Mary Stewart 1916–
(Full name Mary Florence Elinora Stewart) English novelist, poet, and author of children's books.
The following entry presents an overview of Stewart's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7 and 35.
Stewart is credited with bringing higher standards to the genre of romantic suspense novels, and with adding a fresh perspective to the tradition of the Arthurian legends. In her novels of mystery and historical romance, Stewart has provided carefully developed characterizations and vivid recreations of locales such as Delphi, Corfu, and various sites around Great Britain. Her retelling of the story of King Arthur's court are considered highly respectable additions to that genre.
Born in 1916 in Sunderland, Durham, England, Stewart received her B.A. in 1938 and her M.A. in 1941, from the University of Durham, where she went on to teach English literature until 1955. In 1945 Stewart married Frederick Henry Stewart, a renowned geologist who was knighted in 1974 for his devotion to science. In 1956 Stewart moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where her husband accepted a professorship at the University of Edinburgh. It was then that Stewart decided to give up her own university career to concentrate on writing full-time. Beginning with her first published novel, Madam, Will You Talk? (1955), Stewart was a best-selling author. Stewart has continued to produce widely acclaimed novels, juvenile stories, and most recently, poetry.
Stewart's works of suspense and historical romance usually center on a charming young woman inadvertently caught in extraordinary, sometimes life-threatening, events. With the aid of the hero, her love interest, Stewart's heroine solves a mystery or survives an adventure. According to Stewart, her characters "observe certain standards of conduct, of ethics, a somewhat honorable behavior pattern." All of Stewart's novels in this genre follow similar plots, and all are set in exotic or romantic locations around the world. This "predictability," rather than diminishing the success of the novels, is the key to their popularity. Readers find Stewart's char-acters and plots familiar and her themes—which never diverge from the conventional—comforting and stabilizing. In 1970 Stewart began a series of novels retelling the Arthurian legend. The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment (1979) are notable for several variations from standard versions of the legend: they are told from the viewpoint of Merlin the magician rather than from that of King Arthur; they are set in the more accurate fifth century, rather than the twelfth, where most writers place them; and Stewart adheres to historical fact in describing places, customs, and clothing, unlike many chroniclers of the Arthurian legend. In The Wicked Day (1983), the fourth book in the series, Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son, is depicted as a sensitive, ill-fated youth instead of the purely evil figure of traditional legend who singlehandedly destroys his father.
Although Stewart's novels usually fall into the category of popular fiction, they almost consistently receive praise from reviewers. Particularly acclaimed is Stewart's ability to evoke the proper moods for her settings, describing them as she does in great detail, and always historically accurate. But it is Stewart's Arthurian cycle that has received the highest acclaim from critics. Her authentic fifth-century setting has been widely considered a welcome variation from earlier versions of the story, and the shift of focus from King Arthur to Merlin—as well as more strongly defined characters from Mordred to Queen Guenevere—is also seen as a enhancement to the traditional versions of this story.