumstances, as the daughters of wealthy parents, and yet they have polar opposite attitudes toward those less fortunate.
Rupert, our romantic hero, has just returned from fighting in WWI, where he piloted an airplane and was hailed as a war hero. As a second son, he never expected to become the earl, but he inherited when his older brother was killed in the war. Rupert made a promise to his brother to take care of Mersham, the family estate, if anything ever happened to him, and now feels honor-bound to keep that promise even though he's also inherited a mountain of debt along with the property. While in the hospital recovering from severe injuries sustained when his plane crashed, Rupert fell for his beautiful nurse and before he knew it they were engaged. With little to offer her financially, he probably never would have proposed except that she wormed her way into his life while he an invalid and she's more than sufficiently wealthy to save the family's estate. Unfortunately, he doesn't find out exactly what kind of person she is until she comes to stay at Mersham in the weeks leading up to the wedding, when she's far worse than a bridezilla. I felt really sorry for Rupert. Much like Anna he's a very kind and unpretentious person. I don't know that we get to know Rupert quite as well as Anna, but the one thing about him that really stands out is that he's a true gentleman whose word is his honor. He would never think of breaking it even though it means marrying a woman whom he's come to realize is going to make his life a living hell.
The secondary cast is a colorful and lively bunch. Rupert has very little close family left, but his mother and uncle live at Mersham with him, along with his adorable, snobbish dog who never goes below stairs. There's also, of course, the entire staff of the estate, and I loved every one of them. I felt like I got to know each of them and their circumstances in a way that made me really care about them. Without their care, concern, and meddling, Rupert would have been doomed to a horrible marriage. Then there are Rupert's friends and neighbors who are an eclectic mix of aristocracy and new money. Lastly, was Rupert's fiancée, Muriel, and her mentor, Dr. Lightbody, a leader in the New Eugenics movement, a belief system that was also later espoused by Hitler and the Nazis. Rarely have I ever felt such loathing for a character, villain or otherwise, as I did for Muriel. She's prejudicial in the extreme and carries out her plans for perfection in her new home with a subtle kind of glee that's utterly reprehensible. Each time she does something terrible, I didn't think she could possibly stoop any lower, but then she does something else even worse. I almost wanted her to get an even better comeuppance than what she did, but the trick the butler, Mr. Proom, pulled to get rid of her once and for all was still brilliant and had me grinning from ear to ear.
Most book websites have A Countess Below Stairs categorized as young adult fiction. I'm not entirely sure why this is, except for that fairy tale feel it has. I just read that Eva Ibbotson was surprised by this book and some of her others being repackaged for young adults, because she intended them for an adult audience. To be honest, it's probably more aptly categorized as new adult fiction, because of the ages of the main characters. They aren't star-crossed teenagers. Anna is twenty and although I don't recall Rupert's age ever being mentioned, he seems like he's probably in his early to mid-twenties. In all fairness, though, new adult is a relatively new genre classification that didn't exist back in 1981 when this book was first published, so maybe the YA classification was the closest the publisher could come. In any case, it's perfectly suitable for a YA audience. I only found one bad word in the entire book. There's no violence to speak of, and there's no sex, only chaste kisses. However, there is a little bit of sexual tension, including one scene where Rupert comes upon Anna naked, bathing in a lake, and some tastefully worded references to the sex act in the context of discussion rather than anyone actually doing it. Therefore, IMHO the book would be fine not only for teens but for more sensitive adult readers as well.
I very much enjoyed the ethnic and cultural diversity that's represented in the story. I felt like I learned a little something about pre-revolution Russian culture, which was interesting. Not only do we have Anna and her family from Russia, but one of Mersham's prominent neighbors is a Jewish family. Their daughter has a romance going on in the background with Rupert's best friend, Tom, while Tom's stepmother is an American married to a English aristocrat. I really like how these cultures come together and everyone accepts one another and are friends with everyone else. That is until Muriel upsets the apple cart. Then we get a great lesson in how prejudice can affect people from many different walks of life. Not only does Muriel snub those of other races and cultures, but she also discriminates against the physically disabled, the mentally disabled, and the elderly. Even the muscular, capable, long-time footman at Mersham isn't good enough, because he isn't tall enough to suit her. Basically anyone who doesn't fit her picture of perfection gets left out in the cold. It's a little like a small-scale preview of Nazi Germany a few years down the road.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed A Countess Below Stairs, and in some ways, it's kind of odd that I did. This was my first book by Eva Ibbotson, and I quickly discovered that her writing style is very different than most authors I've read. She tends to tell the story from a distance, almost as an omniscient narrator. She doesn't really engage in the deep POV that I typically prefer in my romances, yet I still felt like I knew all the characters fairly well. She more or less skips around to different character's perspectives, which is something that usually drives me crazy, but here I found it charming. Maybe it's because she really has a way with a turn of phrase and her descriptive prose drew me into her setting so that I could see it in my mind's eye. Maybe it was her wonderful cast of characters that was rather large, yet somehow she made me care about each and every one of them. Whatever the reasons, A Countess Below Stairs was an enchanting, feel-good story that engaged my attention and invited me into another world for a little while, one that I'd gladly inhabit if given the chance. I was very impressed by this first foray into Ms. Ibbotson's work and look forward to trying more of her books soon.
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