Had she always been wanton? Edward asked himself as he leaned his aching head against the trunk of a tree, uncaring of the ants, the termites, the poisonous spiders it might harbour. Was it just this damnable climate or had it gone on all the time? Had she crept out at night in Cambridge to come out of cakes in Trinity ... out of seashells in Sidney Sussex ... out of cornucopias in St Cat’s? A gigantic moth flew into a lantern; it was new to science, but he let it pass[...] He had meant to marry this girl whose ankles had been gaped at by three dozen gentlemen at dinner ... He had meant to commit his life to her in Great St Mary’s and approach her reverently in a honeymoon hotel in Bognor Regis ... He had meant to introduce her to the Mater! [loc.3053]Reread: it's a long time since I enjoyed the gentle pleasures of an Eva Ibbotson romance, and I had forgotten how hilariously funny (and precisely observed) Ibbotson's novels can be.
A Company of Swans is set just before the First World War. Though it begins in Cambridge (which I'd forgotten), most of the action takes place in Manaus, a city deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest.
Harriet Morton's mother is dead, and her father -- the Professor -- does not approve of education for women. Oppressed by her father and her miserly aunt (who 'kept in her bedroom a box labelled ‘String too short to tie’'), Harriet's one solace is her ballet class. (She has a fiance, Edward, but he is .. dismal.) When she's offered the opportunity of a role with the corps de ballet in Manaus, her father forbids her to go: but Harriet's iron will prevails, and she runs away.
The corps de ballet is made up of a number of fascinating characters: the gorgeous and chaste Marie-Claude, who is saving up to marry; Simonova, the fading but indomitable prima ballerina who sees in Harriet something unique; fiery Olga Narukov, with a kick like a mule. But there is life outside the ballet, too. Before Harriet left England, she promised a small boy that she would find his uncle Rom, a rubber-planter in Manaus. Rom turns out to be fabulously wealthy and darkly handsome, his playboy demeanour concealing strong principles and a tragic past. He finds himself strangely intrigued by plain, serious, innocent Harriet -- who in turn falls deeply, devastatingly, joyously in love.
Reversals, coincidences, betrayals and mistaken identities abound: happiness is achieved, mostly: old wounds are healed. A delightful novel.
Somewhat surprised to find these novels now marketed for teenagers: when I first read them, they were aimed at adult readers. That said, there's nothing especially explicit, though Harriet does display an enthusiasm for being ruined that some parents might find disturbing.