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A Countess Below Stairs

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Wikipedia article

'A Countess Below Stairs' by Eva Ibbotson is a historical romance novel which follows the story of 'Anna Grazinsky', a Russian countess after World War I. It was first published in 1981. It has also been published under the title 'The Secret Countess' as a young adult novel.[http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/i/eva-ibbotson/countess-below-stairs.htm Fantastic Fiction]


Anna is a charming child who sees the good in everything and everyone: her cousin Sergei, her younger brother Petya, and all of her multiple governesses. She has lived her whole life being pampered and adored by her father, fussed over by the servants, and cosseted by her mother. However, she is forced to flee Russia after the Bolsheviks seized power and her father dies in The First World War. Forced to depend on the charity of her governess, 'Pinny', Anna decides to take a position as a housemaid at Mersham, home of 'Rupert Frayne', Earl of Westerholme. She keeps her decision a secret from her brother and cousin, telling her ailing mother she has been invited to stay at the country manor.

The moment Anna arrives at Mersham, the staff resent her employment as they immediately realize she is nobly born. Despite their concerns, Anna proves herself hard-working and intelligent. As her fellow employees grow to love Anna, a message is received from the Earl that he is returning to Mersham from service in the war. Having made a promise to his late older brother, Rupert is bringing home a rich fiancee to help fulfill Mersham's many debts. Upon meeting Anna, her grace and high spirits are obvious to him, and the two get along very well.

When 'Muriel Hardwicke', Rupert's fiancee, arrives, everyone is first compelled to love her. Soon afterward, Mersham's inhabitants and neighbors begin to realize that Muriel is a selfish, rude, vain and nasty young woman, despite her flawless appearance. She is unfriendly to the staff, the dowager, the dog, and even to good family friends the 'Minna', and 'Viscount Byrne', bluntly insulting their daughter, the Honorable Olive, and her disability (One leg is shortened due to a bad case of tuberculosis of the hip). Out of love and respect for Rupert, those Muriel offends suffer in silence, not wanting to ill-wish the Earl's bride. Learning of Muriel's deeds later, Rupert is angry and realizes he did not ever truly love her, just as he falls in love with Anna. Nonetheless, he is a man of his word and will not jilt Muriel.

Meanwhile, Anna finds it harder to conceal her identity as a countess as she grows closer to the young earl. Eventually he learns of her identity while purchasing jewels for Muriel(she rejects his first gift of a Arabian mare), and his first instinct is to dismiss her from service. Speaking to Anna, Rupert sees she is miserable having heard of his plans to let her go and he cannot stand to sadden her further. He then knows she is of noble birth, but is still unaware of how high class she is.

At a fancy-dress ball held in Muriel and Rupert's honour by the Byrnes living nearby at Heslop, Anna is asked to serve drinks because of her Russian nationality which would be helpful for some Russian guests. A school friend of the youngest Byrne boy, Henry, turns out to be Anna's younger brother, Peter. Unknowing of Anna's employment as an under-housemaid, he greets her and introduces her to all present as Countess Grazinsky. Her friends among the guests are not surprised and they act as if she was a guest to the house all along, for Peter's sake. Anna and Rupert share a dance, and spectators realize that the wedding in three days is between two people very wrong for each other, though nothing can be done for Rupert and Anna.

The pair go outside, despite Anna's protests, and each confess their affections but accept that they have no future together. They return to the ball, and after several more dances Anna slips away into the night and sits in the wood to let off her feelings. A short while later, her cousin the Prince 'Sergei Chirkovsky' finds her after running from his own problems and they confide in each other. The two cousins are embracing when Rupert sees them from the shadows and jumps to the conclusion that they are eloping together. He returns to the ball and goes on with the wedding.

News from the ball reach Mersham's kitchens and the butler, 'Cyril Proom', finally decides to take action as is his nature. He acquires a large sum of money and uses it to convince 'Melvyn and Myrtle Herring', first cousins of Rupert, to carry out a favour. The distasteful Herrings and their estranged teenaged sons show themselves to be insane genetic mutations to 'Dr Lightbody', a good friend of Muriel who studies Eugenics. He is so upset that he stops the wedding at the last possible second, and Muriel is introduced to the Herrings. She is appalled that she nearly married into such a 'tainted' family, and elopes with Dr Lightbody.

In London, Anna receives word and her depression lifts. Days later, a letter arrives from Mersham claiming that she still owes five days of work to the house. It also assures her that the Earl is out of the country. Before leaving, the woman carrying her family's fortune arrives at long last and her family begins to catch up on some of their old life.

Anna's first job back at Mersham involves serving at the table for a small dinner party. Walking into the room, she is surprised when Rupert is present and he voices his anger in her direction. She lets out a defiant,long-winded reply and bursts into tears. Rupert stands up to comfort her, much to the surprise of his guests. The couple is married the following summer.


Anna Grazinsky

Eighteen-year-old Anna is a charming, graceful young woman who grows up in Russia but is forced to flee her country during World War I. She is a very high born countess, but humble and not spoiled despite her doting parents and their riches. Her compassion is clear in her personality, as is her love for conversation and her natural determination. When her family arrives in England, penniless, she seeks work at Mersham behind her family's backs, trusting in her nanny and friend, Pinny. She quickly befriends and later falls in love with the young earl of Mersham, but conceals this as he is engaged to another woman. She gets along very well with the servants and occupants at Mersham, save for Muriel, the bride-to-be. She is described as having a slight figure and small bones, dark eyes with long and dark and attractive hair. Anna also has a habit of rolling the letter "r" very badly when she is upset, giving her away when she tries to conceal her emotions.


Rupert Frayne is the Earl of Mersham, named so when his older brother dies in the war. He is said to be more scholarly and less ambitious than his brother, making him better suited for the inheritance. He sees the details in things around him, and has a good heart. While sick during the war, he was attended by a nurse Muriel Hardwicke. By the end of his time there they are engaged, though Rupert later realizes that he does not remember actually asking Muriel and assumed this was due to painkillers and sickness causing memory loss. He slowly realizes that Muriel is after his title and falls in love with Anna, though he refuses to jilt Muriel. He loves his dog Baskerville and his mother, uncle Sebastian, and personally knows every one of Mersham's staff.


Muriel Hardwicke is engaged to Rupert after she tended to his injuries in the war. Though she is actually very rich, she is above all a grocer's daughter after a noble title. She conceals her family from Rupert in order to keep her lies about her money and history a secret. Muriel is very interested in eugenics and represents this perfectly with her perfectly formed body and skills, which she is quite proud of. She is very afraid of marrying into a family with history of strange deviations or biological defects. This is why she runs away from Rupert in the end--his first cousins are paid to act like insane and malformed creatures, and she refuses to marry into a 'tainted' family. She is very proud and expects nothing but the best for herself, at any cost.


Mr. Proom is the devoted butler at Mersham. He treats every situation with calm and is responsible for all servants at his workplace. He is kind but firm in his ways. It is said that others don't envy Rupert for Mersham, but instead they envy him Proom! He once saved Susie Rabinovitch's life, and so her father Leo lends him money to have Muriel fooled and frightened away from Rupert. His bedridden, schizophrenic mother lives in a cottage on Mersham grounds.

Mrs. Bassenthwaite

Mrs. Bassenthwaite is Mersham's housekeeper. She is kind and does her job well, and also relatively close with the dowager. She is reluctant to hire Anna at first, seeing her nobility in her movement and speech, but does not regret it after seeing how hard Anna works. The housekeeper contracts appendicitis and while in the hospital, Muriel sees her chance to take control of Mersham and to make her own changes to the employee lineups and actions.

The Dowager

Rupert's Mother's name, Mary, is seldom mentioned in the book. She left the running of Mersham to Proom and then Rupert after losing her husband and then her son within a year of each other. She is very close with Minna Byrne and strives to see the best in everybody. She is the ancient Sebastien's niece by marriage.


Sebastien lives in a corner of Mersham, alone with his music. He played when he was younger, but seldom does so in his old age. He is said to be old and rude and annoying before Anna first begins to serve him, but is particularly nice to her, even having her stay to chat and listen to records with him. Sebastien is said to have had an attraction to maidservants in uniforms since his youth, and gropes them and touches them when they bring him his meals but he leaves Anna alone, treating her instead like a daughter.

The Byrnes

Minna Byrne is Mary's best friend and beloved stepmother to 8-year-old Ollie and three lusty, red-headed sons--Tom, Geoffrey and Hugh. Ollie contracted tuberculosis of the hip at a very young age and has one leg shortened and on calipers--though she was born prematurely and has spent 3 or 4 years of her life in hospitals. Anyone speaking ill of her within 50 miles of Heslop (her home) or Mersham would be found lying face down in a ditch with a bloody nose. However, Muriel seems to escape this fate when she humiliates Ollie in front of the other bridesmaids at the dress fitting. Little Ollie is comforted when Anna takes her to the Russian Club, where she falls head over heels for Russian culture and from then on, she insists that she wants to be Russian. Her oldest brother Tom is Rupert's best man, a handsome heir to the viscount title, and in love with Susie Rabinovitch who finally agrees to marry him after possibly his 20th proposal. Geoffrey, the middle brother, was killed at Paschendale. Hugh is only 12 or 13 and goes to school with Anna's younger brother Petya(or Peter), who is a good friend of his. Viscount Byrne is reserved and enjoys hunting or camping, has little interest and running the household, and married Minna out of need for a lady to keep house--within a year of his wife's death. His sons instinctively dislike her and he does not love her at first, though unexpectedly all four grow completely devoted to her as she modestly runs the house, seeing its needs and disreputing wicked stepmothers from the beginning of time.

Mersham Employees

Louise is the head housemaid. Described as young, frizzy haired and short-tempered, she speaks bluntly but does her work well. Two under-housemaids are the giggly sisters Peggy and Pearl. Mrs. Park, the cook, is like a mother figure to the other employees who meet in the kitchens with her optimism, friendliness and culinary skills, though she feels she lacks in the latter. She is especially important to Win, a kitchen help who is stated to have an unspecified disability, though it is mentioned that part of it is the inability to speak. Elsewhere in the house, James is a short but muscly footman who has devotedly worked at Mersham since he was quite young and small. Sid is the second footman.


Described as being tall and incredibly handsome, and a few years older than Anna, Sergei works as a chauffeur for one of Muriel's "friends". All five of the daughters of his employers are in love with him. Olive Byrne also develops a crush on him when he treats her like a princess at the Russian Club. Sergei is a prince in Russia, first cousin to the Tsar and also to Anna, whom he grew up with as a sister. He once saved Anna from drowning by pulling her up by her hair. He is incredibly kind, but a very minor character. When Anna finds him after she flees Muriel's ball, Rupert sees her crying on Sergei's shoulder and assumes that they plan to marry.


Category:1981 novels

Category:British historical novels

Category:British romance novels

Category:British young adult novels

Category:Novels by Eva Ibbotson

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