After I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora, I went to the library. And folks, I went to the library a lot this year. A LOT A LOT. I realize I finished reading this book in March and I’m writing this post (in a Word document, because of the no power) on Halloween night, so I can’t talk about 2017 as a whole yet, but so far, out of the 22 books I’ve read to date, 12 have been from the library. That’s actually pretty good for me!
So this is a title I picked up on a whim. I thought it would be cute! It claimed to be about Russia! Why I would be curious about the Russian Revolution I’ll never know, said the girl who got All The President’s Men from the library on the same trip, but WHATEVER. The short answer is: I was wrong on many counts.
A Countess Below Stairs tells the story of Anna, a Russian countess who emigrates to England following the Bolshevik revolution. She and her family are forced out of their home (being of the ruling class), and when she comes to England, she decides to be a maid in an English country house to earn money for the family. Her mother and cousin (or brother? I’m not sure) don’t want her to degrade herself, but Anna refuses to relent.
Anna is also the happiest displaced Russian countess I’ve ever come across, and I watched Anastasia maybe a hundred frillion times when I was a kid. I mean, nothing got her down at all. She is excited to learn how to scrub floors! She entrances everyone who she comes in contact with! The gardener names a new type of rose after her! It’s all very twee.
So she’s been working at Mersham (the English manse) when the owner, Rupert, comes home after being in the hospital following the end of World War I. He is engaged to Muriel, and while he (thinks he) is in love with her, Muriel has also offered to help pay for repairs to Mersham, so that’s cool.
Ooo, want to play When Did Alaina Get Really Concerned About Muriel And This Book Overall? The answer is Page 54, where Robert described Muriel to some of his friends or maybe the butler:
“It wasn’t just that I knew she was an heiress – you know how people gossip in a hospital – but she’s also extremely beautiful. And an intellectual! She has this passionate interest in eugenics.” [p. 54]
Eugenics! Oh – that’s great. Just – peachy.
Let me very clear on this point: Muriel is a Nazi!
You guys, I am serious. This was another book I’d bring to the gym to read on the recumbent bike, and multiple times I had to stop pedaling so I could gape and the outright horror I was reading.
Muriel subscribes to the beliefs of Dr. Lightbody, another “believer in eugenics.” Let’s see what he sounds like!:
Briefly, the doctor believed that it was possible, by diet, exercise, and various kinds of purification about which he was perfectly willing to be specific when asked, to create an Ideal Human Body. But this was not all. When his disciples had made of their bodies a fitting Temple of the Spirit, it was also their obligation to mate with like bodies. [p. 91]
Their obligation to mate with like bodies. Hoooly fuck.
Apparently, most of the followers of Dr. Lightbody were female, as evidenced by this snippet of a speech he gives:
“All of us, ladies and gentlemen,” declaimed the doctor, looking round to see if, among the sea of swelling bosoms, there were, in fact, any gentlemen, “have it in our power to acquire – by Right Diet, Right Living and the avoidance of lechery and vice – a body that is flawless and an unsullied chalice, a hallowed temple for the human spirit. Can we doubt that, having acquired it, it is our duty to pass it on to our unborn children and make of this island race a nation of gods? Valhalla is in our grasp, ladies and gentlemen. Let us march toward it with confidence, unity, and joy!” [p. 92-93]
Seriously. This whole aspect of the novel is so gross. I actually looked up when it was written – y’know, maybe, like with the Ian Fleming novels, I can handwave the racist/Nazi overtones by claiming “it was a product of its time”?
NOPE. According to Goodreads.com, this book was published in 2007. TWO THOUSAND SEVEN.
So instead, this character choice was made to emphasize how awful these people (Muriel and Dr. Lightbody) are. I can only assume Ms. Ibbotson wanted NO ONE to even THINK of sympathizing with the villains in her novel. Which, fine, great, whatever, but you didn’t need to make them Nazis, Eva.
(This is where some of those “fine folks” chime in and tell me that Muriel and Dr. Lightbody aren’t Nazis because they didn’t belong to the Nazi party as the Nazi party wasn’t fully established until 1918, and also, they just have a fond belief in eugenics, that doesn’t mean Nazis, but actually YES IT FUCKING DOES YOU TWAT NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY LIBRARY)
I mean, Muriel is a horrible person even without her Nazi tendencies. Rupert’s best friend, Tom Byrne, has a younger sister, Olivia. Everyone loves Olivia – she’s a sweet, precocious kid who happens to have a slight limp. Rupert has asked Muriel to make Olivia (“Ollie”) her flower girl in the wedding ceremony, and Muriel agrees. And then, Muriel meets her at the dress fitting:
Muriel seemed not to have heard. Ever since Ollie had appeared in the doorway she had been staring in silent fascination at the child. Now she drew in her breath and as Anna, guided by some instinct, stepped forward and Tom Byrne entered to fetch the bridesmaids, she hissed, in a whisper which carried right across the room:
“Why did no one tell me that the child was crippled!” [p. 155]
Oh, and lest you start to agree with the “fine folks” that you can’t be a Nazi unless you hate Jews, guess what; Muriel does.
Tom Byrne is in love with Susie Rabinovitch. This is Muriel speaking about the Byrnes (probably to Dr. Lightbody):
“And even socially … they entertain Israelites of a kind that would not have been permitted over my father’s doorsteps.” [p. 178]
Susie’s mother, Hannah, sends a wedding present to Muriel, and while we don’t get to read Muriel’s thank-you note in full, we do get to see Hannah’s reaction to it:
Hannah was standing by the window, the letter in her hand. She looked, suddenly, immensely, unutterably weary and as old as one of the mourning, black-clad women in the Cossack-haunted village of her youth. And indeed the hideous thing that had crept out from beneath Muriel’s honeyed, conventional phrases was as old, as inescapable, as time itself. [p. 223]
At the end of the day, Muriel and Dr. Lightbody are just disgusting characters. Here, we see Dr. Lightbody trying to find a costume for the costume ball, and contemplates going as the Egyptian Sun King:
It was closer, much closer – but there was something a little bit effeminate about the whole ensemble. Not surprising, really – when all was said and done there was a touch of the tarbrush about the Egyptians. [p. 243]
Now, the good news, is that Rupert catches wise to the fact that Muriel is truly awful. He also falls in love with Anna, not knowing she’s a former countess. They have great conversations, and Anna’s optimistic joy infects Rupert.
He also has a bit of a fetish when it comes to Anna’s hair. She wants to cut it in the flapper style, but Rupert doesn’t want her to touch the length of it. One day, he’s in town visiting his solicitor (or whatever) and happens to see Anna go into a hair salon. He immediately runs across the street and confronts Anna:
“I wish to be attractive for your wedding,” she went on pleadingly, lifting her face to his. “Is that a crime?”
“Ah, yes; my wedding.” The word reared up to meet him, banishing the last traces of lunacy. He became aware of René staring at him salaciously, of Elsie, with her mouth open, clutching a towel … “You will be very attractive for my wedding,” he said lightly. “For my funeral also, je vous assure.” He lifted a hand, laid it for a moment on the rich, dark tresses where they mantled her shoulders, then turned it, letting the backs of his fingers run upward against the shining waves. For an instant he felt his touch on her cheek; then he stepped back. “There, that was my ration for all eternity. People have died for less, I dare say.” [p. 263]
I mean, slightly creepy, yet compared to the Nazi of it all, strangely sweet.
In the end, Rupert leaves Muriel – or, rather, forces her out of the relationship by pretending to have mentally deformed cousins, which is also just terrible – and he declares his love for Anna, just as she discovers the family jewelry that was nearly lost in their escape from Russia, so she doesn’t have to be a maid anymore and everyone lives as happily ever after as they can, considering there were Nazis involved.
I still can’t believe that this is marketed as a Young Adult novel. Well, okay, maybe I can. But I can’t believe there wasn’t a single editor along the way who thought to point out that maybe, making the villains Nazis was just on the side of “too much”.
Aaanyway. At least it’s over.
Grade for A Countess Below Stairs: no stars