Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Magic Moves On

Eva Ibbotson, creator of wondrous characters in her ghost, monster and magic-filled books is no more. I only realized when I bought her book 'The Ogre of Oglefort' a few days ago (her last book - 'One Dog and His Boy' is yet to be released here.) Eva Ibbotson is one amongst the top of my list of children's fiction writers. Her stories are full of the fun stuff - monstrous creatures who have the misfortune of being gentle and kind (she attempted to counter the fear that supernatural stories propagated)- I quote from her books as there is no better way to illustrate her style

"Humphrey the Horrible was a ghost. Actually his name was simply Humphrey but he had added 'The Horrible' because he thought it would help him to become horrible, which at present he was not.
Nobody knew what had gone wrong with Humphrey. Perhaps it was his ectoplasm. Ectoplasm is the stuff that ghosts are made of and usually it is a ghastly, pale, slithery nothingness - a bit like the slime trails left by slugs in damp grass or the mist that rises out of disgusting moorland bogs. But Humphrey's ectoplasm was a peachy pink colour and reminded one of lamb's wool or summer clouds." (The Great Ghost Rescue)

of strange and loving aunts (fashioned after aunts of her childhood)-

"Aunt Etta and Aunt Coral and Aunt Myrtle were not natural kidnappers. For one thing, they were getting old and kidnapping is hard work; for another, though they looked a little odd, they were very caring people. They cared for their ancient father and for their shrivelled cousin Sybil who lived in a cave and tried to foretell the future - and most particularly they cared for the animals on the island on which they lived, many of which were quite unusual...
...So on a cool blustery day in April the three aunts gathered round the kitchen table and decided to go ahead. Some children had to be found and they had to be brought to the island, and kidnapping seemed the only sensible way to do it.
'That way we can choose the ones that are suitable,' said Aunt Etta. She was the eldest; a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant moustache on her upper lip.
The others looked out of the window at the soft green turf, the sparkling sea, and sighed, thinking of what had to be done. The sleeping powders, the drugged hamburgers, the bags and sacks and cello cases they would need to carry the children away in...
'Will they scream and wriggle, do you suppose?' asked Aunt Myrtle, who was the youngest. She suffered from headaches and hated noise." (Monster Mission)

of meetings and organizations of unusual creatures and their helpers (for her husband, a naturalist who loved unusual creatures)-

"Aunt Maud was right. There was someone who cared about ghosts and who cared about them very much. Two people to be exact; Miss Pringle, who was small and twittery with round blue eyes, and Mrs Mannering, who was big and bossy and wore jackets with huge shoulder pads and had a booming voice.
The two ladies had met at an evening class for witches. They were interested in unusual ways of living and thought they might have had Special Powers, which would have been nice. But they hadn't enjoyed the classes at all. They were held in a basement near Paddington Station and the other people there had wanted to do things that Miss Pringle and Mrs Mannering could not possibly approve of, like doing anticlockwise dances dressed in nothing but their underclothes and sticking pins into puppets which had taken some poor person a long time to make.
All the same, the classes must have done some good because afterwards both the ladies found that they were much better than they had been before at seeing ghosts." (Dial a Ghost)

Her adult romances (now marketed for young adults) describe the strange, devastating and eventually blissful lives of people in love. Definitely not for the cynics, they are at times illogical, indulgent, emotional - yet have a strange hold on the reader because of the unusual settings, the temperamental and sometimes funny secondary characters and how all these affect the fates of the endearing, idealistic young lovers.

" 'You cannot be a housemaid, Anna,' said Miss Pinfold firmly. 'It is quite absurd. It is out of the question.'
'Yes I can. Pinny. I must. It is the only job they had vacant at the registry office. Mersham is a very beautiful house, the lady told me, and it is in the country so it will be healthy, with fresh air!'
Anna's long-lashed Byzantine eyes glowed with fervour, her expressive narrow hands sketched a gesture indicative of the Great Outdoors. Miss Pinfold put down the countess's last pair of silk stockings, which she had been mending, and pushed her pince-nez on to her forehead.
'Look dear, English households are not free and easy like Russian ones. There's a great heirarchy below stairs: upper servants, lower servants, everything just so. And they can be very cruel to an outsider.'
'Pinny, I cannot remain here, living on your hospitality. It is monstrous!' Anna's 'r's were beginning to roll badly, always a sign of deep emotion. "Of course I would rather be a taxi driver like Prince Sokharin or Colonel Terek. Or a doorman at the Ritz like Uncle Kolya. Much rather. But I don't think they will let women-'
'No, I don't think they will either, dear,' said Pinny hastily, trying to divert Anna from one of her recurrent grievances." (A Countess Below Stairs, now published as The Secret Countess)

Eva Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925, her parents separated in 1928 and she emigrated to Scotland with her father in 1933. A year later her mother moved to England and Eva divided her time between each parent's house until, in the course of her study at college she met and married the ecologist Alan Ibbotson. She evidently draws upon her early experiences and impressions; her books often contain descriptions of life in Vienna (especially the music, the food, the countryside and the Lipizzaner horses), of orphans, children being shunted from place to place and of European emigres trying to adjust to life in Britain. Her stories are far from grim and always end happily ever after. A depth of feeling, a dash of humour and an amazing imagination (her book 'The Secret of Platform 13' was written a few years before Rowling's books describing magic platforms and trains) is what sets these books apart.

Her last few years may not have been her happiest - she lost her husband in 1998 an soon after was afflicted with lupus (a painful autoimmune disease). At this stage, for a few years, her peppy ghost stories were replaced by more descriptive children's adventures (the award winning books 'Journey to the River Sea' and 'The Star of Kazan') and then she returned to ghostly writing with 'The Beasts of Clawstone Castle' and 'The Ogre of Oglefort'.

With her passing, the magic has certainly moved on, yet some of it lingers in the form of delightful and deplorable characters that she created. It lingers to remind us that the world is not as terrible a place as we think, not while Arriman the Awful, Humphrey the Horrible and the kraken are in our midst!

P.S. My favourite books by Eva Ibbotson are 'Which Witch?' and 'Monster Mission'.

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