Today’s installment of Book Chatter centers on A Company of Swans, by Eva Ibbotson. It’s the story of Harriet Morton, a young lady growing up in pre–World War I Cambridge under the micromanaging thumbs of her hidebound father, penny-pinching aunt, and insect-obsessed suitor. When Harriet is offered a chance to join a ballet company on a tour of South America, she leaps at the chance to leave her dreary home — even if it’s only for a few months.
Ibbotson’s narrative abilities are at their peak with A Company of Swans, so much so that she can leave a primary tension unstated, and it still serves as a major driving force through the story. That tension, to name the elephant in the room, is this: Harriet has joined the ballet company very much against her guardians’ will, so when the tour ends and the company disbands, where will she go next? Her only option, as we understand it at the beginning, is to return to Cambridge and marry Mr. Entomology 1912.
As with all stories, there are some details that may incur criticism.
- The father and aunt, acting as the main villains, are fairly one-dimensional. There’s very little about them that makes me conflicted about their actions. They’re just there as the forces of chaos.
- The roles that Amazonian natives play in the story, and the language used to describe them, are about what you would expect from a British expat in 1912.
- (SPOILER ALERT) In the end, that driving tension is a non-issue. Harriet doesn’t really decide her own fate. She chooses for the wrong reasons, and then her choice is snatched from her anyway, and then someone else decides for her. If I dare be this extreme, it’s a bit like Twilight: All through the story, we’re wondering, “Will she choose to become a vampire? Will she? I mean, she keeps saying she will, and all the signs point to her making that choice, but really, will she? … oh, look at that, she did.”
- If you buy the British edition, the blurb on the back is pretty insipid, not at all indicative of the book’s depth and lyricism. I know this isn’t the author’s fault, but still.
So with these things in mind, it would be entirely appropriate to ask me, “What do you see in this book? Why is it one of your favorites?”
First of all, the biggest reason I love this book is the gorgeous writing. Besides the precise structural chops mentioned above, Ibbotson also has the rare gift of describing details in a luminous way that will tickle your brain and make you want to be right there with the characters, even if they’re just walking through town or eating a meager breakfast. So even if the story is flawed (and really, show me a story that isn’t), at least the narrative vehicle is spot-on. Frankly, if I had to choose between good writing and a good story, I’d choose the good writing any day.
But now let’s examine those flaws. Regarding objection #1, I suppose it’s not necessary to have complex villains all the time. Sometimes, especially when reading purely for leisure, it’s nice to have an antagonist that fans are united in hating.
As for objection #2, I urge readers to remember that a work of historical fiction is striving for historical accuracy, and very often, history is not as clean and moral and forward-thinking as we like to paint it sometimes. Every era has its prejudices and quirks, ours included, and Ibbotson’s modern portrayal of Edwardian Amazonia is deliberate enough to prompt some potentially interesting discussion on why she chose to give the native people these roles in the story. There’s also a minor plot point that could spark debate over whether imperialism can ever be a good thing.
Similarly, with objection #3, one could argue that A Company of Swans isn’t really a book about a girl who finally gets the courage to make her own choices. It’s not set up to be the next feminist touchstone. It’s a book about a girl who loves to love, and who has been seeking all her life for someone to love her back. And in this, I think it’s safe to say that Harriet is indeed a strong character.
But what do you think? Does every story need to display exemplary treatment of disadvantaged groups? Is there room in today’s society for older books, like Little House on the Prairie or Gone with the Wind, showcasing attitudes that were mainstream in their time but are now quite troubling?