I first encountered Eva Ibbotson in the YA section of our local Borders bookstore in the early 2000s — back when I was teaching high school English (and Borders still existed). I began with A Countess Below Stairs and so enjoyed this story of a Russian countess forced to work as a domestic servant in England that I wanted more. In fact, I bought every one of Ibbotson’s novels released by SPEAK, a YA imprint of Penguin.
But these titles with their teen girl covers (see above) are not really Young Adult. This is not a statement about the quality of writing; rather, it has to do with the adult contexts and dilemmas the heroines face. I love YA novels, of course, but if you tend not to read books about teens and have been dissuaded from reading Ibbotson’s novels because they were once promoted as YA, I urge you to give them another look.
Nearly twenty years later, my passion for Ibbotson flamed anew when I saw an unfamiliar title offered on Audible.com — Madensky Square. It seemed perfect for my 10 hour drive to Tennessee. The reader, Juanita McMahon, was exquisite. The story, however, was not the fairy tale I’d come to expect from Ibbotson. The heroine, Susannah Weber, a mature and fiercely independent woman, knows change is coming to her beloved Vienna. Woven through her narrative are the lives and loves of other residents of Madensky Square, but at her story’s core is a secret that gives Susannah both joy and excruciating pain.
Upon finishing the novel I returned to an old favorite, A Song for Summer, and then I read–for the first time, I think?–my copy of The Reluctant Heiress (also known as Magic Flutes). This passage from The Reluctant Heiress is a fine example of Ibbotson’s enchanting storytelling. In this scene our heroine, Tessa, is sharing the “Arcadian” grounds of her ancestral home, Pfaffenstein Castle, with its new owner, Englishman Guy Farne:
Tessa was looking for something, searching the ground. Kneeling, now, to part a clump of tiny trifoliate leaves, so exquisitely wrought that the peers of England would have taken them for their coronets.
“Yes,” she said happily. “It’s a bit early but some are ripe.” And carefully, absorbed like a child, she picked the small, flecked barely scarlet berries and held them out to him. Wild strawberries–the most prized, most fragrant, and heart-stirring fruit in the world.
“In Sweden,” she said, rising to stand beside him and speaking very seriously, “they have a word for a place like this. It’s called a smultronställe. A ‘wild strawberry place.’ A place like that is special, it’s the most special place there is.”
Guy looked down at the berries she had tipped into his hand. Their scent, subtle yet piercing, seemed to overwhelm him with its sweetness.
“Only it isn’t just literally a wild strawberry place,” Tessa went on. “A smultronställe 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’un faune.”
Do you, like me, adore the notion of a smultronställe? Do you have one of your own, and if so, have you written about it? I think it would make for a lovely journal prompt. (Or blog post?) One might say that each Ibbotson story, with its romance, humor, history, and pathos, is a smultronställe of its very own!
Now for Tea! To celebrate Ibbotson and her scrumptious romances, I made Austrian Tea Cakes served with Jasmine Flowering Tea steeped in my new Vienna Glass Teapot. (The tea and teapot both came from Teabloom, an online purveyor of teaware, loose leaf tea blends, and an interesting assortment of packaged “blooming teas.”)
This “delicate floral green tea infusion” combined jasmine flavors with “edible marigold, jasmine and globe amaranth flowers.” Unfortunately the neat little packet of tea and flowers didn’t unfurl in a glorious blaze of color as pictured here. (Actually it looked a bit like a wee alien in a preserving jar! I hope to do better next time.) The tea cookies, on the other hand, were delicious — light and crunchy with just the right amount of sweetness. My husband did not care for them, remarking that they were a bit dry, but I think he was expecting something more like a cake ball? Oh well, more for me!
One more thing: In 2018 Steve and I spent 10 days traveling through Budapest, Vienna, and Prague–settings often referenced in Ibbotson’s novels. That trip helped me appreciate Ibbotson’s fictional worlds all the more! Click here for the Flickr photo album.
Wish to know more about Ibbotson’s books? These links are informative and entertaining:
Reading Pathways: BookRiot on Eva Ibbotson
Panmacmillan’s guide to Eva Ibbotson books
Eva Ibbotson’s books in order of publication
A Romance Reader/Writer recommends Eva Ibbotson
A fun video discussion of the “enchantment” of Ibbotson’s books