Scoop of the e-e-evening: The Reluctant Heiress

After a month without fiction, it was delicious to burrow down with The Reluctant Heiress. Once again, Ibbotson’s prose imparted the oil of gladness, and the small world that was 1920’s Europe, filled with destitute Margravines and threadbare Duchesses, delighted my willing suspension of disbelief. The Reluctant Heiress, however, has to bear the burden of being republished post-A Countess Below Stairs. When compared with that story, The Reluctant Heiress pales.

One thing I love about Ibbotson’s characters is the time and space she devotes to her male leads. No Elizabeth Bennett + Ken here. Why, the first 40 pages of The Reluctant Heiress are devoted to Guy Farne, and Guy Farne alone. For Ibbotson, and for the real world, romance means two complete persons. A timely lesson, as I percolate the star-crossed lovers of my own novel.

The Reluctant Heiress may not toe Ibbotson’s high water mark, but when I count the ways I love her, the quotes are endless:

On a skull found by our heroine as an adventurous child, on the south face of their castle’s crag: “She believes it’s a Turk and we never had the heart to contradict her, though it is most unlikely. The Turks were all impaled on the eastern wall.” “We think it was probably a commercial traveler who came to see her great-grandfather.” “About saddle soap,” put in the Margravine. “He came by the front entrance, you see. And poor Rudi was always so impulsive.”

On our heroine’s duties as an under-wardrobes mistress: “Quickly she sorted the mail into the appropriate pigeon-holes, took the director’s letters upstairs to his office, emptied the mousetraps under his desk, riddled and filled the ancient, rusty stove. Then downstairs again to the front of the house to turn on the light, admit the cleaning ladies, and ring the police to inform them that a handbag containing three thousand kroner and a ticket to Karlsbad had been left in row D of the stalls.”

On our villain’s self-sacrifice: “While shopping, she was patient, dedicated, devout. Standing in lace cami-knickers did not chill her, nor did she become overheated when swathed in furs. The distractions that troubled lesser ladies as they stood captive in cubicles—the thought that outside the birds were singing, the glorious summer day passing unseen—never troubled Nerine nor forced her into a hasty choice.”

As the beauty of Mozart washes over an audience: “Darkened by trombones, by muted trumpets and muffled drums, the music spoke now of the poetry of man’s existence, of the necessity of suffering and endurance in the creation of a perfect love. I will be nicer to Mother, thought the Countess Waaltraut, and the acid-penned critic Mendelov, who had come from Vienna, closed his notebook and shook a wondering head.

On a smultronstalle: Only it isn’t just literally a wild strawberry place,” Tessa went on. “A smultronstalle is any place that’s absolutely private and special and your own. A place where life is ... an epiphany. Like that very quiet room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum where the Vermeers are. Or that marvelous bit where the flute plays that golden music at the beginning of L’Apres-midi d’en faune.” “The nave of King’s College chapel at Evensong,” said Guy. ...“The Lipizzaners doing a capriole, in the winter, when there’s no one there.”

On life: “When I was little,” she said, “I used to try to stick the leaves back on the trees. I couldn’t bear autumn. I couldn’t bear them to fall.” “And now?” She shrugged. “Look,” she said. “Look what people have to bear.” She led him a little way down a mossy path to a plain green grave with a simple headstone.... Together, they looked at the inscription.

In loving memory of

Bertha Richter, died 1896 aged 75 years

And of her children

Hannah Richter, died 1843 aged 1 year

Graziella Richter, died 1845 aged 6 months

Herrman Richter, died 1846 aged 1 year

Brigitta Richter (Bibi), died 1849 aged 3 months

Klaus Richter, died 1865 aged 24 years

Also of her husband

Johannes Richter, 1st Hungarian Jaeger Regiment, killed in action at Konigsberg, July 1886


“When things get bad,” she said, “I think of Frau Richter, who just went on living and living after all those children had died. Look, she lived to be seventy-five! Think of all the Bertha Richters in here ... you can feel their courage, somehow, coming up through the ground.” She turned and led him slowly back to the bench. “These are the people I come for when I’m down, not Beethoven or Schubert. The great people are for the times when it’s good to be alive.”


Also, the hero’s secretary is named Thisbe.


sally apokedak said...

Oh, yes! I felt the same way. Only, maybe I liked it a little less than you. I can't remember now why I didn't like it, but I was disappointed because I was really looking forward to it and then...neh, not that great.

Noel De Vries said...

Well, all my quoting made me sound more enthusiastic than I am, perhaps. The problem was oomph. There wasn't any.

Can you like a book that much in part and not much as a whole?!?

Deva Fagan said...

(Just discovered your blog through the Eyes Like Stars tour and when I saw you were a fan of fairy tales, celtic violin, rounded doorways and L. M. Montgomery I knew I had to read more!)

I have The Reluctant Heiress on my to-read shelf and have been putting off reading it because I want to make sure my expectations are in line with the book when I read it. I discovered Ibbotson last year with A Countess Below Stairs, which I *loved*. But then I read A Song for Summer and was very frustrated by it. But I've enjoyed Company of Swans so I am hoping The Reluctant Heiress is going to be more in line with that -- not as stunning as Countess, but still enjoyable.

Thank you for providing your review -- hopefully when I do read it now I will enjoy it for what it is!

Noel De Vries said...

Thanks for commenting, Deva! It's always fun to stumble upon kindred spirits.

Probably my second favorite of Ibbotson's romance novels (after Countess) is The Morning Gift. It's similar to Song for Summer, but perhaps not so bleak. But those three, Morning, Summer and Company, they're in a class, and Countess and Heiress are in a different, more YA class. In my opinion. For me, when I read Company, it was like, do they ever get out of bed?!?

But yes, enjoy Heiress without too high expectations. And oh my goodness ... read Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan. It's Children's Fiction, not YA, but it's fictional perfection.

Hope to see more of you!

Deva Fagan said...

Yes, I have been wanting to read some of her younger books (I love middle-grade fiction as well as YA!). Perhaps I will start with Star of Kazan! Thank you for the recommendation.