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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.


And What of the Anti-Heroine?

Louise Brooks, silent cinema’s best-known anti-heroine, plots her next move in “Pandora’s Box.”

It’s Villains and Anti-Heroes Week here at Ye Olde Sweet Rocket! That, my darlings, includes Anti-Heroines, as well!

There’s plenty of room for bad boys in Romanceland, but the world of romance leaves little space for the anti-heroine, otherwise known as the difficult, unlikeable or villainous heroine.

The accepted intelligence is that romance readers, overwhelmingly female, need to be able to identify with the heroine, or imagine themselves in her place. Perhaps this explains the lack of anti-heroines, in romance — few women want to imagine themselves as the courtesan or whore, the bitch or the duplicitous, conniving sort. It goes to follow that the number of bad girl heroines is few. After all, no one likes mean girls.

But every so often, a bad girl heroine slips through the cracks. Here are a few of the Romanceland anti-heroines that stand out in my memory:

Lady Jocelyn Kendal — The Bargain by Mary Jo Putney

Lady Jocelyn was the first anti-heroine I ever encountered in romance, and boy, is she a doozy. In order to secure her inheritance, she needs to marry, and quickly. The man she has her eye on isn’t coming to heel fast enough for her purposes, so she decides to marry a dying Waterloo veteran, David Lancaster, with the hopes of being a widow in time to receive her inheritance and capture the man she wants. Poor Lancaster, as nice as the day is long from the time we meet him, agrees to do this only because Lady Jocelyn agrees to settle an income on his sister Sally, who naturally takes an instant disliking to Lady Jocelyn.

Lady Jocelyn is also responsible for my all-time favorite bad-girl scene in a romance. How’s this for nasty:

Turning to her writing desk, [Lady Jocelyn] lifted a jingling leather bag and tossed it to Sally….
“You needn’t count the money. It’s all there — one hundred twenty five pounds in gold.”
Sally’s head snapped up. “Not thirty pieces of silver?”
Jocelyn said softly, each word carved in ice, “Of course not. Silver is for selling people. Since I was buying, I paid in gold.”

Oh, that Jocelyn — ain’t she sweet? Naturally David Lancaster does not die, Lady Jocelyn becomes less than a virago, and there’s the obligatory happily-ever-after.

Bryony Asquith — Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Bryony, a late-Victorian era physician,  is curmudgeonly, driven, and unforgiving. Which sort of makes her a Victorian-era female Dr. House. Unfortunately, that means she’s curmudgeonly and unforgiving to her darling husband, Leo, and so driven to prove herself the equal of any man that she all but emasculates him,  separates from him (hence the title) and literally leaves the country. That’s my kind of girl, really, and despite all her obvious flaws, I liked her. But then I don’t have to sleep with her — why Leo puts up with her is beyond me. Yet for whatever reason, he’s willing to risk life and limb to go to India to fetch her back home to England, and there lies the story. In the course of fetching her back, he also manages to, well… I won’t say that he redeems her completely, but she’s much less prickly by the end of the book. Leo is a wonderful hero, and the book is worth it just to get to know him.

Lydia Slaughter — A Gentleman Undone by Cecelia Grant

How about that Lydia (cue theatrical wolf-whistle)? First of all, she’s a former prostitute and the mistress to a nobleman, and makes no apologies for it. Also, she’s a cardsharp who fleeces the hero, Will Blackshear, out of a nice chunk of change at the outset of the book. Instead of giving it back, like the standard romance heroine would when she realizes that he really needs the money, she engages him in a scheme to fleece more unwitting fools out of their money. She may also be a full-on nymphomaniac. Before you start throwing rotten tomatoes, that’s not slut-shaming, and plenty of other reviewers have also noted Lydia’s strange relationship to sex, which, from a modern psychological standpoint, is likely the well-documented phenomenon of post-sexual abuse promiscuity. Aside from all that, Lydia’s an admirable, wildly intelligent, honorable heroine — unless she’s trying to rob some poor gambler blind.

Mina Masters — Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran

Mina’s sort of a toss-up, when it comes to an anti-heroine; while you realize that she’s very much a victim of her circumstances, that of a self-made Victorian-era woman trying to fend for herself against a cruel stepfather, she still comes across as manipulative and somewhat selfish. Phin, the hero, is pretty miserable, too. They deserve each other.

Lady Elizabeth — Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

Just read my review. That tells you everything you need to know about snooty Lady Elizabeth.

Mary Gray — The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Well, she was planning to finagle an estate and fortune out of a dying old man… wasn’t she?

Ugh — I just realized I have no contemporary anti-heroines, aside from Mary Gray! That’s indicative of two things: one, I don’t read much contemporary romance, and two, most of the contemporaries I have read had really nice heroines. What, pray tell, does that mean?

Also note that at least three of our anti-heroines are driven by greed, another two driven by their careers, while at least one is prostitute/mistress. What does that tell us about the acceptable motivations for bad-girl behavior in romance? Plenty. It’s okay to be greedy or just plain mean if your evil, misguided or dead male relatives or rakish lovers have left you in dire straits, as is the case with Lady Jocelyn, Mary Gray, Lydia Slaughter and Mina Masters (and, to an extent, Lady Elizabeth). You can also get a pass for being what is, frankly, a bitch, as long as you’re doing so because the man is holding you down, i.e., keeping you from joining the scientific or medical community, as in the cases of Lady Elizabeth and Bryony. In other words, in every example I’ve noted here, the anti-heroine’s bad behavior is acceptable because it’s a reaction to behavior that’s just as bad or worse on the part of men.

Personally, I’d like to see anti-heroine who’s bad just for the sake of being bad. Maybe she’s a female rake, flirting and teasing her way through a bevy of men. Maybe she’s a villainess who causes trouble for meeker, cowering souls. Maybe she’s just a bitch because she wants to be one, not because her daddy didn’t love her enough. It’s time we see a real female villain redeemed by the love of a good man — we see enough of the reverse, certainly.
I will probably have to write that romance myself, but if anyone, anywhere, knows of any good anti-heroines I’ve missed, do tell — I’m dying to read one!


I’m In Love With…. Villains!

It’s Villains and Anti-Heroes Week here at Le Sweet Rocket! In celebration of the best villains and anti-heroes romance has to offer, here’s a kick-off post featuring some of my very favorite villains!

Sometimes the villain’s the best part of the story. Or at least, in these cases, the hottest part! Here are a few villains I just love…

Orson Welles as the dastardly romantic Charles Rankin in The Stranger!

Dana Andrews menaces Ruth Warrick in Daisy Kenyon!

Richard Armitage (featuring that rarest of creatures, the attractive mullet) as the wretchedly sexy Guy of Gisbourne in BBC’s “Robin Hood”!

Basil Rathbone as, oh, just about any Basil Rathbone character!

Hot villains often make reappearances as reformed heroes/anti-heroes in romance novels. Some romance anti-heroes/reformed villains of note:

Conner Winslow from Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree

Freddie Sullivan from Mary Balogh’s Dancing With Clara

Lord St. Vincent in Lisa Kleypas’ It Happened One Autumn/Devil in Winter

Almost all of Anne Stuart’s heroes

Almost all of Victoria Holt’s heroes


Classic Review – The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

This is the copy of “The Ivy Tree” I wish I had.

This is the copy of “The Ivy Tree” I have.

Mary Stewart is Gothic Romance’s Shakespeare — an enduring talent whose books have become classics. In my ongoing effort to become better versed in the classics, I bring you Stewart’s The Ivy Tree.

Here’s a synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:

If Mary Grey looked so much like the missing heiress, why should she not be an heiress? And so plain Mary Grey became the glamorous Annabel Winslow. But she did not live happily ever after. In fact, she almost did not live at all. Because someone wanted Annabel missing . . . permanently.

First published in 1961, The Ivy Tree has everything that a classic Gothic should: a mysterious heroine, a brooding but darkly attractive hero (anti-hero, perhaps?), a large estate and fortune at stake, and menace in spades.

The plot synopsis tells little about The Ivy Tree, for good reason. To reveal much more would give too much away. The book’s heroine is Mary Grey, recently relocated to England from Canada. Within days of her arrival, Mary is approached by the handsome, but gruff Conner Winslow. Conner mistakes her for his distant cousin and almost-fiancee Annabel, who’s missing and presumed dead. Conner’s also — conveniently — the manager of Annabel’s grandfather’s estate, Whitescar. Together they hatch a plan: if Mary will impersonate Annabel, the heir to her grandfather’s estate and fortune, just until the old man kicks the bucket, they’ll divvy up Annabel’s inheritance. But only if she can fool her grandfather, her young cousin, and all the others in and around Whitescar.


The impersonation plot is a difficult one to pull off in any situation, but leave it to Mary Stewart to make it appear child’s play. Mary is, of course, Annabel. And if you haven’t figured this out by, oh, say the the first third of the book, once the reveal comes, you’ll realize that you should have known it all along. But the mystery of Mary/Annabel is only one of many that unfold during the course of the story. Nothing’s what it seems at Whitescar.

To reveal any more of the plot would deny you the pleasure of seeing it unfold layer by layer. But it gives nothing away to tell you that like all of Stewart’s books, The Ivy Tree has style and atmosphere to spare. Stewart’s descriptions of the Pennines/Hadrian’s Wall setting are gorgeous, as are her characterizations. Mary/Annabel is mysterious, yet sympathetic. Julia, Annabel’s younger cousin and harbinger of the Swinging 60s, brings a sparkle to the story that lightens the dark themes of the book.


Since no Gothic would be complete without a enigmatic hero, Stewart outdoes herself and provides two. The first, of course, is Conner.
There’s no besting Stewart, so let’s let her describe Conner:

He was tall, and slenderly built, with that whippy look that told you he would be an ugly customer in a fight–and with something else about him that made it sufficiently obvious that he would not need much excuse to join any fight that was going…he had the almost excessive good looks of a certain type of Irishman, black hair, eyes of startling blue, and charm in the long, mobile mouth…all his movements had a grace that seemed a perfectly normal part of his physical beauty.

Whippy! Certain type of Irishman! Grace! Be still my beating heart! A better anti-hero than Conner Winslow will not be found anywhere, believe me. He lies, he cheats, he schemes and he calls Mary/Annabel a bitch. He’s tormented by what he can’t have. And he’s sexy as hell.

And then there’s Adam. Hmm. How to describe Adam? I wouldn’t know where to start, and neither, evidently, did, Stewart, because he’s hazy — dark eyes, dark brows, thin. Scarred. Suffering and sad.

Who, do you think, is the most interesting of the two? And who, do you think, survives the book?

I give The Ivy Tree 5 cleverly hidden love notes. That’s it. I’ll say no more. I don’t want to ruin anything. Just pick a day/weekend when you have nothing to do, and settle in for the ride. You won’t regret it.

Did you like this book, honey boo boo? Here are a few more books like The Ivy Tree:

The Bride of Pendorric by Victoria Holt

Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees

By the way: Conner?

Okay, this is actually Ian MacShane, but I think he makes a great Conner.