the Goodreads shelf of Douglas Wilson, one of my favourite theologians. Like him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Wilson says what he says with flair; he is endlessly readable and endlessly quotable, which can be attributed to his excellent taste in reading, especially the influences of Wodehouse, Chesterton, and Lewis. And so because I knew that Wilson has excellent taste in reading, when I noticed a book on his shelf titled The Moon-spinners by Mary Stewart, an author I’d never heard of before, I sallied happily out and secured a copy from the library.
When I read the book, however, it did not interest me enough to make me want to read more until, on holiday in Tasmania, Mrs Sonnemann nudged me gently in the direction of her copy of The Ivy Tree. I was hooked, and from then on, I have been reading Mary Stewart at the comfortable rate of two or three per year, hoping to stretch out the experience as long as possible.
Mary Stewart is a writer of romantic suspense, with an emphasis on the suspense. She does for the 1950s and 60s what other authors did for the medieval, or Renaissance, or Restoration, or Georgian periods: she transforms it into an artform. In Mary Stewart’s Europe, as in Stevenson’s or Scott’s Jacobite Scotland or Dumas’s seventeenth-century France, adventure is always just around the corner, though it wears silk frocks instead of farthingales and drives fast cars instead of a coach-and-four.
The formula goes like this. A sophisticated, pretty, and erudite woman takes a holiday or a job in some sumptuous, lovingly-depicted location—Provence, Corfu, the Alps. Before long, she finds herself swept off her feet by some frightfully dangerous mystery, usually along with some sophisticated, erudite man who is mixed up in it somehow, and finds herself in a suspenseful battle of wits for her own survival. Clothes, scenery, weather, food, and horses are lovingly described, though not to boredom, and many allusions are made to classic literature or music.
There’s plenty to love about Mary Stewart. I usually hate descriptive writing, but hers never gets tiring; she can sketch a scene so well you can see every detail, without it bogging down the story. The setting of the story—whatever glorious location it is—is always one of the main characters. Then there’s the air of sophisticated femininity that undergirds all the novels. I am always wary of sophistication, but it’s so much fun to read about girls who know how to dress, where to take a holiday, and what book to read when they get there. In addition, Mary Stewart heroines are no action heroines. They may sprint to their car after distracting the mysterious man who has been hunting them across the South of France; but their main weapons are wit and charm. If anyone needs to be thumped, they will get the mysterious man to do it. Mary Stewart understands (as many authors and screenwriters do not) that it is difficult for the average woman to successfully assault a man. Her heroines rarely, if ever, try it. Instead they rely on their wits, their knowledge of their opponent’s personality, and what skill they may have.
This creates suspense far more effectively than violence, which is better suited to a visual medium like film. And Mary Stewart builds suspense very effectively. This is difficult for anyone to do, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve groaned over a book, “John Buchan would have done it better!” Mary Stewart’s books are mainly about personalities, clues, missed shots in the dark woods, mystery, and misguidance rather than action, but because she’s such an excellent writer, the books quickly become—and stay—gripping.
But perhaps the thing I like best about Mary Stewart is that she writes about ordinary people rising to the occasion under extraordinary pressure. I just found this quote:
"[I] take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not 'heroic' in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right."If there is one overriding, deep theme in Mary Stewart’s books, this would be it.
There are, of course, some things to dislike about Mary Stewart. When I read The Moon-spinners, I was repulsed by something under the surface glitter—a facility, a soullessness. Mary Stewart’s characters move through a world of wonder and enchantment—a cat curled beneath a tree becomes Nidhung at the roots of Yggdrasil—but these symbols are empty of meaning, and the wonder is essentially unknowable. Stewart’s books are not themselves postmodernist, but they lean in that direction.
There are also some morally objectionable things in her books. The books don’t usually get too crude in their language, but casual blasphemy is commonplace. As far as morals, while the heroines are personally well-behaved, in a couple of books they have husbands and make use of them; while it’s not uncommon for someone to be suspected of an affair. But the only book I’d suggest avoiding on this score would be Touch Not the Cat.
The Mary Stewart books I have read, in the order I have read them, are as follows:
The Moon-Spinners: Nicola Ferris goes on holiday in Crete, and stumbles across a young Englishman hiding in the hills and convinced that he’s in terrible danger.
The Ivy Tree: Mary Grey, visiting Northumberland, is amazed when an angry young man at first mistakes her for someone else, then insists that she impersonate her. Mary agrees, and is drawn into a tangled, brooding web surrounding the mysterious, long-dead Annabel , her family, and the man who loved her. But not all is what it seems. One of Mary Stewart’s most complex and intriguing novels.
Nine Coaches Waiting: Linda Martin travels to the Chateau Valmy, near Lac Leman, as governess to its nine-year-old heir. His uncle, a crippled yet oddly charming and dynamic man, dominates the Chateau and everyone in it but his equally dynamic son. As sinister happenings pile up, Linda is sure her pupil is in danger—and only she can save him. This is my favourite Mary Stewart novel of all, possibly on its own account—or possibly because it’s so obviously intended to be a mesh of Jane Eyre and Cinderella in the style of John Buchan.
Touch Not the Cat: Bryony Ashley inherits three things from her father: a crumbling manor, the family ‘gift’—a telepathic link she shares with a man whose identity she does not know, apart from the fact that she’s in love with him--and one last message: a warning.
This Rough Magic: Lucy Waring goes to Corfu to visit her sister, and is charmed by the locals and the dolphin playing in the cove below her house, to say nothing of the possibility of meeting her sister’s neighbours, the famous actor Sir Julian Gale and his son Max. But then a local boy is drowned, someone tries to kill the dolphin, and Lucy becomes sure that Max Gale is behind it. This one was particularly enjoyable.
Thunder on the Right: Jenny Silver goes on holiday in the Pyrenees, and decides to investigate why her cousin Gillian suddenly decided to join a convent there. When she visits, the nuns tell her that her cousin is dead—but not everything adds up, and Jenny decides to investigate. Mary Stewart thought this was her worst book, and although it’s serviceable and showed some interesting ideas, I agree that stylistically it’s not up to scratch.
Airs Above the Ground: Vanessa March, who believes that her husband is in Brussells working prosaically for Pan-European Chemicals, is surprised to see him in a newsreel reporting a fire at a circus in Austria, with his arm around a blonde. Together with the horse-mad youngster she’s asked to escort to Vienna, Vanessa sets out to discover just what Mr March might be up to—and uncovers a mystery involving a circus, smuggling, and a long-lost Lipizzaner horse from the famous Spanish School of Vienna. Definitely one of my favourites.
Madam, Will You Talk?: Charity Selborne takes a holiday in Provence, but her peace is shattered when she meets an engaging young boy with a terrible secret weighing on him, and soon finds herself being hunted by a murderer intent on covering his tracks. Mary Stewart’s first published novel loses points for the unconvincing romance, but gains them all back again because Charity Selborne, though just as ladylike as any of her other heroines, can drive a car like a racing-driver, and it is lots of fun.
Mary Stewart’s novels will likely be best enjoyed by women in their twenties or up. I’ve enjoyed them very much so far, and look forward to working through the rest of them gradually over the next few years.