Quin now saw a figure standing on the upstairs landing. Verena, who had read so much, had also read that no man can resist the sight of a beautiful woman descending a noble staircase. Gowned simply but becomingly in bottle-green Celanese, she placed one hand on the carved banister, gathered up her skirt, and while her mother waited unselfishly in the shadows, began to make her way downstairs.
The descent began splendidly. Not only the long back, the long legs of the Croft-Ellises came to her aid, but the training she had received before her presentation at court. Verena, who had kicked her diamanté-encrusted train backwards with unerring aim as she retreated from Their Majesties, could hardly fail to walk with poise and dignity towards her host. The first flight was accomplished…
[But] someone – and Aunt Frances was beginning to suspect the second housemaid whose father was a Socialist – had opened a door. The puppy…with a growl of aspiration, gathered himself together and leapt, managing to reach the bottom step at the same time as Verena completed her descent. Verena did not tread the puppy underfoot, nor did she fall flat on her face. Anyone else would have done so, but not Verena. She did, however, stumble badly, throw out an arm, stagger – and land in disarray on her knees.
commentary: It's not even worth trying to resist Eva Ibbotson. I had some minor reservations with this book: the author is always unnecessarily harsh on the rivals of the simple heroine, the likes of Verena, above, so you’re never in any doubt who to like and dislike. And I could have done without Quin being so Lord-Peter-Wimsey-like and perfect and deeply desirable to absolutely everyone – it made him seem more resistible to me. But – it’s no good: Ibbotson still wins every time.
This particular book walks a delicate line. The background is the run-up to and beginning of the Second World War, and many of the characters are refugees, who have had to leave with almost nothing, and try to create a new life at the other end of Europe. In the background is always the knowledge that, compared to many in their families, they will turn out to be the lucky ones, despite the difficulties.
There is a shockingly unimaginable moment where the teenage Ruth lets her parents leave Austria without her:
‘I knew that if they realized I was still in Austria they wouldn’t go, so I went to stay with our old cook in Grinzing till they left.’So – not a spoiler, this is the mainspring of the plot – in order to leave she agrees to a sham marriage with the family friend Quin. It is the only way out, and will enable her to get a British passport and subsequently the right to remain in London. Of course they are not in love: Ruth is promised to a genius young piano player, Heini. The marriage is purely one of convenience, and they will divorce as soon as is compatible with keeping her immigration status.
‘That was brave,’ said Quin quietly.
She shrugged. ‘It was very difficult, I must say. The most difficult thing I’ve ever done.’
Anyone who can’t see the rest coming isn’t really meant for this book: especially as Quin is annoyingly wonderful (see above) and Heini is annoyingly selfish. But we can all enjoy the long complex process by which eventually all is put right. And the details of the refugees adapting to life in the UK are the best bit of the book: you can sneer at the romance, but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy the takeover of the tearooms, the quiet ways everyone helps each other, the musicians wanting to play again, the problems of the shared accommodation, and the awkward gratitude they feel for their sponsors.
The book is very funny, and always threatening to be twee but never quite spilling over. And at times it is heart-wrenching. Ibbotson is also good on snobbery, the class system, and the small world of an old-fashioned estate – feudal and quite ready to be swept away, but also a real community. Here’s the chatelaine of the big estate being told that an employee has refused to take the naughty puppy mentioned above:
‘Won’t have him?’ Miss Somerville was incredulous. ‘Did you point out that the work on the pews is two months overdue?’There is much talk about the divorce laws, and specifically the change brought about by AP Herbert – see much discussion on the blog last year – and of course the possibility of the adulterous trip to Brighton, a feature of Sarra Manning’s excellent House of Secrets and other books.
‘Yes, I did. He says his wife’s got asthma and she’s expecting and the doctor said she wasn’t to go near anything with hair.’
‘I must say I find that extraordinary. People like that wouldn’t have heard of asthma in the old days. It makes you wonder whether education is such a good thing.’
‘He offered to shoot it for me,’ said Martha. ‘He said it wouldn’t feel a thing – well, that’s true enough; he’s done enough poaching in his time, Barker has – he could knock down a hare at fifty yards and no trouble.’
Eva Ibbotson is very good on clothes, always tells you what people are wearing at key points, and this is another way in which she reminds me of the class act that is GB Stern, whose wonderful books also tell the stories of European Jewish families.
To find more Ibbotson on the blog, click on the label below.
Two women on the stairs are wearing wartime utility evening dress by Norman Hartnell, from the Imperial War Museum.
The woman leaning on the pillar is wearing a home-made outfit cannibalized from two older garments -most impressive. IWM again.