World War I has just ended and the Russian country is in chaos. The Grazinsky family of counts and countesses escape to England, where Anna insists on getting a job as a maid, despite her Governess's strong opinion that countesses should not go under stairs.
Anna gets a job at Mersham, home to the Earl of Westerholme, Rupert Westerholme. There, everyone is just beginning the preparations for the Earl's wedding to a young lady named Muriel Hardwicke.
Everyone's first impression of Muriel is wonderful. She's a beautiful young woman with seemingly lovely manners, not to mention she saved Rupert's life when she was a nurse during the war. But it rapidly becomes obvious that Muriel is not as pleasant as she seems, and she has many changes in store for Mersham.
And while all that is happening, Rupert not only discovers Anna's true identity as a Russian Countess, but also begins to fall in love with her, and she with him.
You might remember my review of A Company of Swans, also by Ibbotson, back in November. I raved and raved, because I loved the book SO MUCH. Well, this one's going to get a rave too. Just warning you.
Eva Ibbotson can do what very, very few authors can: she brings out my inner hopeless romantic. "Countess" had me glued to the pages, urging Rupert and Anna on and cursing the vile name of Muriel. Rupert and Anna were both awesome, and they weren't the only ones. Mr. Proom, the butler of Mersham, became my hero, and Tom Byrne is really cool and The Honourable Ollie is just adorable.
And let's not forget the villain. Muriel roused up my loathing gradually, just like she did for the other characters in the story. At first, she seems rather nice, if a little arrogant. But then as you read more, you really start to despise her. She's pure evil in blonde curls and silk.
I'm starting to get the feel of Eva Ibbotson's romance novels. She sets up two characters who shouldn't be able to end up together, then has them fall in love. Sometimes it starts to look like a happy ending, and sometimes it doesn't, but at some point before the ending it all really goes to pieces and the two main chars are on virtually opposite ends of the earth feeling incredibly miserable. But don't go thinking all her books are the same plot and characters with different names; they're not. A Company of Swans and A Countess Below Stairs are similar enough in that they're both historical fiction, romances, and totally awesome, but aside from that they're two separate stories.
I've heard not all of Ibbotson's stuff is that great, though. I've only read three of her books, and so far it looks like either her teen fiction or her historical fiction is what she really excels at her. Her normal fantasy is sometimes pretty good, but I know Arty hates one of her novels (one I haven't read). She's written quite a lot, and I'm working my way through it all. Unfortunately, she died last year. I'm going to be even sadder when I get to her last book.