Mary Stewart

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Mary Stewart’s comments on her own work in an article published in The Writer in 1970 provide an illuminating account of her development and her principal concerns as a novelist. Her first five novels she describes as “exploratory,” for she was experimenting with a variety of different forms. Madam, Will You Talk? is a chase story with all the traditional elements of the thriller. The plot, which hinged on a series of improbable coincidences, was woven around the theme of a “fate-driven love, self-contained, all-else-excluding.” Wildfire at Midnight (1956) is a classic detective story, the writing of which, she says, honed certain technical skills. Nevertheless, she was impatient and dissatisfied with the necessary emphasis on plot rather than character and disliked the conventional detective story, in which “pain and murder are taken for granted and used as a parlor game.” In Thunder on the Right (1957) she experimented for the first and only time with a third-person rather than first-person narrator. In spite of the limitations a first-person narrator imposes in some areas (detailed description can be given, for example, only of events in which the narrator is a direct participant), Stewart came to prefer it because of the “vividness, personal involvement and identification” that it makes possible. Stewart’s skillful handling of this form of narration so as to evoke these responses in her readers contributes in no small measure to her popularity.

Perhaps the hallmark of Stewart’s fiction can be found in her description of what she was attempting in her first five novels. They werea deliberate attempt . . . to discard certain conventions which seemed . . . to remove the novel of action so far from real life that it became a charade or a puzzle in which no reader could involve himself sufficiently really to care. I tried to take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not “heroic” in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.

Nine Coaches Waiting

These concerns are readily apparent in her fourth and fifth novels, Nine Coaches Waiting (1958) and My Brother Michael (1960). Nine Coaches Waiting is a gothic tale, designed as a variation on the Cinderella story. Young Linda Martin accepts a post as English governess to the nine-year-old Comte Philippe de Valmy, at a remote chateau in High Savoy. She falls in love with the boy’s cousin, Raoul de Valmy, but comes to suspect that he is part of a plot against the boy’s life. Faced with the choice between love and duty—which Stewart has identified as the main theme of the novel—she puts the boy’s welfare first, while hoping against hope that her lover is innocent. Her virtue wins its inevitable reward; in the denouement, the wicked uncle, who is behind the plot, shoots himself, and Cinderella gets her Prince Charming. Although the plot is fragile, Stewart cleverly maintains the suspense with a mix of familiar elements: surprise revelations, sudden and unexpected confrontations, a search— during which the hardly-daring-to-breathe heroine comes within a whisker of being discovered—and a chase. Some ingenious variations include a sleepwalking villainess unconsciously revealing her guilt à la Lady Macbeth, and a romantic red herring in the form of a tall, attractive Englishman who befriends the heroine early in the novel—but who never comes as prominently into the story as the reader, cunningly tricked by...

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Stewart, expects. Linda herself is a typical Stewart heroine. She is modest, tactful, and considerate, possesses integrity but is not a prig (she is capable of some white lies), is vulnerable and understandably frightened at what she has got herself into, but is also resourceful and capable, fully prepared to do what the situation demands of her.

My Brother Michael

A similar description could be applied to Camilla Haven, the heroine of My Brother Michael. Her self-deprecating sense of humor, revealed early in the novel by her alarming incompetence behind the wheel of an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar country, quickly endears her to the reader. Caught up in a series of dangerous events in Delphi, she rises to the occasion not without self-doubt but also with considerable bravery.

Her companion, Simon Lester, is a typical Stewart hero. He first meets Camilla when he takes over the wheel of her car and gets her out of a difficult driving situation (difficult for her, that is—Stewart’s men are always superb drivers). Simon possesses an easy, relaxed self-confidence, a quiet strength, competence, and great determination. He stays cool under pressure and rarely betrays much excitement or emotion.

In her article for The Writer, Stewart remarks that she had become tired of the convention under which the romantic hero was “unthinkingly at home with violence,” and such a description could certainly not be applied to Simon. The violence in which he becomes involved is forced on him; he is a schoolmaster who teaches classics, so that violence is hardly his natural mode of operation. Stewart also comments that she rejected the concept of the hero as a social misfit, a type that was becoming fashionable at the time (she was referring to the literary movement embodied in the so-called Angry Young Men of the 1950’s in Great Britain). On the contrary, Simon Lester, like all of her heroes, is unfailingly polite, courteous, and chivalrous, amply possessed, as Stewart put it, of “the civilized good manners that are armour for the naked nerve.” He also embodies the common sense and “liberal ideas” that Stewart admires. The latter can be seen, for example, in his reflective comment on the odd ways of the Greek peasantry: “I think that most things can be forgiven to the poor.” It is one of the most memorable lines in any of Stewart’s novels.

My Brother Michael was inspired by Stewart’s first visit to Greece, and a large part of the novel’s appeal lies in the richly evoked setting of Delphi. In this passage, for example, Stewart re-creates the landscape around Parnassus in elegant, meandering rhythms and poetic images: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. Long pale ripples followed one another down the valley.

The setting is not merely adornment; Stewart uses it to create an atmosphere of a land still populated by the ancient gods, whose presence can be felt by those of subtle sense and pulse. Here is Apollo’s temple:From where we were the pillars seemed hardly real; not stone that had ever felt hand or chisel, but insubstantial, the music-built columns of legend: Olympian building, left floating—warm from the god’s hand—between sky and earth. Above, the indescribable sky of Hellas; below, the silver tide of the olives everlastingly rippling down to the sea. No house, no man, no beast. As it was in the beginning.

Classical allusions abound throughout the narrative; Stewart expects her reader to recognize them, and they are an integral part of plot and theme. Indeed, the climax of the plot comes when Camilla discovers a statue of Apollo, untouched and unseen for two thousand years. The theme of the novel has similarities with Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; trilogy translated in 1777 as Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides); the name of Orestes, the avenger of a murdered relative, is invoked on more than one occasion as Simon Lester is forced into avenging the murder of his brother, an event that had taken place fifteen years previously. Violent events in the past cast long shadows over the present, but the Furies are eventually satisfied.

This Rough Magic

The formula that worked so well in My Brother Michael was repeated, with different ingredients, in This Rough Magic (1964), which has proved to be one of Stewart’s most popular novels. Four million copies were sold over the decade following its publication. Instead of Delphi, the setting is the island of Corfu, and the literary allusions are not to the classics but to William Shakespeare. The opening gambit is familiar: the heroine on holiday in an exotic clime. True to type, Lucy Waring is young and middle-class, modest enough to blush but spirited enough to tackle a villain. Stewart, as always, knows how to lead her reader astray: Once more there is a romantic red herring, a tall English photographer, who this time turns out to be the villain, whereas the likeliest candidate for villain eventually wins the lady’s hand.

The strength of the novel lies in the characters, who are well drawn, if not in great depth, a strong plot with plenty of twists and surprises, a careful building of suspense, and the usual exciting (and violent) climax. The novel’s charm lies in its setting, its wealth of incidental detail—ranging from the habits of dolphins to local folklore about Corfu’s patron saint—and the ingenious way in which Stewart weaves Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (pr. 1611) into the fabric of the story. The theory of one of the characters, a retired actor famous for his role as Prospero, is that Corfu is the magic island depicted in The Tempest, and allusions to the play crop up on every other page. Stewart may be writing popular fiction, but her readers are certainly at an advantage if they are literate; the allusions are not limited to The Tempest but include King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599), and William Congreve’s Restoration drama The Way of the World (pr., pb. 1700). (An amusing example occurs in the 1965 book Airs Above the Ground, in which an ignorant mother prattles about a passage in the Bible, which she cannot quite remember, about a thankless child being sharper than a serpent’s tooth—actually an image from King Lear.)

Touch Not the Cat

Literary allusions also enrich Touch Not the Cat (1976), one of Stewart’s best novels, a sophisticated, cleverly plotted gothic mystery that holds its interest until the end and never slackens pace. The action takes place in an old moated grange in the Midlands that belongs to the Ashleys, a venerable English family with a historical pedigree going back to Tudor times and beyond. The plot is set in motion by a cryptic message from a dying man (Stewart employed a similar device in My Brother Michael), which leads the heroine, Bryony Ashley, on a trail of clues leading to valuable old books, Roman villas, surprise inheritances, and the unmasking of treacherous cousins. Juxtaposed to the main narrative are a series of brief flashbacks to a tragic love affair involving one of the Ashley ancestors, which eventually turns out to have a vital bearing on the present. The story also includes the novel device of telepathic lovers, a device that Stewart handles convincingly, with subtlety and insight. As usual, she erects a smokescreen to throw the reader off the romantic trail. It is all told with Stewart’s customary grace and economy of style.

Later Novels

Stewart’s later novels, Thornyhold (1988), The Stormy Petrel (1991), and Rose Cottage (1997), are less gripping fare than her fiction of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Stewart returns to England for her settings, and continues her formula of a young woman encountering a strange new home and stranger family or neighbors, but these are drawn in pastels rather than the vivid colors of the Continent, true cozies and rarely thrilling. Her light, fluent prose is always a pleasure to read, and it is with some justice that her novels have been hailed as “genuine triumphs of a minor art.”


Stewart, Mary (Vol. 117)