I read my first ever Eva Ibbotson at at age nine or whereabouts, when I found Which Witch in my school library. The chronicle of Arriman the Awful’s quest for a sufficiently wicked witch mate had every ingredient necessary to enchant a nine-year-old. There was a romance which acknowledged how vomit-inducing romance can seem to young readers, evil magic that wasn’t evil enough to satisfy the mighty wizard Arriman but plenty fun for this age group, a nice secretary with a little tail, a heroic worm named Rover, and at least fifteen other secondary characters strong enough to command their own novels. Oh, and writing that begged to be read out loud. The ghost who wanders, moaning with misery, striking his forehead with a plashing noise! Arriman, Loather of Light and Blighter of the Beautiful! Belladonna the good witch whose nose turns up at the end, making a resting place for tired ladybirds!
My library had only one Ibbotson, and I never found any others in Indian bookstores. Then high school and exams and misplaced priorities intruded, and I forgot all about Ibbotson till 2002, when a browse in a charity shop in England left me wobble-kneed with remembered happiness–and trepidation. Would Which Witch hold up to re-reading?
It did, and as with all of her other kidlit, still does. Ibbotson’s ten wondrous books for children include The Secret of Platform 13, which anticipated J.K. Rowling’s Platform 9 and three-quarters by several years, Journey to the River Sea, a non-fantasy set in Brazil, and The Island of the Aunts, about an island inhabited by mermaids, selkies, and other magical creatures. Ibbotson never Disneyfied her stories–people die, adults are frequently cruel because they know they can get away with it, and authorities and institutions often harm those they are supposed to protect. The edge in her fantasies comes from reality, thus allowing adult readers to appreciate not just her inventiveness but her insight.
And now that I have a child of my own, I’m doubly grateful that Ibbotson’s young protagonists behave like real children. Her creations are mulish and impetuous and sometimes downright naughty. They often have fierce (and sometimes misguided) loyalties, which leaves them terribly vulnerable to manipulation. The “good” children are fun and nice and hard-working, but never sweet. The disagreeable ones are lazy and selfish due to overindulgent parenting. There are no bad seeds amongst Ibbotson’s children, just improperly sown ones.
Another distinct thread in Ibbotson’s work is a horror of those who set great store by wealth or power. Her villains’ lust for riches leads to a gradual erosion of scruple, culminating in their indifference to human life. In The Island of the Aunts, Mr. Sprott’s love for money has twisted his perceptions till he “felt mistreated. If the aunts had sold him the Island as he wanted, he wouldn’t have to drown them now, and the children too. It was their own fault, really.” I should add that Ibbotson was careful to make the distinction between greed and ambition in her novels; children of course have always known the difference.
A similar pattern plays out in Ibbotson’s five romances, where true love’s triumph is hindered by secondary characters motivated by self-centeredness and greed. Some of these romances seem even more fantastical than Ibbotson’s kidlit, featuring as they do wholesome heroines who are good and brave and eager to serve without reward, and heroes whose sole faults are misplaced jealousy and an excess of chivalry. But the prose is remarkable, always respecting the reader’s intelligence, and if the books sometimes feel like variations of the same novel, I’m mostly fine with it.
Ibbotson drew heavily on her Austrian background for her romances–A Song for Summer and The Morning Gift are both set against the Nazi take-over of the region, while Magic Flutes revolves around the opera houses of Vienna (and Viennese pastry gets its due share of the spotlight too). Despite their fairly complex plots, these romances were recently reissued as YA novels, presumably due to the lack of explicit sex scenes. Consider yourselves warned–some of the YA imprints have different titles; forehead plashing may be occasioned after spending $ 9.99 on The Reluctant Heiress (2009) only to find that it’s Magic Flutes (1982).
The romances are fine in their own way, but it is the children’s books I come back to, over and over again, and I now wait for my son to discover Ibbotson in his turn. You never say good-bye to a beloved writer’s work, only au revoir.
Eva Ibbotson died on October 20, 2010, aged 85.
From the Guardian obituary: Eva Ibbotson, who has died peacefully at home aged 85, entranced her readers with stories which, though robust in substance, appeared to be effortlessly spun in the finest thread from an endless source of imagination. Descriptively vivid, richly inventive and shot through with perfectly timed wit, they charmed adults and children alike. She was best known for Journey to the River Sea, which won a Smarties prize and was runner-up for the 2001 Guardian children’s fiction prize, but she also won awards for other children’s books including The Secret of Platform 13 (1994) and The Star of Kazan (2004), and the Romantic Novelists’ Association award for her adult novel Magic Flutes (1982).