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Magic Flutes: Eva Ibbotson Picador 2009

I didn’t get as emotional this time as I did when first reading this, but there was certainly a moment where Tessa is so giving that made me catch my breath.

When looking up the chronology of Ibbotson’s books to see what came after ‘A Countess Below Stairs’, I discovered it was ‘Magic Flutes’, which I think was one of the last of Ibbotson’s books for adults - although it’s to be found on teenage fiction/young adult shelves now - that I came across, and that this book has won the Romantic Novel of the Year award in the early eighties. Now, I can’t claim to have read all the books in contention, but I can see why.

We meet the fighting foundling hero, Guy Farne (named slightly more intentionally than Jerusha Abbot or Oliver Twist) in the opening chapter and learn of how he went to Vienna at the age of twenty where he fell in love with the most beautiful English girl, whom he met at a performance of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’. Her snobbish parents refused his proposal (and his Nerine did not fight for him), so he went and directed his considerable energies and abilities at amassing a fortune. Just over a decade later, asked to return to Vienna, he gets a second chance with a widowed Nerine.

So, Guy buys a castle from the impoverished family that belonged to it for generations. It has a famous outdoors theatre, where he plans to hire an opera company to perform ‘The Magic Flute’, all for his first love. The opera company he has in mind has a good luck charm in its under wardrobe mistress - Tessa. Tessa is a supplicant at the altar of music, willing to help nearly everyone and seems indefatigable.

She’s also been known as Puzerl since childhood, or, more formally, the Princess of Pfaffenstein Castle, and when her opera company ends up there for the grand performance, her two lives converge. Meanwhile, Guy has managed to get engaged to a still beautiful widow whom he barely knows, believing her to be the dream of the girl he conjured up in his youth. In Nerine Huntinton, Ibbotson, gives a sly, but not too harsh, depiction of vanity abetted by greed and snobbery. Nerine thinks of her beauty as a gift to be cherished and shared with the world. She is depicted in some wise as an artist.

Meanwhile, ‘Puzerl’ has a determined suitor in Maxi, a childhood friend and hunting mad idiot – also a prince -who is not deterred by numerous refusals, because his mama has insisted that Tessa is the only woman he can marry, especially with her getting all that money for her castle, which might save Maxi’s from ruination.

Of course, in the course of all this, Tessa and Guy have met and a certain sympathy has ignited between them. She loves music – this book again made me think I should like opera, but I just don’t – and people, with all their foibles. Her weird upbringing has instilled a deep republicanism in her, while he has no shame about his origins, having got where he is off his own back. By the time the two of them realise that they’re in love – Guy grasping why he’s so irrationally angry with Tessa - there’s a sense of near tragedy that adds depth to the book.

As does its comedy. It’s a love letter to Vienna, to Austria, to the opera, but Ibbotson sees the absurdities of all three as well as why they bring rapture.

Reading it after ’Countess’ was instructive for the similarities – Tessa is even more high-born than Anna but just as willing to work. Jewels have an important part to play in both books. The treatment of Martha, Guy’s foster mother, reveals the wrong fiancé’s true nature as much as lame Olive’s mistreatment in ‘Countess’. Pfaffenstein’s loyal staff and family are equivalents.

There’s a historical specificity – this is set between the two world wars – to offset the fairy tale nature of the story, although Ibbotson rather revels in the latter elements with Guy the chivalrous knight and the legend of the lily/star siblings. It’s mixed with down to earth sense that is part of Ibbotson’s magic.

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