I have never been to Vienna, although I have long wished to go. I’ve seen photographs and travelogues of the city and it looks splendid. It’s mentioned in a lot of books I’ve read, mostly in passing and I’ve read some history. But, because of Eva Ibbotson I feel as though I have been there. Vienna was the city of her birth, but a place she left early in her life and only returned to as a visitor much later on. She uses the Austrian capital as a setting for all, or part, of many of her novels but it’s always a historical setting. The closest she comes to writing about the city at a time she knew it is in The Morning Gift and those are not happy chapters as Ruth Berger is forced to flee from the Nazis.
The two books that bring Vienna most vividly to life are Madensky Square and The Star of Kazan. I was a Carnegie Medal judge the year that the latter was short-leeted. I fought very hard for it and was asked to record a piece about it for the award ceremony. And, joy upon joy, I was asked to look after Eva on the day. But that was the ceremony that never was, bombed out due to the atrocities the day before in London in July 2005. After the non-event, I was devastated that I hadn’t been able to meet Eva. (At the time I was shocked and horrified and slightly traumatised as I had flown down to London early on the morning of the seventh and was making my way to Russell Square.) And so I was correspondingly delighted when Macmillan asked me if I’d like to interview her. I went to Newcastle to meet her, taking with me two books to be signed: the aforementioned Madensky Square and The Star of Kazan.
Eva spoke that day of her very mixed feelings about Vienna; of how for many years she couldn’t even contemplate returning. And when she did use the city as a setting (for short stories and parts of Magic Flutes as well as the others) she went back to a time before she had known it, a time of splendour and empire and joy. And that is the Vienna I feel I have visited.
Madensky Square is a year in the life of Susanna Weber, from spring to spring of 1911-12. Susanna, a dressmaker, lives a quiet life in her square surrounded by friends and neighbours in whom she takes a kindly and supportive interest. Her Vienna is not that of high society and glittering social occasions. It is, however, full of music and history and the pleasures of the surrounding countryside. Susanna lives her life to the rhythm of the city, a city she loves passionately and is prepared to fight for.
In some ways Madensky Square is a gentle book but underneath the story in Eva Ibbotson’s writing is always something to ponder. She makes us laugh at idiosyncrasies but not unkindly. She scrapes away carefully at the surface of characters until we can see why they behave the way they do; we may only glimpse their back story but still we gain some understanding of their characters.
The Star of Kazan is set just a few years earlier than Madensky Square but only about half the book is set in Vienna. But it is Vienna that has stayed with me ever since I first read it back in 2004. It is Annika’s story, Annika found as an abandoned baby in a Church in the mountains outside Vienna; found by Ellie and Sigrid, servants to three sibling professors.
Annika loves Vienna whole-heartedly and Eva Ibbotson shares it with us, her readers. The book is a wonderful evocation full of waltzes, Sauerkraut and the not-so-blue Danube; the Prater, Lipizzaner stallions and affectionate laughter at the city’s oddities. Vienna is integral to the novel. It is more than a setting in time and place. It is a main character. And it is contrasted with Prussia where Annika is taken believing she has found her real family. We know, though, that she cannot possibly belong in so barren and cold an environment and so are not surprised that she returns to Vienna.
As I would have said fifteen years ago, the Star of Kazan is a delight. Eva Ibbotson’s gentle irony and subtle humour enhance a beautifully crafted and well-managed plot. There is no extraneous detail; like an expertly conducted symphony, everything comes together in a satisfying Viennese conclusion.