Stewart’s heroines, her narrators, are independent young women with strong feelings that lead them into danger, and romance. The search for truth becomes intertwined with a search for love.
Photo: ABC; David M. Alexander
Standing beneath Durham Cathedral’s towering Norman rib vaulting, Chancellor William Bryson presented a number of honorary degrees on Friday, July 3, 2009. For one of the alumni recipients of the Doctor of Letters, Bryson could have abbreviated his introduction to four timeless words: “Madam, Will You Talk?”
In a letter to me that same year, Lady Mary Stewart said of the experience, “It was indeed wonderful to be remembered—and in such a way—by my old University.”
There is no question that Mary Stewart is remembered. The mere mention of her name brings instant, and warm, appreciation wherever readers are gathered. Her first book, Madam, Will You Talk?, was published in 1954. Since then she has published over 20 novels, including such romantic suspense classics as Nine Coaches Waiting, This Rough Magic, My Brother Michael, and The Moon-Spinners. In 1970 came The Crystal Cave, the first of her imaginative historical novels retelling the Arthurian legends from the point of view of Merlin.
Mary Stewart, however, is no fan of labels for fiction. “I’d rather just say that I write novels, fast-moving stories that entertain. To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written. Beyond that, you cannot categorize… ‘Storyteller’ is an old and honorable title and I’d like to lay claim to it.”
Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was born on September 17, 1916, in Sunderland, County Durham, in the Parish of St. Thomas Bishopwearmouth where her father, an Anglican minister, served. Mary’s mother was from New Zealand. The two met when the reverend sailed around Cape Horn to New Zealand as a young man. Madam, Will You Talk? is dedicated to Stewart’s parents, perhaps acknowledging their spirit of adventure and romance, which was to express itself over and over again in their oldest child’s books. Perhaps also the dedication is a tribute to their encouragement. Stewart’s first published work was a poem in the parish magazine written when she was five. She’d been writing and drawing illustrations since she was three and a half.
Stewart started at Durham University in 1935, and received a First Class Honours BA in English in 1938 and a teaching certificate in 1939. In 1941 she was offered a post at Durham University and taught there until 1945. She also received an MA in English during this time.
In 1953, at the urging of her husband, the noted geologist Sir Frederick Stewart, Mary submitted the manuscript of Madam, Will You Talk? to Hodder and Stoughton. It came out in 1954 to instant success, launching a career that would bring 14 New York Times bestsellers and delight to millions of readers.
Stewart’s books are characterized by an erudite intelligence, not unexpected given her academic background. They also display a cosmopolitan worldview and a love of history and the natural world. Traveling extensively with her husband provided her with settings. Each locale—Provence, Corfu, the Middle East, Crete, Vienna, the Pyrenees, Austria, England, and others—is integral to the story and described in enough detail to immerse readers without overwhelming the action—a pitfall for many writers.
Her love of nature and descriptive powers found expression in passages like this one from My Brother Michael, which is set in Greece:
"All along the Pleistus—at this season a dry white serpent of shingle beds that glittered in the sun—all along its course, filling the valley bottom with the tumbling, whispering green-silver of water, flowed the olive woods; themselves a river, a green-and-silver flood of plumy branches as soft as sea spray, over which the ever-present breezes slid, not as they do over corn, in flying shadows, but in whitening breaths, little gasps that lift and toss the olive crests for all the world like breaking spray."
A sense of humor, healthy appetites of all sorts, stubbornness, insatiable curiosity, and a penchant for risk-taking place Stewart’s female protagonists firmly in both the 20th and 21st centuries. They are ageless. In a 1964 Literary Guild Review interview, Mary Stewart notes that the kinds of things that befall her heroines—threatened at gunpoint, drugged, chased, tied up and left to die—are not based on personal experience. However, she adds, this isn’t necessary: “I think I know how it would feel.... The place for truth is not in the facts of a novel; it is in the feelings.”
Stewart’s heroines, her narrators, are independent young women with strong feelings that lead them into danger, and romance. The search for truth becomes intertwined with a search for love. They are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and they save themselves, as well as a wide assortment of others, ranging from nine-year-old Comte Philippe de Valmy in Nine Coaches Waiting to a dolphin in This Rough Magic.
And then there are the male love interests, often reminiscent of Heathcliff, the kind of man our mothers would warn us about to no avail.
Over her entire oeuvre, Stewart explores the difference between appearance and reality, but never more so than in the relationships between men and women. The supposed hero turns out to be an enemy, albeit charming; the taciturn and guarded farmer is a true love; and in The Ivy Tree, she turns everything upside down. Mary Grey, who bears a startling resemblance to Annabel Winslow, is convinced by Annabel’s charismatic cousin to impersonate the dead woman in an inheritance scheme, but this is only the beginning of a startling roundelay of deception.
Universally acknowledged as a master at creating suspense, Stewart’s opening lines quickly seize our full attention:
“I might have been alone in a painted landscape.”
—The Ivy Tree
“It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.”
“My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him.”
—Touch Not the Cat
“Nothing ever happens to me.”
—My Brother Michael
“I met him in the street called Straight.”
—The Gabriel Hounds
“Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.”
—Airs Above the Ground
“I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.”
—Nine Coaches Waiting
Between 1970 and 1995, Lady Mary turned to the legends of Camelot, placing Merlin at the forefront, reinventing Arthur the King as a flesh and blood man, and setting the story in late 5th century Roman Britain, instead of the 12th. Ironically, Stewart’s publishers were not in favor of the project. In an 1989 interview with Randall H. Thompson in Authors of Modern Arthurian Literature, she said, “The publishers didn’t want me to write The Crystal Cave in the first place, because they were doing so well with the earlier books. Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses.”
Stewart’s five Arthurian novels employed to stunning effect her imaginative scholarship, narrative skill, and love of language. Here is the opening of The Crystal Cave in which Merlin addresses the reader directly:
"I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave."
Living in her beloved Scotland, Mary Stewart is no longer writing. “No new book! I know better than to try at (nearly) 93!” she wrote me in 2009. She has left us with a treasured abundance to read and re-read, but oh how lovely it would be to have just one more.
In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote:
“Only connect!…Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” This notion of connectedness is foremost in all Stewart’s writings, an idea expressed in My Brother Michael by Camilla Haven’s observation that “In the end it’s our place in the pattern that matters.”
Mary Stewart’s place in modern storytelling is assured.
A MARY STEWART READING LIST
Madam, Will You Talk? (1954)
Wildfire at Midnight (1956)
Thunder on the Right (1957)
Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)
My Brother Michael (1959)
The Ivy Tree (1961)
The Moon-Spinners (1962)
This Rough Magic (1964)
Airs Above the Ground (1965)
The Gabriel Hounds (1967)
The Wind Off the Small Isles (1968)
Touch Not the Cat (1976)
Stormy Petrel (1991)
Rose Cottage (1997)
The Merlin Series
The Crystal Cave (1970)
The Hollow Hills (1973)
The Last Enchantment (1979)
The Wicked Day (1983)
The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)
The Little Broomstick (1971)
Ludo and the Star Horse (1974)
A Walk in Wolf Wood (1980)
Frost on the Window and Other Poems (1990)
The latest in Katherine Hall Page’s award-winning Faith Fairchild series is The Body in the Gazebo (Morrow, 2011). This article is dedicated to the late David Thompson, an ardent fellow Mary Stewart fan.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.