There are not many authors whom readers wish had written more, rather than fewer, novels but Eva Ibbotson is among them. Like Jane Austen, she wrote just six completed books: A Countess Below Stairs (1981), Magic Flutes (1982), Company of Swans (1985), Madensky Square (1988), The Morning Gift (1993), and A Song For Summer (1997). Like Austen’s, her novels combine social satire, comic inventiveness and the romantic glory that make her one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century.
Yet as well as these, and an equally successful career as a prize-winning children’s author, Ibbotson also wrote short stories, and it is a pleasure to find eighteen of them collected now in one volume, A Glove Shop in Vienna. For the reader craving her particular blend of comfort and asperity, they are a gift.
They are also a treasure trove that give some indication of Ibbotson’s range, as well a glimpse of the preoccupations that clearly developed into her novels. In essence, they are like the scraps of ribbon and brocade that Cousin Poldi (in Vicki and the Christmas Angel) turns into Christmas decorations of exquisite, almost magical, craft and beauty.
Like all the best comedies – and I place Ibbotson in between PG Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons – these are stories in which wickedness, cruelty, prejudice and sorrow are interwoven with what is joyful, wise and beautiful. Often, they are set in Old Vienna, a city that she herself left as a child. The very first story, Vicky and the Christmas Angel, recreates the city of her birth at a time in which “doctors, lawyers and self-respecting members of the bourgeoisie” lived in buildings that “looked like Renaissance palaces.” You think that you are getting a charming story about a happy childhood Christmas enjoyed by three sisters but it is much more poignant. The girls’ awful cousin, Fritzl, deliberately reveals the truth about the Christmas “angel” who transforms their tree every year. The story is as much about the end of childhood as it is about how the beautiful decorations are the product of someone plain, poor and working with scraps and a loving heart. She is a true artist, just like Ibbotson herself, and rather like the author, overlooked by the elite.
Part of Ibbotson’s magic is the way she describes the world her characters inhabit with such assurance. Although she certainly came, as a Jewish War refugee, to live in Belsize Park (then a shabby North London suburb) much like the heroine of The Morning Gift, her lush descriptions of Old Vienna came from her mother Anna Gmeyner, whose memories of a society in which the bourgeois and the bohemian could live together were transmitted to the young Eva long after that life had been destroyed by two World Wars. Even more striking is that the exotic “green hell” of Brazil and its fabulously wealthy rubber planters, vividly described in Journey to the River Sea and A Company of Swans, as well as The Rose of Amazonia in this collection, were never seen in real life by Ibbotson, but imagined from old photographs.
Born in Vienna in 1925 to non-practising Jewish parents, Eva Ibbotson belonged to a world of cosmopolitan intellectuals. Her father, Bertold Paul Wiesner, was a physician who pioneered human infertility treatment, and her mother, Anna Wilhelmine Gmeyner was a successful novelist and playwright who had worked with Bertolt Brecht and written film scripts for Georg Pabst. The rise of the Nazis meant that Vienna became unsafe for a Jewish child and her parents (by then separated) fled to Britain. In 1934, she left Austria for Dartington Hall, the progressive public school (subsequently the inspiration for both The Dragonfly Pool and her adult novel A Song For Summer.)
Everything in Ibbotson’s fiction both for adults and children reflects this experience of exile. She recycled the shock and terror of anti-Semitism in The Morning Gift and celebrated the city she lost in Madensky Square and A Song For Summer, as well as several of the short stories here. Her heroines (and heroes) are always in flight from what is cruel, unimaginative, despotic and selfish, whether this is in the Amazon or far away on the magically hidden Island of the Aunts, The Secret of Platform 13 or a house haunted by ghosts. Almost every great writer of fiction has had to discover how to escape trauma through a secret passage in their imagination, but Eva Ibbotson is one of the few who had the direct experience of avoiding being murdered alongside six million Jews.
After Dartington Hall, she went to read science at Bedford Hall (later University College London) and Cambridge, where she met her ecologist husband Alan Ibbotson. They moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and had four children – one of them Piers, now a children’s author himself. Eva began writing her short stories during this period, and was published in magazines such as The Lady, Women’s Realm and Good Housekeeping.
Each of these stories is strikingly assured, sophisticated, romantic and satisfying. Fans of her novels will spot the background to A Countess Below Stairs (now called The Secret Countess) in her riff on the Tolstoy household’s habit of keeping diaries in The Little Countess, just as you can see the young Eva’s own experience of being shunted between parents in the story Sidi. The gloriously eccentric relations familiar from The Morning Gift and The Secret Countess first surface in A Little Disagreement and Doushenka, and most of all in A Glove Shop in Vienna, whose exploration of the narrator’s Great Uncle Max’s “Great Love” make one howl with laughter.
Ibbotson’s comedies are romantic, but they are not remotely like the soft-brained, shoddily-written pap that is so often marketed as this genre. Their characters are complex, worldly, steeped in culture, science, good food and wonderful clothes but also irradiated by idealism and imagination. Whether they are academics, artists or aristocrats they appreciate brains, money and the finer things in life; they often manipulate each other, albeit with the best of intentions, but they also surprise themselves and us. Supposedly deceived wives turn out to have known and encouraged their husbands’ affair all along, and children teach their elders about the importance of love. Equally crucial are the couples who, quite clearly, should not remain together: gentle souls ill-matched with partners who are snobbish and controlling. A Tangle of Seaweed foreshadows some of the delicious mess experienced by Ruth and Quin in The Morning Gift, whose plot revolves around a secret morganatic marriage and the biology department of a London university.
I was lucky enough to know Eva a little, after interviewing her for The Times, and I asked her once why all her adult novels were set in the past. She answered, “because I have to think of why my hero and heroine don’t go to bed together before they get married.” The best romantic fiction is nearly always about deferred gratification, and she was careful to place many obstacles – social, financial and even racial, in the way of her couples’ happiness – but in fact, the very first Ibbotson novel I read, as a teenager, was A Company of Swans and it was not about deferred gratification at all. Its witty, sensuous description of how its virginal heroine Harriet enjoys being “ruined” was far more helpful than acres of DH Lawrence – or for that matter, Barbara Cartland – about what making love actually feels like. Even if her reader might not yet know about sex, she assumed we would be familiar with all kinds of subjects, from Pushkin’s poetry to Mozart’s operas, and if we also learn about exotic animals, delicious desserts and obscure (or invented) hypotheses, then it adds to the fun.
She certainly intended her novels to be read and enjoyed by intelligent people rather than ones in search of formulaic escapism. Arguably, Ibbotson enlarged the scope and sophistication of many genres, from satirical romance (as written by Nancy Mitford and Nora Ephron) to the comic children’s fantasy novel (as written by CS Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, and, subsequently, JK Rowling). Though her stories always end happily, they are never predictable:
“This is a true story, the story of a Christmas in Vienna in the years before the First World War. Not only is it a true story, it is a most dramatic one, involving love, conflict and (very nearly) death – and this despite the fact that the hero was a fish. Not any fish, of course: a mighty and formidable fish, the Great Carp Ferdinand. And if you think the story is exaggerated and that no fish, however mighty, could so profoundly affect the lives of a whole family, then you’re wrong.”
That voice, a beguiling blend of sympathy, acerbity and quirkiness, is instantly identifiable. You know you can trust it to entertain, to comfort and to enlighten, even if the hero of this tale is a fish.
Ibbotson herself is always on the side of the imaginative, the sensitive, the compassionate and the passionate. Her heroes and heroines, bullied or despised by more practical people, always turn out to have unexpected reserves of strength and determination. Like Jeremy, the poor little rich boy who looks “like a miniature diplomat” in A Question of Riches, the protagonists in her stories know what Keats called “the holiness of the heart’s affections.” In this fairy-tale world, they triumph.
Here, then, are short stories to make you laugh, cry, gasp and rejoice in being alive. Everything Ibbotson wrote quivers with brilliance. Like Cousin Poldi in her first story, she was a true artist. It is high time we brought her back into the light, and gave her the love she deserves.