Today I want to present something a bit different–an appreciation of Mary Stewart, one of the authors who really fired my teenage imagination and helped to turn me into a writer. I well remember the first time I picked up a Mary Stewart book. It was a grey, rainy lunchtime in the school library and I was about 15. I’d been looking for a Rosemary Sutcliff book, but I’d read all the ones that were on the shelf. Suddenly, my eye was caught by a title along the ‘S’ row: Madam, Will You Talk?
What an intriguing title, I thought, and picked up the book. I opened it at the first page, and was immediately hooked:
The whole affair began so very quietly. When I wrote, that summer, and asked my friend Louise if she would come with me on a car trip to Provence, I had no idea that I might be issuing an invitation to danger..
I took the book out, and spent the rest of lunchtime curled up with it, and fretting through the next couple of school-hours till I could go home and get back to the story. I managed to finish the book that night and immediately re-read it the next day, bowled over not only by the exciting story with all its twists and turns but by the sophisticated, graceful elegance of the writing and the vivid, passionate characters. I had fallen in love with the handsome, brooding, suffering hero, who at first we think is a villain, and felt a sense of kinship with his bewildered teenage son. But most of all, I adored the heroine and narrator of the story, Charity Selborne, an independent, intelligent, spirited woman, young and courageous widow of an airforce ace. I longed to be like her, able to toss off witty asides, outracing the hero’s fast car on mountain roads with her own speedster, taking difficult decisions, effortlessly elegant and feminine, with a trace of melancholy and quite without arrogance.
Mary Stewart had cast her spell over me. Over the next few weeks, I read every romantic thriller of hers I could lay my hands on: This Rough Magic; The Ivy Tree; My Brother Michael; The Moon-spinners; Nine Coaches Waiting; Wildfire at Midnight; Thunder on the Right; The Gabriel Hounds; Touch Not the Cat; Airs Above the Ground.. Each of them had those delicious Stewart pleasures: the wonderful settings, lyrically rendered; the dashing, unpredictable heroes; the mystery and danger; a touch of real-world magic; limpid writing and fantastic, vivid heroines. I just couldn’t get enough of it, and her novels filled with life and sunshine many a dull day. Later, I discovered her Arthurian novels too: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day: and though I loved them too, it wasn’t quite with the same passion as the romantic thrillers. Those really, really spoke to my passionate teenage heart, craving both the excitement of love and the excitement of adventure, all in one gorgeous package.
It can be a dangerous thing, returning to the novels you loved as a young person. Sometimes the passage of time blights beloved books, so that you see only the faults you did not notice in the past. That’s especially so when you’ve grown up to be a writer yourself. Then you see the ropes and pulleys behind the stage magic, and you cringe at the unfelicitous turn of phrase or the unpleasantly dated sentiment. Not so with Mary Stewart! I’d re-read her books a few times since that long-ago time in the school library, but it was only a year or two ago that I began on a major re-read of her romantic thrillers, discovering to my delight that the spell was as potent, as fresh as ever.
Indeed my admiration of her work only increased now that I knew more about the art and craft of writing myself. I was struck by the clarity, beauty and intelligence of her style, and the way it manages to wear its learning so lightly. For there are many, many literary and historical allusions in Mary Stewart’s books; her love of Shakespeare and of Greek and Roman classics and Celtic myth, especially, shines through, enriching the books whilst never being overbearing. Her evocation of place, of landscape and architecture and atmosphere, is superb. She effortlessly bridges the so-called gap between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, proving you don’t have to use tortured ‘literary’ constructions to write well, and neither do you need to write ‘down’ in order to tell a rattling good story.
And the books haven’t dated at all, despite or perhaps partly because of, their lack of graphic sexual and violent content. And that’s borne out by teenage girls to whom I’ve introduced the novels; they are immediately captivated by their glamour and excitement and do not care at all that the books are set in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s always fun when you can pass on something you’ve loved to the next generation, but passing on the Mary Stewart bug is sheer delight.
And what’s even more pleasing for a writer and reader is that the bug will only be transmitted through the books–because although the novels feel so filmic, they mostly have not made the transition to the silver screen—and the only one that did, The Moon Spinners, was changed out of recognition.
Image from Jan Jones.