Given that Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson was published in 1982, I decided it could safely fit this month’s challenge theme. Plus, I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long time, as one of the few by this author I have not already read. Plus it combines a 1920s setting with musician characters, which is catnip for me.
Magic Flutes is set in Vienna shortly after the First World War. English foundling Guy Farne has become a millionaire through his innate intelligence and knowledge of mining and chemistry; his drive to make a fortune is driven by the need to impress his first love, Nerine, whose family spurned him. Tessa was a Princess of Pfaffenstein, though her family and fortunes have been reduced by the war; she is currently working what is essentially an unpaid internship backstage with an opera company in Vienna; meanwhile, her great-aunts hope to marry her off to Maxi, the only suitably aristocratic candidate available. Add to them a large secondary cast including Guy’s faithful employees, a houseful of aging Austrian aristocrats, and an opera company drawn from all over Europe, and mix thoroughly.
The characters and plot are very Old School Romance, more so even than Ibbotson’s other novels; it’s a sweet fantasy with a fairy tale atmosphere. Guy is the self-made millionaire who doesn’t quite understand his own feelings. Tessa possesses the most noble traits of nobility while at the same time being endlessly kind and giving to people at all social levels.
Here are a couple of quotes to give a flavor of Ibbotson’s prose style, which enchants me. In this scene, Guy Farne is visiting a Very Historic Castle.
The round walls were hung with tapestries which Guy suspected had been chosen more for their capacity to exclude draughts than for their artistic content, for they mainly depicted people holding heads: Judith that of Holofernes, Salome of John the Baptist and St. Jerome of a dismembered stag.
Later on, heads return to the narrative: “This,” announced the Duchess unnecessarily as they entered a low building piled from floor to ceiling with skulls, “is the charnel house.”
“Those skulls on the right are from the Black Death,” said the Margravine helpfully…
“Putzerl found this one when she climbed out through the dungeons onto the south face, the naughty girl.”
“She believes it’s a Turk and we never had the heart to contradict her, though it is most unlikely. The Turks were all impaled on the eastern wall.”
Guy is single-minded in impressing Nerine, who’s been widowed by the war, but she was never the woman he thought she was. Tessa is blissfully happy being run off her feet by the opera company and does not have a single thought of romantic entanglement that does not happen as part of an opera’s plot, at least at first; Maxi is dedicated to hunting and fishing far more than to the childhood friend to whom he’s expected to propose. Maxi’s brilliant gambit to woo Tessa is to bring his dogs with him. (Spoiler: she loves the dogs.)
As for the secondary characters, the opera company are the most vivid. It’s difficult for me to tell if the varying European nationalities are stereotyped, as to me they all seem affectionately caricatured. They are full of life all the same, and their love of music comes through with a feeling of truth. Raisa, the fat soprano, is a classic diva with her vocal complaints and little dachshund, but never fails to come through in performance. Zoltan Klasky, the elitist Marxist orchestra conductor, is passionately devoted to the atonal opera he is composing about railroad workers. Jacob, who has sunk his life and entire fortune into the company, achieves apotheosis when presenting Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Though I enjoyed the romance, the affectionate treatment of music is the reason I loved this book so much.
I love this book. If you’re looking for a frothy escape, put on an opera recording and settle in.