Thursday 8 December 2011

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

Winter is the perfect time for reading fairytales.  In The Secret Countess, Anna Grazinsky, a Russian Countess, has to flee to England with her family after the Russian Revolution.  With all her money lost, Anna takes on a job as a servant in the house of the Earl of Westerholmes and tries her best to fit in with the staff.  But it's soon obvious that she is different to the other servants and matters become even more complicated when she starts to fall in love with the Earl, Rupert, who happens to be already engaged.

The Secret Countess is an enchanting, magical book.  Ibbotson certainly has a way with words and this simple plot caught me up in it's web within the first few pages.  Even though I knew what was going to happen, I couldn't put it down.  I loved the glamour of the Russian characters, the cosiness of the English country house setting and the understatement of the love story.  Although the romance is a central part of the plot, it is written with a light touch and shown rather than told, making it more powerful.

It is true that Ibbotson's characters are either very good or very bad.  Although Anna goes through some tough times, she remains impossible bright, vivacious and full of life.  Her counterfoil, Rupert's fiancee Muriel is all bad; she believes in eugenics, is cruel to the staff for very little reason and can be very spiteful.  Usually I would have a problem with these all-good, all-bad characters, but within the fairytale like elements of the setting and plot, it made sense.  After all, no one complains that the evil witch in Hansel and Gretel lacks good characteristics alongside her evil ones.

The Secret Countess was a perfect escapist read, like watching an old-fashioned film.  It didn't challenge me intellectually or introduce any new ideas but it did whisk me away to a stylised version of early twentieth century England and caught me up in it's story.  I will be reading more by Ibbotson soon.

Verdict: A cosy, escapist read for a Sunday afternoon.
Source: Library
First Published: 1981
Score: 4.5 out of 5


  1. I've bought several Eva Ibbotson's books for my grand-daughter in the last few years and I've enjoyed reading them too! This one is new to me and I might see if I can get a copy for her.

  2. It's so refreshing to fall into a book like this. The setting does indeed sound fabulous and if the writing is light, then why not just let it take you away . . .

  3. This does sound lovely. I remember reading her "Witch" books with my daughter when she was young and we both enjoyed them.

  4. Linda, which ones would you recommend? This is the first Ibbotson I have read. I hope your grand-daughter enjoys the Secret Countess.

    Trish, that's the perfect word for it, it was very refreshing. Perfect for a winter afternoon.

    Mystica, thank you :)

    The Book Girl, it was a lovely read. I've heard her Witch books are very good too.

  5. I really like books that show rather than tell. I'll be looking for this one.

  6. Sounds like a lovely read for winter, thanks for sharing it.

  7. I defnitely agree that winter is perfect for fairytales :) My sister I know is going to LOVE this book. It is so up her alley. I definitely need to get it for her :)

  8. Kelly, sounds like you have a Christmas present for your sister sorted! :P

  9. Oh wow, this is the second positive review of an Ibbotson novel I've read today. I really need to check our her work!

  10. Your review makes me really excited to read this book now. It does seem predictable, but the characters--the Russian countess in particular--really intrigue me. Can't wait read this one. :)