Monday, October 6, 2008
Eva Ibbotson has never let me down - I'm sad that she's now writing exclusively for the children's market, but her writing remains lucid, generous, warm-hearted and humane. The Dragonfly Pool harks back to the children's books of an earlier time, the Ruritanian romances of Anthony Hope, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Lost Prince and Violet Needham's books set in a fin-de-siecle zone somewhere east of Vienna. The brave, bright and sympathetic heroine, Tally Hamilton, has a strong moral code which leads her bizarrely to Bergania, a neutral fictional country that does its best to stand up against Hitler, and entangles her with the Royal Family of Bergania. There is a chase, there are villains of every stripe from the out and out evil to those who are simply utterly and entirely self-centred. Good more or less triumphs, the wicked more or less pay for their sins and the plot hangs together well for me, although as always with Ibbotson's books, I always wish they were longer for the elegance and gentle, witty style that she has perfected over the last 30 or so years of writing.
Ibbotson's stand-out books for me remain Countess Below Stairs, Magic Flutes and Company of Swans, all of which enlivened a rather difficult winter in Aberdeen that I remember for a cold so extreme that I spent quite a lot of time in both the University Library and the central city library, intermittently studying phonetics, sociolinguistics and more cheeringly, Renaissance Scots literature. Later she published The Morning Gift, which has become my favourite of her romances. There is a pattern - not a formula, but a pattern - to her novels. The heroine is always very much an ingenue, and good to her core. Good, not in a goody-two-shoes kind of way, but in a passionate and morally not always particularly easy kind of way, the kind of good that understands sacrifice and struggling for what one believes is right. The heroes are formidably intelligent and often self-made and staggeringly rich. They may be blinded by superficiality at the start of the novel, or even trapped not by blindness but by necessity into quite terrible matches, but they see the light and they are led to it by the heroines. There is always a rich cast of supporting characters with quirks and foibles that make them at once maddening and lovable, but also quite unique. And then there are the villains. There are quite often horrible, nasty evil people, like the leader of the Gestapo thugs in Dragonfly Pool, but also there are quite terrible, awful, banal, narcissists whose great wickedness is their self-centredness and almost unwitting cruelty.
Ibbotson writes a world of extremes, like Dickens or Austen, because extremes are more amusing, but there is a core of fundamental truth in her world - the good do not always entirely triumph, the wicked are not always, and in fact not usually, fully routed, but the triumph at the end of the novel is not so much love conquering all, as moral rectitude triumphing. Selfishness, self-centredness, these may continue in the characters who exhibit them, but our good guys, and this is more explicit in the children's books, enjoy a moral victory that is far more satisfying and true than perhaps glibber writers might manage. All this and careful, neat, high-quality prose that never talks down to the reader of any age. If you haven't read any Ibbotson before, go forth and devour. A writer to comfort the soul.