There are some books that just try to hard. There are either too many story lines, too many characters, or forced sentiment. Unfortunately, my most recent read as part of the YA Historical Fiction Challenge, falls into this category of books.
Last week, I finished A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson. Ousted from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, Anna Grazinsky, a Countess in her own right, and her family flee to England where, brought low by circumstance and poverty, Anna decides to take a position as a housemaid for a wealthy aristocratic family. This is where the story begins and Ibbotson follows the life of the young countess in disguise as hired help. An hodgepodge of domestic characters in the Earl of Westerholme’s home, where Anna works, are charming and lovable, the designated “villains” are truly horrible human beings, and Anna’s Russian relatives are quirky, although stereotypical. From the synopsis on the back of the paperback, there is promise of a romantic tale between the disguised Countess and the Earl himself, Anna’s employer, above the plot of Anna’s sacrifice of her comfortable world in taking up housework and hard labor for the benefit of her family.
Unfortunately, the synopsis is a piece of false advertising. While the book does indeed follow Anna into the world of dish soap, dustbins, and curtseys to her former peers, the plot fails to spotlight Anna’s adventures in housekeeping and her relationship with her boss as the synopsis says it will. While surprises and twists make a book interesting and I never mind equally interesting sub-plots, A Countess Below Stairs stretches them a bit too far. Either the publishers who created the synopsis didn’t read the whole book or they described the book too narrowly. Admittedly, this is more of a problem with the advertisement of the imprint than the writing itself, but I was blindsided by some of the elements of the plot and scenes in the book that fall into two categories: an overabundance of subplots and forced sentiment in the relationship of the protagonists.
First, I have to mention the plethora of plot lines in A Countess Below Stairs. If this book were a soap opera, it would be Guiding Light. There are enough stories and intrigues to make either an epic length novel, a series, or a long running television show about domestic servants and Russian refugees. There is the main plot of Anna defying her family’s pride to work as a maid in the suburbs of London, the romantic subplot with Anna and the Earl, a side story of a husband-hunting mother and her four daughters, a Russian cousin thought to be dead, Anna’s brother, who is away at school and oblivious to the fact that his sister is a working girl, a neighbor of the Earl and friend who is trying to convince his girlfriend to marry him, a phony doctor’s connubial problems and his plans to worm his way into financial security, an engagement by the Earl for a marriage of convenience, the woes of servants in the homes of England’s privileged few, and a crippled little girl with moxy. This is not to mention the other themes that Ibbotson attempts to touch on, including Eugenics, post-traumatic stress disorder, anti-Semitism, mental deficiency, physical handicaps, classism, the effects of war, black sheep and family woes, and aging.
While Ibbotson is able to tie all of these themes together in some way, making characters cross paths in the end and resolving conflicts in order to facilitate the happy ending or just desserts of another lot, she has spread the book too thin. This book is confused; it doesn’t know whether to primarily be a love story, a moral tale exposing the dangers of genetic cleansing with a premonition of Nazism, or a family drama. My main criticism in this book was that it tried to tackle too much, to investigate too many lives. While some themes were stronger in their execution, others were underdeveloped and failed to fill out. The strongest theme seemed to be that which tied the Earl’s fiancee to a strong belief in Eugenics and a need to wipe all “unfit” employees, family members, and friends out of her husband-to-be’s life. While it made a point, and from an educator’s point of view makes this book a noteworthy fictional introduction to the subject, it was not what the book purported to be. Again, this could go back to the false advertising of a love story, but, after all, the title does tell me that there should be a “Countess” below the marble “stairs.” Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of Anna, the supposed heroine of the story, and readers are only given glimpses of her in her capacity as a maid while all the supporting characters and branches of loose subplots are running rampant.
Which brings me to my second criticism, forced sentiment in the relationship of the protagonists. While my main beef is with the story lines being too hectic, I, as a confessed fan of Romance novels, did not understand the undercurrent of romantic tension in this book. Romance and attraction just didn’t radiate from the interactions between the two protagonists. First of all, the reader rarely sees Anna or Rupert, the Earl of Westerholme, together. For the protagonist of a book with her hereditary title in the title of the book, Anna only makes guest appearances. Sometimes she is daydreaming out loud about the golden days of her moneyed youth in Russia, playing with the crippled little girl next door, or befriending the staff in the servants quarters. Anna is described by her father, Rupert, and others as having an inner light in her, burning bright in her affect and lending her an incandescence of personality that makes her beautiful and easily liked by all. Unfortunately, the reader does not get to see much of this light and when he does, it is only a flicker. Scenes like the one in which Anna visits with the Earl’s elderly uncle and makes him feel both engaged and interesting are gems in the development of Anna’s character. They left me wanting more so that I felt that I knew her more as a three dimensional person, but because of the frequency of other themes and conflicts popping up, Anna was left half-baked and a little dim as an entity.
Therefore, in the same vein, I was not at all sure how Rupert and Anna came to fall in love with each other. They have a few interludes together in which they have relevant conversations about their emotions or feelings about certain matters, but besides those few moments, their affection seems to come from nowhere. Expecting a love story, I was disappointed by the unrealistic pairing of the two and the lack of development of their attachment before the “happy ending” at the close of the book.
Thus, although I enjoyed bits of the book and found some poignancy in the treatment of the themes of Eugenics and handicaps, A Countess Below Stairs was not what I expected and I wouldn’t read it again. It may be of more value as a tool in introducing a historic topic to students with fiction and recreational reading, but I don’t think I cared much for the architecture of the story and the dizzying amount of actions and players in the story.
I’m trucking on with the YA Challenge, so here’s hoping for a better read in the next round!
By the way, here’s a fun fact from my personal opinion files concerning Eugenics:
People are not peas: you can’t breed us down so our pods are a certain color, so our peas are larger, and so we taste better. Sometimes we look different, but variety is the spice of life! Nobody (or no body) is better than anybody else.