At the Back Fence Issue #299

March 31, 2008

LLB: When Robin and I spoke about her assignment for this week’s column, I could tell that she was far more interested in a recent read than a romance-specific “topic.” So I suggested she write about the book that so captivated her, and that we use her column as a jumping off point for books – and not just romances – that have, as she writes, “gone out of fashion.” I’ve not read the Ibbotson, but a decade ago we posted a reader-submitted DIK review for the book, and, I must add, my daughter adored Which Witch and The Secret of Platform 13, both by this author. Which reminded me of a couple of young adult books that have stayed with me through adulthood…

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

A Book To Keep You Company

When was the last time you picked up a book, and, after reading the first few paragraphs thought, I am going to remember this book for a long, long, time?

When was the last time you picked up a book that reminded you of sitting in your Grandmother’s cold attic, rummaging through a parent’s childhood books?

When was the last time you picked up a book that sounded like the warm, plainspoken voice of Willa Cather, Gene Stratton-Porter or Jean Webster?

May I suggest, if these authors give you the same warm, happy feeling that they give me, that you pick up a copy of the newly reissued Eva Ibbotson’s A Company of Swans?

It has been a very long time since I picked up the kind of novel that makes me happy just knowing that it is waiting for me after work. A few weeks ago, while searching for a present for a friend, I picked up A Company of Swans. I’m not sure why I bought it. For years I’d kept an old paperback copy, that I had bought used, stashed away on a keeper shelf. I always planned to read it and never got around to it. The book became something of a nuisance because rather than putting it with my large romance collection downstairs, I kept it in my office with books I planned to read soon. And yet, I never got more than a few paragraphs into it. The print was very small. The book was tattered. Every time I read more than a sentence of it I found myself thinking that I wasn’t in the mood to read anything demanding. So back onto the bookshelf the book went. Finally, sick of looking at it, I sold my copy, thinking that I would never get around to reading it.

But there I was, standing in Barnes & Noble with the book in my hand. I read one paragraph, then another. I sighed. This was stupid. But before I knew it there I was at the checkout isle, book in hand.

That night, tired from work and feeling that I new absolutely had to read the book, I started to read. It was a revelation. A Company of Swans would never make it past a group of genre editors at a major publisher. Not only is the book set in 1912, the first quarter is devoted solely to Harriet Morton, the motherless heroine who is brought up by her selfish, sexist father (a classics professor at Oxford), and her equally stingy and selfish Aunt Louisa. If you are a fan of Dickens, Professor Morton and his sister Louisa may remind you of David Copperfield’s odious stepfather and his stern sister. Ibbotson has a delightful way of making her villains frightening at the start, but also funny and frail. She lightens the story with the horrified reactions of local people to their stingy dinner parties. And also like Dickens, Ibbotson prefers humiliating selfish and vain villains to killing them. Professor Morton and his sister get exactly what they deserve by the end of this story.

Professor Morton and his sister rule by heaping shame on their small charge and making her feel useless and unloved. Bookish and quiet, Harriet obeys their every command. It’s the only way for her to have any peace. Life in her father’s cold, sparse house is lightened only by her weekly dancing lessons. One day, to her great surprise, a visitor comes to Harriet’s dancing class and invites her to join a ballet troop. The troop plans to travel to Brazil and perform Swan Lake. Harriet automatically declines the offer. She knows that her father will never permit it. Not only will he object, she is a minor and will be caught if she tries to run away.

It is only when her report of this offer is met with such derision that Harriet does something completely out of character. She runs away.

And so begins the story of Harriet Morton’s trip to Brazil with a ballet troop. Oh yes, there is a short segment where Harriet meets the nephew of the man we just know will be the hero, but basically this is the story of a young woman who discovers that the person she is isn’t necessarily the person she was brought up to be.

The very best parts of A Company of Swans, focus on Harriet’s adventures and the people she meets along the way. The dance troop, for example, is run by an eccentric couple – a prima ballerina whose moody tantrums are equaled only by her brilliance on stage and her husband manager. The husband is the consummate manager, alternately coddling and encouraging his wife/star and, in the meantime, making sure a group of green dancers learn their steps and charm the locals in Brazil. Harriet, a minor player, is hardly the focus of their lives, yet Ibbotson lets us in on their conversations, their business worries, and plans for the future.

When he is first introduced into the story, Rom Verney, the book’s hero, seems to have come straight from Romance Central Casting. A younger son of a noble family, Rom is rich beyond all reason from a fortune he made himself. He also had (you guessed it) a sad experience in his past which he never overcame. Now he hides out in his gorgeous home in the Brazilian jungle.

Harriet’s adventures, not only in meeting Rom, but in avoiding the clutches of Edward Finch-Dutton, the excruciatingly boring suitor foisted on her by her father and Aunt Louisa, keep the book lively. The last few chapters of A Company of Swans are a grim reminder of what can happen in a society where women have no rights. But the final climax delighted me. Anyone fond of the story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, will love it.

I’ve never been one to praise the recent practice of republishing small paperbacks in trade size, but I have to admit that in this case, it’s probably the reason I finally read this book. The cover of the new trade paperback edition features a beautiful ballerina in repose. Open it up and the print is mercifully easy to read, in the way that those old 1920s popular novels were easy to read. Is it the typeface? Who knows. For my money, it’s worth it.

Eva Ibbotson’s writing voice has a warmth to it that has gone out of fashion. When I closed the book I felt homesick for romances by Daphne DuMaurier and Mary Stewart, English humor by E. F. Benson (the Lucia books, for instance) and the novels of Angela Thirkell. It was great to read a romance that was not only about romance, but also about young woman’s adventure and the interesting people who joined her in it.

Thinking of this now, I am wondering about other books that you can recommend, with that sensibility. I would love to hear about them. And, if you haven’t done it yet, I suggest you pick up A Company of Swans. You’ll be glad you did.

Questions To Consider:

All romance readers know that stylistically, romances published today aren’t like those written twenty or thirty years ago. Those changes aren’t just stylistic, either; they relate to an overall sensibility. And if that applies to romance, surely it applies across the board to all fiction. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in the fiction you read – romance or otherwise – over the years? What do you miss, and what are you glad to see diminished? What do you see as the changes in the way some of these stereotypes are used in romance today?

A Company of Swans is considered by some to be a romance novel, but by others it’s Young Adult fiction. We’ve often written about labeling in romance; would you be less likely to read Ibbotson’s book if it were shelved in the YA section than if you found it with adult romances? If so, why?

Have you (or your children) read this author…or this book? What can you tell us about your/their experiences with Ibbotson’s writing?

What stories that you loved/once loved seem too “quaint” for today’s market? What in particular makes you wistful about them, and how would you try to convince another reader to try them? If we were to try and develop a special list for “Wistful Reads,” what titles would you want to see included?

If you hadn’t previously heard of A Company of Swans, you might not have known it was first published in the 1980s. How often do you look at a book’s copyright page before buying it? If you always check the copyright page, is it simply to assure yourself that you’ve not already read the book, or do you look for or shy away from books published X number of years ago? And if so, why?

Robin Uncapher

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