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.
First Published: 1981
Score: 4.5 out of 5