The Secret Countess (aka A Countess Below Stairs) by Eva Ibbotson

published 1981

[Muriel has dressed up as Madame de Pompadour]

But it was Muriel, the guest of honour, who rightly drew all eyes. Muriel’s dress was of blue and silver, the colours that the Sun King used above all others for the glory of Versailles. Myriad bows glittered on the satin bodice; the elaborately flounced overskirt was sewn with tiny bunches of gauze roses and forget-me-nots. Priceless lace edged the sleeves and the low décolleté, diamonds sparkled on the high, white wig and in the heels of her silver slippers – and round her throat, perfectly matching the blue of the dress and of her eyes, she wore the sapphires that were the bridegroom’s present to the bride. If Muriel looked pleased with herself she had every right to do so, for here was a Pompadour to silence all beholders.

‘My dear, what an unbelievable dress!’ said Minna, genuinely impressed.

observations: When I blogged on Madensky Square (my new favourite Ibbotson book) reader Sarah suggested this one too, and I am very grateful to her. After I’d read it I looked back at her comment (scroll down below the entry), and her comparison with Georgette Heyer is exactly right – that is what it’s like. It’s aimed at the ubiquitous Young Adults, and it is indeed rather romantic and frothy, despite dealing with the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. Ibbotson’s sense of humour and strong heroine stop it from tipping into sweetness: it is semi-predictable and a tiny bit precious, but just landing on the right side for entertainment - and every now and again it subverts expectations.

There is a slight moral problem, in that a criticism of the appearance of a ‘good’ character is seen as a sign of the worst viciousness, but the book makes much fun of the looks of the characters on the other side of the author’s love-list

But all is forgiven, because Ibbotson not only regularly describes everyone’s clothes, but does a fancy-dress party really worthy of the description. We have complained before that these events are talked up in books, but generally don’t amount to much (discussed at length in this entry, which used the picture above, and there's more fancy dress of the era here and here.) But this one is great fun, with the Russian Ballet as guests, and a Salome ‘who had made rather a jolly severed head out of papier mâché’ (there is later a disaster where Lady Hermione sits on it), a Bo-peep, an Apollo, a Puritan, Cleopatra, a daffodil and Grace Darling. Undine the watersprite looks like ‘an outsize codfish or perhaps a trout’. Excellent stuff.

Links on the Blog: The theme of the great house after the war reflects back to the recent Strange Affair of Kitty Easton, while the Russian Ballet came up in Petite Mort and, pricelessly, Cedric’s other costume for that Mitford Ball:

The Boucher picture of Pompadour is in the Wallace Collection; details of the other photos in the entries linked to them.


  1. Moira - As always, you remind me of an author whose work I should read more...

    As I read your post, I was thinking about how much work it must take to get into and out of that sort of dress Perhaps gorgeous to look at, but honestly, not something I'd want to try to manage. And I suppose one can forgive a bit of 'sweet' if there's humour and some solid characters. And fancy dress.. ;-)

  2. So glad you enjoyed this one as much as I did!


    1. Absolutely! Thanks so much for the recommendation.


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