The Guardian is reporting that author Mary Stewart passed away on May 9, 2014.
The grand dame of the contemporary Gothic romance, Stewart published her first novel, Madam Will You Talk? in 1956. Stewart was an instant success, ushering in a new era of popular fiction populated by a new kind of heroine. Writes Rachel Hore for The Guardian:
Stewart’s stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner. Also tender-hearted and with a strong moral sense, they spoke, one felt, with the voice of their creator.
Stewart wrote over 50 books during her 40-plus-year career, in genres including romantic suspense, Gothic, fantasy and juvenile literature.
Having come to Stewart’s work decades after their first publication, I’m not sure I understood just how spectacular her books must have seemed at the time until I began reading vintage Gothics and Harlequins from the same period. The heroines of these books would have considered Stewart’s heroines too forward, a bit fast, and altogether too self-assured to be borne. The Gothic and Harlequin heroines of 1950s-1970s often seem buffeted by the world, pushed into arranged marriages and secretarial jobs wearing sensible clothing in subdued colors. Things happen to these heroines — not so the Mary Stewart heroine. She’s either actively pursuing adventure, ala Christy Mansel in The Gabriel Hounds, or the architect of her own fate, like the heroine of The Ivy Tree.
As much as she was responsible for writing a more modern heroine, Stewart hewed more to classic literature than to popular literature in her prose. A stylist whose books never pandered to her audience, she assumed her readers got the references and read between the lines. In her finest books, plot, setting and characters come together like the inner workings of a watch — tightly wound, intricate yet sturdy, each word chosen with precision to propel the mechanism forward.
Without a doubt my favorite Mary Stewart book is The Ivy Tree. You can read my review here, but let me preface that by saying that this book is the essence of Mary Stewart — characters that you wish you knew, an evocative setting that is integral to the story, a plot that seems simple on the surface but becomes more involved as the story unfolds, and prose that is both lush and succinct at once.
In honor of a talent unlike any other, here are three of my favorite Mary Stewart reads:
The Moonspinners was the first Mary Stewart book I read. I read it as a young teenager, maybe 12 or 13, after finding it in the library and recognizing the title from the Disney adaptation of the same name.
While the book is much less shiny-happy than the movie, The Moonspinners was a young girl’s perfect introduction to Mary Stewart and to the suspense genre. Heroine Nicola arranges to meet her cousin on the island of Crete, but when she arrives earlier than Frances, she finds herself involved with a hero in trouble and a mystery to unravel. The mystery was engrossing, to my younger self, and Nicola, who reads even now as very young for a Stewart heroine, was a big improvement over Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I wanted to be just like her.
I likely didn’t appreciate just how wonderful Stewart’s prose was, then, but here’s an example that makes me swoon as an adult:
…on the darkest night, the maidens take their spindles down to the sea, to wash their wool. And the wool slips from the spindles into the water, and unravels in long ripples of light from the shore to the horizon, and there is the moon again, rising above the sea….Only when all the wool is washed, and wound again into a white ball in the sky, can the moon-spinners start their work once more…
My first Mary Stewart experience as an adult was Nine Coaches Waiting, which I read in college. I was reading Victorian British Literature at the time, and can remember thinking that Nine Coaches Waiting was the modern heir to all those classic Gothics — a seemingly simple governess Gothic with prose every bit as accomplished and evocative as Bronte’s (and infinitely more readable than Wuthering Heights, might I add). I felt sophisticated just reading this book, with the descriptions of Paris and the French countryside, and identified with lines like this:
[Loneliness] was something which was always there… one learns to keep it at bay, there are times when one even enjoys it — but there are also times when a desperate self-sufficiency doesn’t quite suffice, and then the search for the anodyne begins… the radio, the dog, the shampoo, the stockings-to-wash, the tin soldier…
When a book’s first line is “nothing ever happens to me,” you know something big is in the offing.
Within the first few pages of My Brother Michael, a stranger approaches heroine Camilla Haven in a crowded Athens café, hands her the keys to a car, and whispers “a matter of life and death.” On the stranger’s instructions, Camilla ends up traveling to Delphi to meet a Monsieur Simon, only to find Simon Lester, searching for clues to his brother’s death during World War II. But is Simon Lester Monsieur Simon? And what did his brother Michael know?
My Brother Michael is one of Stewart’s more plot-driven novels, and though Camilla may not seem that trailblazing to modern readers, as a wandering divorcee who travels alone with a stranger, she was enough to make her contemporary Gothic and Harlequin heroines clutch their pearls and gasp. And so wryly wise, when she says “I get to know men quickest by the things they take for granted.”
I’ll sum up with one of my favorite quotes from Mary Stewart, one that describes her books and all good books, for that matter:
The best words in the best order… the same shock of recognition and delight when someone else’s words swam up to meet a thought or name a picture.
P.S. Most of Mary Stewart’s books have never been out of print, or not for long, so they’re easy to find in bookstores and libraries. Many of her books are available in e-book, too.