Desert Isle Keeper
Eva Ibbotson is not a prolific writer, but to to her fans, her books are all cherished treasures and they love each and every one of them. Magic Flutes is Ibbotson’s second novel, and showcases all of what her fans love about her writing.
Guy Farne was found by mere chance wrapped in sacking on the Tyne docks in Newcastle. He was brought to an orphanage where Matron was surprised by his strength. She called him Farne after the islands she had visited as a child. He was forever in trouble – battering other children, arson, and possession of weapons were among his crimes. Then when he was six, he was given to a widow to raise. Though Martha Hodge was dubious, when she agreed to take Guy, two miracles occurred – he smiled and in his strange, green eyes, a glimmer of celestial blue appeared.
When Tessa was born, newspapers reported her birth. Emperor Franz Josef attended her christening. She was the last of the House of Pfaffenstein, a descendant of Karl der Grosse (Charlemagne to the rest of us), and raised in a grand castle (even granded than Neuschwenstein, the “Cinderella” castle featured in the past here at AAR) which once housed Richard, Coeur de Leon during his imprisonment. Tessa, or Putzerl as she is known to her family and friends, is a young member of a class of people who had been far above the common people, her friends, family and acquaintances are princes, archduchesses and barons. Her cousin Pippi is Pope.
But now it is 1922. Austria and German have been defeated. The noble classes are like everyone else. Tessa is proud to call herself a republican. Guy Farne has grown up and is a wealthy industrialist, having made his fortune in South American mining.
Guy Farne has returned to Austria (having spent some time in Vienna while a scholarship university student). Now he has a mission for the British government and one of his own: to win the affections of an Englishwoman, now a widow, who had spurned him long ago during his student days. Her aunt was an Honorable while Guy was a foundling from Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Tessa, meanwhile, has left Schloss Pfaffenstein to serve art in Vienna as the under wardrobe mistress in a third-rate opera company full of comical characters, many of whom I have met in New York music circles. There’s the director who is just a step ahead of the bailiffs; his soprano wife past her prime; the conductor who has been writing a symphonic masterpiece for years. Then there are the opera dancers.
Here our story begins.
Guy decides to woo Nerine, the English girl he loved while studying in Vienna. They had met at the opera during a performance of The Magic Flute and in his romantic way, he wants to recreate the evening, down to the color of her dress. So, he hires Tessa’s opera company and plans to install them in his newly purchased castle, the Schloss Pfaffenstein, to perform the opera in the castle’s theater.
As Guy finds his way to the manager’s office after a performance of Pellas and Melisande, he comes upon the under wardrobe mistress, crying. She has sacrificed her hair for a wig. Guy is taken with the waif-like “innocence and the sad eyes of experience” he sees in her. He drives her home and they speak of Vienna in the way of people who live in a city they love. Guy and Tessa are quite real which makes the story more precious.
I came to Ibbotson recently and have been completely drawn in. This story of love lost and found in an unlikely place could have been told tritely, blithly, boringly. Yet in Ibbotson’s hands, it is magical, touching and poetic.
The author obviously knows classical music and opera. She refers to Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart in language born of love. Her use of German idioms and phrases creates a Vienna and its surroundings that comes to life. At one point Guy and Tessa speak of the private, small unknown places of Vienna that they both enjoy: a café where Beethoven ate, a certain sausage house in a small street, the Spanish Riding Academy in winter when no one else is there. These details make the story more real and show Ibbotson’s talent as a storyteller who writes with knowledge of her subject.
But it is the situations that arise and the language describing them that made me cry so often: Tessa sells Schloss Pfaffenstein to Guy for a great deal of money. She invests much of it in the opera company and loses it all. Guy learns of the folly and tracks her down at the grave of a Frau Richter in the Central Cemetery.
” ‘Look,’ she said. ‘Look what people have to bear.’ She led him a little way down a mossy path to a plain green grave with a simple headstone.
‘Ah, yes,” said Guy. ‘Frau Richter? Your friend?” Together, they looked at the inscription.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
Bertha Richter, died 1896 aged 75 years
AND OF HER CHILDREN
Hannah Richter, died 1843 aged 1 year
Graziella Richter, died 1845 aged 6 months
Herrmann Richter, died 1846 aged 1 year
Brigetta Richter (Bibi), died 1849 aged 3 months
Klaus Richter, died 1865 aged 24 years
ALSO OF HER HUSBAND
Johannes Richter, 1st Hungarian Jaeger Regiment, killed in action at Koenigsberg, June 1886
GOD HAVE MERCY
‘Yes,” said Guy. ‘God had better have mercy, there.’
‘When things get bad,’ she said, ‘ I think of Frau Richter who just went on living and living after all those children had died. Look, she lived to be seventy-five! Think of all the Bertha Richters in here – you can feel their courage, somehow, coming up through the ground.’ She turned and led him slowly back to the bench. ‘These are the people I come for when I’m down, not Beethoven or Schubert. The great people are for the times when it’s good to be alive.’
A word about Ms. Ibbotson’s characters – these people in the hands of a less-talented writer would merely be parodies of stock characters: the shallow first-love, her snooty petty bougeoise relatives, the flightly yet wise elderly aristocratic aunts who love Tessa and would literally starve for her. Yet these characters live as surely as the hero and heroine. Moreover, the people who appear for a paragraph or less than a page are just as well-drawn. Tessa’s father’s nurse is just as alive a Tessa herself. Ms. Ibbotson has true gift for characterization.
I generally love thick, meaty historicals full of detail. My favorite authors are Elizabeth Chadwick, Roberta Gellis, Isolde Martyn and Laura Kinsale. Eva Ibbotson has written a book of the same caliber and quality in Magic Flutes and has done it in 255 pages. If you can get your hands on a copy, do.