For Eva


Her father’s well-remembered voice came to save her. “When you’re sad, my Little Star, go out of doors. It’s always better underneath the open sky.” 
— Eva Ibbotson, A Countess Below Stairs

I am writing about Eva in my back garden. A bowlegged wasp is exploring the pages of my notebook, and I stop writing and watch the wasp, trying to see it through Eva’s eyes. Eva was my friend for seventeen years, and I am sure she would have liked the wasp. Because I am prone to magical thinking, and in that state of heartbreak where I need to imagine her close at hand, I wonder if the wasp might be a messenger from Eva.  
The wasp flies away, and I dismiss the thought. If Eva were in the market for a messenger, she would undoubtedly send an earthworm. She had a special tenderness for worms. An earthworm named Rover plays an important role in Which Witch?:

Belladonna bent over Rover and her hair fell like a golden curtain, inside which the wounded worm lay snug and warm. Then she began to croon a little song. 
Terence had never heard a song like the one that Belladonna sang. It was about dampness and the soft darkness of the rich earth and about the patient worms who had turned it through the years. It was a song about pinkness and wetness and roundness, and while she sang it, Terence felt that he, too, was an earthworm and understood the soul of all earthworms and always would.

I first fell in love with Eva through her books. Twenty years ago, her children’s books were hard to find in America, but her romances for adults were in most libraries. I loved Eva’s prose, with its sinuous and cadenced lines; I loved her wicked sense of humor. Observe this description of Dr. Lightbody, the apostle of eugenics in A Countess Below Stairs: “Dr. Lightbody leaned forward. The discussion of hygienic and moral laxness with a beautiful woman in a softly shaded restaurant was exactly to his taste.”

Here’s an example of her powers of description: the opera house from Magic Flutes.

The auditorium with its enchanted painted ceiling of obese and ecstatic nymphs, its red velvet boxes and gold proscenium arch, invariably wrung a sigh of pleasure from connoisseurs of Austrian high baroque. Backstage, the theatre resembled a cross between the Black Hole of Calcutta and the public lavatory of an abandoned railway terminus.

Best of all, I loved her characterizations. Here’s a passage from Madensky Square, in which the “unpleasant, pathologically mean, and ugly” Countess von Metz is trying on a dress: “In all the rooms of the palace there was no soul who cared for this old woman; no one whose glance would linger on her for an instant; even her dog was dead. Yet as she peered and turned and stared into the mirror, she might have been a girl of nineteen preparing for the ball that was to seal her fate.”

Madensky Square was Eva’s favorite among her books. It is also mine. It is one of the mysteries of publishing that Madensky Square is the only one of Eva’s adult novels that hasn’t been reprinted. I don’t know why. It’s true that Madensky Square is the most bittersweet of the romances and that the heroine is thirty-six instead of eighteen. But anyone who loves Eva Ibbotson’s books should stop at nothing to get hold of a copy, for in no other book is Eva’s voice so much her own. I have two copies: one to keep and one to lend.

I first wrote to Eva in 1993. I told her how much I admired her writing, and to my joy, she answered my letter. “You...seem to understand what mattered to me particularly. The place where as they say in Iona, the sky is thin...where there is not much of a membrane or layer of cloud between God and man...or between a beat-up writer and her tremulous muse.” I wrote back to thank her for answering me, and we became friends.

I loved her, and I adored her. The two things are not exactly the same, but they can co-exist. Eva was good at loving people, and she loved me back. I have one letter from her that begins:

Dear Laura, 
You are a stupid cow. I can not emphasize this too strongly nor find a gentler way of putting it. If you EVER AGAIN think I might have forgotten you or rejected you or don’t care about you then please go into the bathroom and do something, like putting your head under the cold water tap. Though this is not nasty enough or drastic enough...

Even now, when I am sad, I can’t reread Eva’s letters without smiling. Her handwriting was almost indecipherable — “a sort of glove thrown into the arena for my true friends to retrieve” — but the letters are worth the struggle. Eva was a source of wisdom and laughter, comfort and inspiration. Sixteen years ago, when I was told to jettison my half-written novel, she wrote:

You have to — dear Laura most truly you have to grow a protective skin round yourself and what you write. Writing is a love affair between you and the book — it isn’t necessarily a happy one, or even one with a successful conclusion; you can write a book, be absorbed in it, and fail. But oh God Laura don’t let them blow out the candle.

I took her words to heart and went on writing. My novel was never published, but I’m glad I wrote it, and when Eva said that the work was good, I believed her. She was absolutely trustworthy. If I was confused about something, she saw straight to the heart of the matter. She was my touch-stone. During the seventeen years of our friendship, we exchanged letters and e-mails, postcards, books, flowers and gifts.

We discovered that we loved many of the same books: Dickens and Tolstoy and Trollope, of course, but also The Fountain Overflows and The Song of the Lark. (I am proud to say that I introduced Eva to Wise ChildUnderstood Betsy, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate; I knew she would relish them, and she did.) We swooned over the same music: the sextet from The Marriage of Figaro, the third act of La Boheme, the trio from Der Rosenkavalier, and Mozart’s String Quintet no. 4 in G Minor — “What do you mean, do I like the Mozart G minor quintet? The only reason I didn’t write it myself is because I’m not a musician and Mozart got there first.” It is fitting that Eva should have loved Mozart so much. Her writing, with its clarity and morbidezza, is entirely Mozartian.

Three years ago, I made my pilgrimage to Eva’s home in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Eva had lupus and was often unwell. I was terrified that I would arrive on one of her bad days and that she would be too polite to show me the door. She told me she was afraid I would find her “ancient and dilapidated” (her favorite words to describe herself). But we decided to set aside our fears and risk meeting face to face. Thank God we did, because I was able to put my arms around her and hug her properly.

In her letters, she had led me to believe that she was a plain woman, but her features were fine-boned and distinctive. Her eyes were thoughtful, even melancholy, but they could flash with wit or sudden ferocity. She had the most exquisitely shaped hands I’ve ever seen and what I think of as a rustle-y voice — a voice that reminded me of the sound of leaves. Unlike her prose, her conversation was often unpunctuated; I was never quite sure when she had finished talking. I was nervous, and I’m afraid I interrupted her more than once.

I told her about my students at the Park School, and how much they loved her books. They still do, of course; many children read them over and over again. Eva’s books are gloriously funny and full of incident: there are quests and adventures, journeys and magic. But it seems to me that what children are most drawn to is Eva’s goodness, and her vision of the world:

I can’t put it into words...not properly. It’s to do with those paintings of places where the lion lies down with the know, those primitive painters who see things very simply: birds of Paradise and green leaves and everything blending with everything else. Or the Forest of Fontainebleau — I’ve never been there, but I saw a picture once where the stags had crucifixes between their antlers and even the animals who are probably going to be shot look happy. 
— A Song for Summer

Eva Ibbotson was fascinated by happiness. All writers take an interest in how things go wrong; it’s our bread and butter. If our stories have no problems, we have no plots. But although Eva described herself as pessimistic, her imagination was radical enough to envision things going right. She was extraordinarily skilled at taking a large cast of characters and bringing them into harmony. I have no idea how she did it. It’s hard enough for a writer to shepherd one character toward a happy destiny — it is exponentially more difficult to deal with half-a-dozen. But Eva managed it somehow, drawing the threads of her plot together, making the pattern of a happier world. All of her characters find their hearts’ desires. Annika (Star of Kazan) is reunited with her real mother; Maia (Journey to the River Sea) is set free to live in the rain forest. Children of all nations — including Nazi Germany — join forces to outwit the Gestapo in The Dragonfly Pool.

Eva’s visionary world reminds me of the paintings of Edward Hicks. The lion lies down with the lamb, and the child pats the leopard on the head. But the animals in Hicks’s paintings are soulful and sedate. Eva’s kingdom is far more bizarre. It includes the ungainly, the humble, the outcast, and the macabre. There are hags and ogres and trolls, earthworms and aye-ayes — not to mention a Greek chorus of cranky, sharp-tongued, and whiskery old ladies.

And then there are her children: good children. The child characters in Eva’s books are not priggish or unnatural, but they are steadfast in friendship, open to wonder, and resourceful. In Journey to the River Sea, the acerbic governess states: “Perhaps I’m mad — and the professor too — but I think children must lead big lives...if it is in them to do so.” One of the cruel ironies of Eva’s life is that she conceived of those adventurous children at a time when her own world was growing more restricted. The lupus diagnosis came fourteen years ago; shortly afterward, she lost her adored husband. They had been married for forty-nine years.

Eva referred to lupus as her “fell disease.” She found it ominous that her illness had been named for a wolf. And the wolf simile was horribly apt: the disease attacked her like a pack of wolves, repeatedly and from all sides. It affected her digestion, her eyes, her hands, her feet — even the roof of her mouth. Eva was cursed with a writer’s teeming imagination: she could envision every ghastly prospect that lupus might present. She said she hated the saying that old age was not for sissies, “because if you are a sissy, what then?” She was always exhausted and almost always cold.

But she was brave. Most days, there was only a brief period of time — twenty minutes to an hour — when she felt well enough to write. During that time, she mustered her strength. She wrote. She grumbled and despaired, as writers do; each new book came with a note warning me that I would be disappointed, that she couldn’t do it anymore. But the books were good, and she went on writing them. Many years ago, she wrote:

When I’m dead...which could be reasonably soon the way I’m going, would you be so very kind as to make your way to London and light a candle for me in St. James and then stroke the catalpa, and that will get me to my confused multiracial multi-religious and musically dominated heaven?...I think you are right about heaven. It may or may not exist, but whether it is or not, it is absolutely full of is probably full of everybody though there have always been problems with Hitler and so on...

And so on. Always the woman makes me smile. Yes, Eva, I will. I don’t know when, but I will go to St. James, and stroke the catalpa, and light a candle for Eva Ibbotson. I will do it because Eva asked me to, not because it is necessary. It is not the least bit necessary. If there’s a heaven — any kind of heaven — Eva will be able to get there on her own steam.

And as I imagine lighting Eva’s candle, I realize something. I realize that I am once again being a stupid cow. If I want to be close to Eva, I don’t have to go to St. James, and what is more, it is silly of me to stare at a wasp and pre-tend it’s a messenger. It would be silly even if the wasp were an earthworm.

Because Eva left her message to me — and not just to me, but to all her readers. She left her books. During her lifetime, she fought, as even able-bodied writers must fight, to pour out her heart onto paper. And she succeeded. She found the right words, and she gave her stories life, and they survive, these fragments shored against her ruin. I have lost my friend, and I am going to spend the rest of my life missing her, but I have her books: twenty of them, all of them rich with her spirit of radiant goodness. We all have the books. We have them to keep and to lend, and to share with the people we love. We can read them, and reread them, and pass them on. 

Including Madensky Square.


An Eva Ibbotson Booklist

The Great Ghost Rescue (1975)

Which Witch? (1979)

A Countess Below Stairs (1981) a.k.a. The Secret Countess

Magic Flutes (1982) a.k.a. The Reluctant Heiress

The Worm and the Toffee-nosed Princess (1983)

A Company of Swans (1985)

The Haunting of Hiram C. Hopgood (1987) a.k.a. The Haunting of Hiram / The Haunting of Granite Falls

Madensky Square (1988)

Not Just a Witch (1989)

The Morning Gift (1993)

The Secret of Platform 13 (1994)

Dial-a-Ghost (1996)

A Song of Summer (1997)

Monster Mission (1999) a.k.a. Island of the Aunts

Journey to the River Sea (2001)

The Star of Kazan (2004)

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle (2005)

The Dragonfly Pool (2008)

The Ogre of Oglefort (2010)

One Dog and His Boy (2011)


From the May/June 2011 Horn Book Magazine.

Laura Amy Schlitz
Laura Amy Schlitz
Laura Amy Schlitz is the winner of a 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor Award for The Hired Girl (Candlewick).

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.