Retro Friday: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

One of my blogging goals this year was to write more Retro Friday reviews but I haven’t been able to do that lately. Sigh, you know what happens when real life gets in the way of things. Anyway, I thought I’d get back on track by reviewing one of my favorite books.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

A Countess Below StairsAfter the Russian revolution turns her world topsy-turvy, Anna, a young Russian Countess, has no choice but to flee to England. Penniless, Anna hides her aristocratic background and takes a job as servant in the household of the esteemed Westerholme family, armed only with an outdated housekeeping manual and sheer determination.

Desperate to keep her past a secret, Anna is nearly overwhelmed by her new duties – not to mention her instant attraction to Rupert, the handsome Earl of Westerholme. To make matters worse, Rupert appears to be falling for her as well. As their attraction grows stronger, Anna finds it more and more difficult to keep her most dearly held secrets from unraveling. And then there’s the small matter of Rupert’s beautiful and nasty fiancรฉe…

I canโ€™t believe Iโ€™ve never written a review for A Countess Below Stairs (also published as Secret Countess). This and The Reluctant Heiress (also published as Magic Flutes) are my two favorite Eva Ibbotson novels. I’ve recommended both of them to so many friends. There is just something about Eva Ibbotson’s writing that makes her books feel good reads. A Countess Below Stairs is historical fiction but it has a fairy tale feel to it, with a Cinderella kind of vibe going on. I think it’s quite obvious from the premise where the story will go but how it gets there is what really matters.

The Secret CountessThe main character, Anna, is one of those people who always sees something good in any situation. Anna was pampered by doting parents and because they were members of the Russian aristocracy, she pretty much got whatever she wanted. Surprisingly, she grew up to be down-to-earth instead of being a snob. Can I just say that I love how Anna’s family – her parents and her brother – is such an important part of her life? Anna is the kind of person that manages to brighten up everyone else’s day just by being so warm and pleasant. She keeps that sunny disposition even when her life changes drastically from living in luxury to having to work as a downstairs servant. Nope, poverty doesn’t affect Anna’s outlook in life. It’s not surprising that she easily develops a friendship with Rupert in spite of the difference in their social classes. Rupert is a dependable type of person and he feels that it’s his duty to marry well to keep Westerholme running. And there lies the problem. What I found interesting is that the story doesn’t just focus on Anna and Rupert but also includes a whole cast of secondary characters to liven things up. It may get a little confusing to keep track of everyone but I think part of the fun is seeing how Anna interacts with everyone around her.

Writing this review is making me want to reread the novel. I wish I had my copy here with me but sadly, it’s back in Manila. I’ve gone through Eva Ibbotson’s adult (now marketed as young adult) titles and would love to get more recommendations similar to her writing. If you’re interested in historical fiction or if you just want a feel good book, then you should definitely pick this up. A Countess Below Stairs also provides an interesting glimpse of what life is like for servants back in the day, which is why I think this would be a good read for any Downton Abbey fan.

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers
The Captive Reader
Things Mean a Lot
Random Musings of a Bibliophile

22 thoughts on “Retro Friday: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

    • Alexa, I hope you get to read/reread it soon! You can also check out the rest of Eva Ibbotson’s novels because you’ll probably like them if you’re a fan of historical fiction.

    • I’ve only read The Star of Kazan from her MG books and while I enjoyed reading it, I’m a bigger fan of her adult titles. I hope you get to read one of them soon, hopefully A Countess Below Stairs. ๐Ÿ™‚ The Russian revolution aspect of the story was something that I really liked as well.

  1. I love this book! Well, I just love Ibbotson generally, but COUNTESS is one of my favorites, if not my very favorite. It’s so improbable, but so sweet and funny. Interesting that you tied it to Downton–I hadn’t thought of that connection at all before, but it’s so true!

    • What are your other favorite Ibbotsons? It’s always interesting to discover what others end up loving out of all of her books. Yes, I do agree that the story is a bit improbably but I certainly don’t mind! Maybe that’s where the fairy tale aspect comes in. ๐Ÿ˜› I hope Downton fans would be encouraged to read this because of that connection.

  2. I second the Downton Abbey readalike. It does have the whole upstairs/downstairs thing going on. This was my first Ibbotson and will always hold a special place in my heart. Nice review. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Holly, this is my first Ibbotson as well. I can still remember seeing this in the bookstore and thinking that both the cover and premise look interesting. It makes me happy that it ended up to be as lovely as I expected. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Have you read the Montmaray Journals? If you liked Eva Ibbotson, you’d probably like those. And Mary Stewart’s Gothics, not to mention Georgette Heyer’s mysteries. Some of Agatha Christies mysteries hit the same sweet spot–The Moving Finger, The Man in the Brown Suit and Sparkling Cyanide.

    I adore Eva Ibbotson, but my favorites are The Morning Gift and A Company of Swans. The Star of Kazan is a good read, too, even if it is MG.

    • The first Montmaray novel is already on my wishlist. I should probably check if the library has copies. You know I started reading Mary Stewart’s gothic novels because Angie of Angieville recommended them when I asked for something similar to Eva Ibbotson. Thanks for the other recs, I’ll add them to my wishlist.

      I’ve read all three Ibbotson titles that you mentioned and yep, I enjoyed going through them as well. I like how we all have different Ibbotson favorites, it’s interesting to know what appeals to various readers.

  4. Your review made me want to read it again! I just love the story and Anna, she’s so likable even though she’s very very sweet and positive.

    Sadly I didn’t like the reluctant heiress nearly as much. After much thinking about it, I think it’s because Anna has survival instinct, she knows that if she doesn’t find a paying job, her family’s situation will turn bad, and it doesn’t matter if she was a countess or not, and she’s not afraid to work.

    But Tessa, in contrast, doesn’t have that instinct and she lets herself be taken advantage of all the time in the name of the arts, and thinks herself lucky for it, so for me she’s a bit TSTL.

    • Alex, my review made me want to reread it too! Wish I had my copy here with me. Anna is such a great character, isn’t she?

      Aww sorry to hear you didn’t like The Reluctant Heiress as much as this one. I see your point, Anna is a survivor and fights to keep her family fed while Tessa had different reasons for going into the arts. I should do a reread of The Reluctant Heiress so I can review it as well. What’s your favorite Eva Ibbotson? ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I had added this to my TBR back when I was watching Downton Abbey and has seen it listed as a read alike. The fact that you enjoy it so much has me thinking I really need to make a point of reading it though! I love that family is important to her, and that she comes out so down to earth when she could easily be a snob. I’m quite certain this would make me a fan of Anna as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • You know I haven’t even seen season 2 of Downton Abbey, let alone the latest episodes. I want to catch up! I just haven’t found the time for it. I would love for you to read this one, Heidi. I will keep my fingers crossed that you’ll like it and that you’ll want to read the rest of her novels. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I love Ibbotson–I know we’ve talked about this before. I still have two to go, I think. I have forgotten a lot of what happens in this book. I read it pre-Goodreads or near the beginning of my time there so I never reviewed it either. Your review reminded me that I totally need to reread it.

    • Have we talked about Ibbotson? I can’t even remember! When I only had one of her books to go, I saved it up for a few months before reading it. Hope you get to reread this soon and that you’ll end up loving it as much as I did. ๐Ÿ˜€

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