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Mary Stewart: 1916-2014

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 (1962)

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…

Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)

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…

My Brother Michael (1959)

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.


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Author Profile: Carla Kelly

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If you read my recent review of Marriage of Mercy, author Carla Kelly’s newest Regency historical romance, then you already know that I’m a mad fan of the super-talented Kelly’s work. And if you haven’t, here’s my shameless self-promotion/heartfelt shill for the day:

Kelly’s the rare romance novelist who transcends the limitations of the genre. She routinely turns the Regency setting that has become synonymous with silly, wallpaper historicals on its head. Her heroes and heroines are rarely wealthy or titled, and are never exceptionally beautiful or of the alpha male variety. Even minor characters are imbued with detail that makes them real… she employs spare, elegant prose and telling details, and truly creates a world within the covers of her books. Kelly’s the one writer I’ve encountered who can, in three or four sentences, sum up years of a character’s back story.

I somehow managed to turn a review of a superb novel by Kelly into a rave about a favorite author and, in doing so, it occurred to me that I’d like to know more about Kelly. So I did what any nosy girl would do, and asked her if I could profile her for ye olde blog.

As you can tell from my rave above, one of the most striking features of Kelly’s books is the fact that she avoids almost completely the conventions that dictate the traditional Regency romance, even when writing, well, traditional Regency romances. Almost none of her heroes or heroines are the titled lords and ladies that populate the majority of Regency romances, making her books more akin to Jane Austen than most of her contemporaries.

When you find out that Kelly’s career has included stints teaching history and historiography on the universal level, that decision makes more sense.

“The realist in me says there was no way there could ever have been that many dukes, earls, marquesses, etc., and the skeptical historian in me agrees,” says Kelly.  “I write what I want, and I know a whole lot more about ordinary people.”

To call the characters she creates “ordinary,” however, is both too much and too little; most of her characters are, indeed, ordinary people, but in extraordinary circumstances, such as those created by war, a sudden reversal of fortune, or a natural disaster.

When Kelly deviates from the Regency norm, she does so in a big way, as is the case with Marriage of Mercy. While most Regency era novels that deal with war are concerned with the Napoleonic Wars, Kelly’s latest novel features the other, forgotten war of the Regency Era: the War of 1812.

Having never seen the War of 1812 handled in any romance novel, I was anxious to find out what attracted Kelly to this setting.

“My grad school profs talk about the War of 1812 as the “forgotten war,” partly now because it was so long ago, and the Civil War seemed to trump every other 19th century war,” Kelly explains.  “I was in England and Scotland a few years ago [and] while in Edinburgh’s castle, the guide mentioned POWs there from the American revolution. That reminded me of Dartmoor, far to the southwest, and I remembered that American POWs had been kept there. A little research told me I had a good place to begin a novel.”

Kelly’s hunch paid off; the fact that the hero of her book is a paroled American prisoner of war from the Dartmoor prison makes for a unique, unforgettable novel that’s as much about the differences between England and the still-new U.S. as it is about the Regency period, or, for that matter, romance.

But Marriage of Mercy is hardly Kelly’s first foray into an historical period that’s a little off the beaten path as far as historical romance is concerned. Kelly’s first novel, Daughter of Fortune, is set in the American Southwest during the 17th century, and more recent novels have been set in Mormon communities in the American West. Her studies in and love for history continue to lead Kelly in directions most historical romances never go.

“I’m about halfway through a historical mystery/romance set in 1780s northern New Mexico, when the Spanish government was starting to pull back from its (minimal) protection of the frontier, and leaving the hardy rancheros to the mercies of the Comanche. I’m contracted to write four of those,” Kelly says. ”  have another novel to write about the 1912 Mormon “exodus” from Mexico, when Pancho Villa drove them out. And having said that, Harlequin let me write a western set at Fort Laramie in 1876 that should be out next year.”

That last statement is a telling one, both for Kelly’s career trajectory and the future of romance publishing. Like most other romance authors, Kelly has found that e-book publishing, both through smaller publishers and self-publishing, has allowed her to tell stories that traditional publishers could not find shelf space for in bookstores.

” This e-book revolution is a total boon to writers,” says Kelly. “If we have made a name for ourselves, we can bail out of conventional publishing houses and actually – gasp – write what we want. My historical mystery series will be through CamelPress in Seattle, a nimble little house which is bringing out Daughter of Fortune in July.”

E-book publishing has also made it possible for new and old fans of Kelly’s Signet Traditional Regencies to read backlist titles of hers that have been out-of-print for years. While Marian’s Christmas Wish and Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand are both available now, Kelly says that most of her backlist titles will be available shortly, with Libby’s London Merchant and it’s companion/sequel, One Good Turn, as well as Summer Campaign coming up for e-book reissue later this year.

The freedom to publish her works with smaller publishers or on her own also allows Kelly to escape the encroaching trend of sexed-up romance. Longtime readers who loved Kelly’s Traditional Regencies published by Signet have probably noticed a slight difference between those books and the books published by Harlequin — the inclusion of racier love scenes. Kelly’s Harlequins are nowhere near 50 Shades of Gray territory, but for Traditional Regency fans who are used to chaste kisses and longing looks, they represent a significant change. It’s one that Kelly herself admits to having reservations about.

“I feel compelled [to write sex scenes]. Generally, I prefer to not be so graphic, even though I am told that my Harlequins are hardly graphic. Quite frankly, the body’s largest sex organ is the brain.  Done right, a so-called sexless Regency can be quite sexy. If I must get sexy, I prefer my characters to be married. Call me old-fashioned. I don’t care.”

Kelly fans who’ve already zipped through Marriage of Mercy can breathe easily — Kelly’s next release is coming up soon, and features two of her favorite characters.

“I really, really love Owen Davis and Della Anders in the forthcoming My Loving Vigil Keeping, coming out in August [published by Cedar Fort]. It’s a first-ever novel about the Winter Quarters (Scofield) Mine Disaster in 1900, which took place about 40 minutes from my front door.”

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Although the characters from My Loving Vigil Keeping are among Kelly’s favorites, it’s a book that perhaps few of her romance fans have read that Kelly counts as her favorite of her books.

“My favorite work is still Here’s to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army,” Kelly confesses. Here’s to the Ladies is one of several non-fiction works that Kelly has written. However, it may have competition in Kelly’s affections.

My Loving Vigil Keeping is edging up, and my hero and heroine in The Spanish Brand series are getting so appealing. So it goes.”

As for me, my favorite Carla Kelly book is still the one pictured at the very beginning of the post, Summer Campaign. It was one of the first Traditional Regencies I ever picked up, and it set a standard that only a few romance authors have managed to meet. So thank you, Carla Kelly, for your wonderful books and for setting the bar so high!