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Bibliophilic Monologues

The Reluctant Heiress

The Reluctant Heiress - Eva Ibbotson writes fairytales. Or at least the two books I have read by her seem like fairytales. For reasons that will become clearer as the review progresses, I have decided to review both books together. I have spent almost a year immersed in the academics of fairytales (and yes, it is as fun as it sounds), deconstructing fairytales, finding out what they are saying under the shiny dresses and glass slippers and finding out that they are not as benign as they may be portrayed to be. On the surface, The Secret Countess and The Reluctant Heiress are delightful reads. They are sort of Cinderella stories, no wait, they actually are Cinderella stories.In The Secret Countess, Anna is a noble who was almost unimaginably rich, lost it all due to political upheavals that left her entire family penniless and in London, at the mercy of an English governess they retained. In The Reluctant Heiress, Tessa is a penniless princess who has to sell off her castle because her family lost family members and all its money due to um…political upheavals. The heroes of both novels are somehow damaged whether in physically or emotionally. They are saturnine and fashioned in the style of Austen’s Darcy.If you have read many fairytales, you will realize that the female protagonist of the tales always get their princes after they have been humiliated. Ibbotson’s heroines are almost falling over themselves to please. To serve. This is directly at odds with their upbringing and honestly? Not very realistic. As if their humility is not enough, they are nice to everyone (well, almost everyone) but I think what stood out most for me is their almost obsessive compulsion to serve people. To go to the extent of cutting her hair (TRH) or to have her hands be chapped and hurt (TSC) before they are able to get their “princes.” What else is problematic for me is the portrayal of the “other women.” In both these books, the other woman is the fiancée. Both women are vain, (taking pleasure in the way they look is a criminal offence) and both are loathe to “serve” and abase themselves in the manner of the heroines (who are actually above them where social status is concerned). For Ibbotson there are only two types of women: The Cinderella type and the Evil Queen (from Snow White) type.In both stories, the men could not “break their word” that they gave to the other woman being the manly men they are and instead resort to elaborate schemes in order to make the other woman break up with him. See this? I don’t like it. What’s wrong with cutting your losses and making a run for it?You’ll say to me, “Nafiza, this book does not promise a realistic tale. You yourself said it was a fairytale.” And yes, you are right. This book or rather both books did not promise realism and I am not finding fault with that but what I do find fault with is that both books endorse subservience in women. Both books portray finding pleasure in the way you look or taking care of your appearance (admitted in an exaggerated manner) in a very negative light. In both books, the “princes” take it for granted that the protagonist would agree to marry them and skip the asking part. So while I might end up liking the heroines (because it is impossible to hate them) I will end up hating the fact that I do so. And Ibbotson doesn’t do any favours to men either. I am all about being honorable but not at the expense of your personal happiness.I found the writing to be overwhelming full of descriptions and names I could not pronounce. I liked the descriptions – I just wish there had been less of it. I am going to read one more book by Ms. Ibbotson and see if it is essentially the same story set in a different place. I don’t know if I want to recommend it or not. But if you do read it, keep in mind that people like the heroines only exist in fiction and they are not women you want to emulate. It’s okay to be a little vain.