Mary Stewart Stewart, Mary (Vol. 7) - Essay

Stewart, Mary (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stewart, Mary 1916–

Mary Stewart is an English author of popular novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

If the delightfully entertaining novels of Mary Stewart, from "Madam, Will You Talk?" (1956) to "Nine Coaches Waiting" (1959), have had a fault, it is that their plots are (in James Sandoe's useful term) Eurydicean—they cannot survive a backward glance. But in "My Brother Michael" … even this flaw vanishes: the plot, if simple, is sound and serviceable, and quite capable of accompanying us back to earth….

This detective adventure, rich in action and suspense, is seen through the eyes of a characteristic Stewart heroine; and surely there are few more attractive young women in today's popular fiction. Intelligent, humorous, self-reliant yet highly feminine, these girls are as far removed as you can imagine from the Idiot Heroine who disfigures (at least for men) so much romantic fiction. And if you're apt to fall a little in love with Camilla Haven, you will succumb wholly to the city of Delphi and to Mrs. Stewart's pythonic evocation of the classical ghosts which must, for everyone of our culture, haunt the great sites of Greece. (p. 28)

Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 10, 1960.

I'd like, even if needlessly, to express my own delight in "Airs Above the Ground,"… if only out of gratitude to Miss Stewart for so charmingly brightening one day in a reviewer's life….

As this column (with many others) has often observed, nobody sets forth the romantic feminine thriller with such grace and humor and vigor as Mary Stewart. This time her setting is Styria, and her theme is the legend-begetting beauty and perfection of the superbly bred and trained Lippizzaner horses—which ties in with many other colorful factors, including life in a small traveling circus and two superb chases, one (not for acrophobes) over the roof of a Schloss and one along the track of a rack railway (and if you don't know what that is, let Miss S. enlighten you). This is one of Stewart's best—which means escape fiction at its most enchanting. (p. 46)

Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 24, 1965.

A week or two back, a feature-writer in a Sunday colour-supplement described Mary Stewart as a writer of 'very successful romantic historical novels'. Successful these novels are, by any standards. Most of them have gone into paperback. They are among the biggest current British best-sellers in America. They have been serialised in Woman's Journal, in Elle, broadcast in Woman's Hour, and Walt Disney has made a film of one of them. You can, if you want to, read them in Finnish or Portuguese, and it's odds on that Mrs Stewart's husband is the most heavily taxed professor of geology in the country. This is certainly success, but it doesn't amount to recognition, which is palpably overdue or the Observer interviewer would have known better than to call them 'historical novels'. Mary Stewart's books are as contemporary as the nylon underwear which is de rigueur for every one of her heroines. And 'romantic' is an epithet that does scant justice to the cleanness of her style and the astringency of much of her observation….

Meals, exotic or homely, can rouse her to lyrical flights; every so often there will be a nostalgically mouth-watering passage…. As she expresses it somewhere in a bald and heartfelt aphorism, 'simple greed is one of the purest of human pleasures.' Her heroines tremble on occasion for their lives, but are reckless of what the meringue Chantilly might do to their silhouettes. To be unappreciative of fine fare is to proclaim oneself the ultimate barbarian. In a rare caricatural burst, in Thunder on the Right, she shows us two lady geologists at lunch, busily discussing banding, bedding and suchlike mineralogical mysteries, and digging into their truite maison 'with the dogged efficiency and artistic appreciation of a bulldozer'. One would love to know what mortifying dinner-party given at Edinburgh for some earnest junior colleagues of her husband's inspired this scene.

Note the way it's put. Food is a subject for artistic appreciation. Conversely, it is no condescension to say that Mary Stewart confects her books with the same loving care that one imagines her devoting to the delicacies of the kitchen, and according to much the same principles too. The novels are nearly all concocted according to a formula, or if you like baked according to a recipe, which has hardly varied over the 10 years. She must know by now that she owes her huge following to the attractiveness of her basic ingredients: a mass-readership must be given what it has come to expect, though of course there must be judicious variation in blending to prevent custom staling. An intelligent writer is bound occasionally to rebel against the servitude of success, and once in her career Mrs Stewart seems to have tried to kick over the traces: The Ivy Tree, her longest and most intricately plotted book,… looks as though it was planned as a break and a possible new departure. It is quite as exciting as any of the others, the character-drawing is as sure, but the atmosphere lacks the sunny serenity, the sense of 'it'll all come right in the end', which steers the others out of tragic depths. It does all come right in the end, of course, but it was clearly not meant to, and I think it would have been more interesting if it hadn't.

It can't be mere chance, either, that The Ivy Tree is the only one of the nine which Mrs Stewart has set in England. Otherwise, she always starts by whisking us across the water, if only to the Hebrides, though never to any extravagantly exotic shore. A secretary-typist who has the guts to save up can follow her wherever she goes. Arrival and settling in at a foreign hotel—the bath after the journey, the first meal, the discreet inspection of the other guests—is a characteristic gambit, occasionally delayed (as in My Brother Michael and Airs Above the Ground and particularly in The Moon-Spinners) but never declined. This is followed by some earnest and intensely enjoyable sight-seeing, sea-bathing, or halting exchanges with the always charming natives. The heady euphoria of a much-needed holiday creates the initial mood. Mary Stewart's novels must have provided no small impetus to the post-war tourist boom in Europe….

Clearly Mrs Stewart's devotees will have no difficulty in identifying with these heroines: independent, attractive to men, poised at the ideal age, neither impossibly rich nor really poor, neither dim nor 'clever', and, if employed, following semi-glamorous occupations, in an embassy abroad, as an actress just emerging, or modelling clothes for a fashion-house. The least well off is the little governess in Nine Coaches Waiting, an orphan with a miserable past she would like to forget, a 20th-century Jane Eyre. (p. 698)

The books are thrillers in which the heroine necessarily plays an essential part in foiling the villains; but she is no professional and she goes about the job with entirely credible timidity and occasional ineptitude…. When it comes to the crunch they have to let the man take over; and the man is suffered to read them a quietly crushing lecture on the proper place of women in the scheme of things…. Mrs Stewart hasn't really any room for Amazons.

But on the way to the crunch there are some breathless moments. Everything infallibly works up to a chase-sequence…. The primitive, unexpressed rape-fear gives these passages their very considerable dynamism; and they invariably culminate in a brutal fight between two males, the assailant and the champion, Perseus to the rescue, with Andromeda a panting onlooker, relaying the details to us with a remarkable absence of squeamishness.

So no wonder that Mary Stewart should be accounted 'very successful'. It is success well earned, for there is nothing cheap in the writing and nothing machine-made in the devising. One of her quieter distinctions is her skill in conveying the differing temperaments of her various narrators—reserved governess, high-spirited actress—through the manner in which they tell their stories. Of course, the books do not pretend to offer anything but delight; no more do lasagne al forno. But they are the genuine triumphs of a minor art. (pp. 698-99)

F. W. J. Hemmings, "Mary Queen of Hearts," in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 5, 1965, pp. 698-99.

Picking up precisely where "The Crystal Cave" left off, Mary Stewart's continuation of the Arthurian legend ["The Hollow Hills"] is romantic, refreshing and most pleasant reading. Once again the tale is told through the eyes of Merlin, bastard and cousin to the young Arthur, and the man whose second sight is the real power behind the throne. Mrs. Stewart has steeped herself well in the folklore and known history of fifth century Britain and she makes of her feuding, fighting warlords lively and intriguing subjects…. The same lovely feeling for countryside and woods that has always been an important element in Mary Stewart's writing is much in evidence again here. (p. 35)

Publishers Weekly (reprinted from May 28, 1973, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), May 28, 1973.

If novels are like houses, then Mary Stewart's latest book [Touch Not the Cat], which seems destined—deservedly—to the same popular success as her previous 13, is eclectic: a modern semi-Gothic with a sturdy foundation and classic proportions, enhanced with carvings, tapestries, gargoyles and other rich fixtures….

Ashley Court is, of course, a typical fictional manor house with all the usual romantic architectural conceits and traditional ancestral legends. It has a Norman keep, a Tudor gate, a moat, lake, banqueting hall, library and chapel—and the appropriately suggestive atmosphere: "From overhead came that twilight sound, the rooks settling on their nests…. Ahead of me the church showed only as a looming shadow against the furred and shifting shadows of the trees …". (p. E1)

Delightfully as it is described, Ashley Court is still a fictional cliche. Most of the characters are one-dimensional—though, oddly, the American tenants, minor figures, are given fuller and highly appreciative treatment. Stewart adorns her story with certain obvious gimmicks of the Gothic genre—identical twins, missing birth registers—and the familiar fixtures of English pastorals: vicars and collies and larks. None of this matters; or rather, it merely adds to the charm. But the really solid pleasure is watching a professional fictional architect at work. Stewart skillfully sets out her red herrings, most of them more feline than fishy since they are often puns on the family motto, "Touch Not the Cat." She plunders Romeo and Juliet for pertinent chapter headings, and she plants clues in witty pastiches of neoclassic poesy. Moreover, this novel is a blueprint on how to handle exposition…. Without recourse to babbling old retainers, revenants, or tedious parchments, Stewart manages to slip in all [the] dynastic data with considerable grace….

The story of Ashley Court is not a very original construction but it is certainly one of the best made of its kind. One might not want to live there, but it is a treat to be a summer weekend guest. (p. E4)

Audrey C. Foote, "Cat on a Tudor Roof," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 15, 1976, pp. E1, E4.