Desert Isle Keeper
A Company of Swans
Although I have several favorite romance novels by writers ranging, alphabetically, from Mary Balogh to Joan Wolf, I’ve chosen one by Eva Ibbotson as my all-time desert isle “keeper” because she seems to be a writer often overlooked by many romance readers — and one that they very well might enjoy as much as I do. An Austrian native born in Vienna in 1925, Ibbotson escaped Hitler’s ravages by immigrating to Britain, where she completed her education, married, and eventually began earning income with her pen. She did not start writing adult fiction until late in life and, when she did, set a high goal for herself. That goal is in the same spirit as this site; here is how Ibbotson explained it in Contemporary Authors:
“After years of writing magazine stories and books for children, I am trying hard to break down the barrier between “romantic novels” and “serious novels” which are respectfully reviewed. My aim is to produce books that are light, humorous, even a little erudite, but secure in their happy endings. One could call it an attempt to write, in words, a good Viennese waltz!”
In my opinion, Ibbotson more than meets that goal in A Company of Swans.
Set in 1912, the novel opens in Cambridge, England, where the heroine, Harriet Morton, is not enjoying the elegant opulence and broadened female horizons often associated with the Edwardian era. Instead, as the daughter of an elderly and dogmatic Cambridge don — who raises her with the help of her equally repressive spinster aunt — Harriet has very little joy to her existence. She does have a romantic life of sorts, for she is being courted by one of her father’s students. But, alas, this suitor — a collector of insects — is in his own way just as stuffy as her aunt and father.
Harriet’s one pleasure in life is attending a local ballet class run by Madame Lavarre, a graduate of the Tsar’s Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg (and one of the many charmingly eccentric minor characters with which Ibbotson skillfully sprinkles her novel). Recognizing Harriet’s talent, Madame asks her to join a company of ballet dancers that has been invited to sail to Brazil and perform for the wealthy European emigre community in the exotic Amazon port of Manaus. Harriet’s aunt and father, however, refuse permission for her to go.
Soon afterward, the aunt and the other ladies of the Trumpington Tea Circle drag Harriet along on a visit to a nearby estate. There Harriet ventures off by herself and encounters the young lord of the manor, a lonely boy name Henry, whose family is plagued with financial and other burdens. Henry tells Harriet about another youngster who lived on the estate years before Henry was born — a strange, magical lad known to Henry only as “the Boy” — and shows her that boy’s childhood adventure book, now Henry’s own treasured possession. The book, coincidentally, is about traveling to the Amazon, and Harriet explains how she has been refused permission to make a trip to just that very place. Certain that “the Boy” is now there and that his return would solve the family’s problems, Henry asks Harriet to find “the Boy” and deliver a message asking him to come back to England. Harriet promises that, should she make it to the Amazon, she will do so.
Seeing the meeting with Henry as a serendipitous, almost fairy-tale-like coincidence, Harriet is now determined to escape her family and join the ballet company on the trip to Manaus. After various machinations she manages to reach the troupe in London and sail with them to Brazil. There she meets “the Boy,” now a man — Rom Verney, a handsome, dynamic adventurer living in lush, tropical splendor just upriver from Manaus. Rom is so wealthy that he has his shirts laundered in London and shipped to him in Brazil — but he’s also a warm and caring man who — along with Madame Lavarre and the other members of the offbeat ballet troupe — draws Harriet out of her formerly stodgy existence and into a whole new realm of human experience. The romance between Rom and Harriet develops gradually and beautifully, with plenty of excitement, whimsy, pathos, and humor along the way — including the reappearance of Henry in the clutches his venal mother, not to mention the bug-loving boyfriend, who comes to Brazil to fetch Harriet but seems even more interested in the rare insects of tropical climes.
Ibbotson is a very fine writer whose light, charming style and quirky characters are in the tradition of Jane Austen (though she’s less satirical), Shirley Jackson (though she’s not at all gothic), Sharon and Tom Curtis (though her books are by and large more substantial), and Georgette Heyer (though Ibbotson does include love scenes, and she doesn’t go in for all the historical slang that some readers dislike in Heyer). Her fiction for adults includes three other enjoyable novels that qualify as romances – A Countess Below Stairs, The Morning Gift, and Magic Flutes – as well as the somewhat less qualified Madensky Square and a book of short stories. Though most of these books have appeared in paperback from Avon and do pop up at used-book stores, they first came out in hard cover and should be available through interlibrary loans at most libraries.