Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Novels of Mary Stewart

As Mary Stewart’s novels are a little more recent and a little less substantial than the books I usually like to review on this blog, I haven’t mentioned them so far. But the time was bound to come sooner or later, and here goes.

I first stumbled across Mary Stewart while browsing 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.

11 comments:

Christina Baehr said...

Well, I *warned* you against Touch Not The Cat...

Suzannah said...

You did. *hangs head* I may have been hoping you'd forgotten...Actually, I do that a lot. Someone warned me off Francine Rivers and I had to go read some of her books. The good news is I think I may have learned my lesson now.

morningmusicmaniac said...

It would be futile to comment on your review as it is so long since I read any of these that I can only remember snatched of them! Stewart is one of the small group of writers I discovered on my mother's bookshelves (in most cases when I was off sick from school and I couldn't find anything else to read). I would recommend them especially for their descriptions of landscape which is one of the primary things I look for in fiction. Anyway they have me a great deal of pleasure in my early teens. Thank you for reminding me of them.
Regards Kim

Anonymous said...

As a fan of vintage books, I was delighted to stumble across your blog and see both the picture of you holding a copy of "Olivia" (which I haven't read, but want to) and your review of "To Have and to Hold"(with which I agree about 1000%). Noticed your review of Mary Stewart who was a favorite of mine when I was growing up, so of course I had to check that out, as well.

Just want to say that while I again agree with your reviews (I never could get past the opening pages of "Touch Not the Cat") I think that Stewart's greatest work is to be found in her Merlin novels. When I read those, it was almost like I'd discovered an entirely new favorite writer, rather than reconnecting with a previous favorite in whom my interest had waned. Some of the lines from those novels still resonate with me, in all their aching poignancy, some 35 years after I first read them. I don't know whether you'll have the same opinion of them, but as you continue to work your way through her books, I'll be interested to see what you have to say.

Now I'm off to read your reviews of Sabatini and Haggard.

Thank you for your posts, which I have found both entertaining and insightful.

Suzannah said...

Thanks for commenting :). So far I've been avoiding the Merlin novels. I have a whole shelf devoted to my collection of Arthurian literature, but from Rosemary Sutcliff to TH White I've never been able to get through any more recent Arthuriana than Roger Lancelyn Green's (and I intend to get through Charles Williams's Arthurian poetry if it kills me!). But thanks for the recommendation, and I will at least try Mary Stewart's Arthurian novels.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Re your mention of Francine Rivers and modern Arthurian tales.

I agree that trying to read Mrs. Rivers books can sometimes be like wading through a gooey marsh because you want to pick the lovely white lilies that grow there. Or because you like the artistic scenery.
I have always thought Rivers to be a very skillful writer. Despite the problems I had with some of her other books, I did immensely enjoy the Sons of Encouragement series of novellas. I thought that they were very Biblically based and Scripturally enlightening. Have you ever looked at any of these?

You also mentioned that you have not read any Arthurian stories more modern than Roger Lancelyn Green. Have you ever looked at the Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead? Lawhead is one of the best historical fantasy authors I have read. I mention this series because when I was reading Pendragon's Heir, I kept stopping and pointing excitedly to names and places, saying, "Oh, I recognize that person or place! That was in the Pendragon Cycle."
I was a little uncertain when I first started reading them, but I warmed as I went on. I have never yet come across a book that portrays Druids as Christians or that has such a strange but clever idea for the origins of elves. The other major thing that struck me with Pendragon's Heir as compared to Lawhead's work was the ideas behind Morgan le Fay. The portrayal of this character as a evil queen who has the aid of the 'princes of the air' is the best explanation of Morgan that I can find and I found it in both Pendragon Cycle and Heir, though in different ways.

Suzannah said...

Hi, Andrew! Rivers is a really good writer, actually. She got her start (before her conversion) writing trashy romances for the secular market, so she can definitely push a pen! I've never tried the Sons of Encouragement series, but am glad to have the recommendation. Other folks I trust also recommend others of her books for certain contexts, but I'm leaving them at present because I don't fit those contexts ;).

Oh yes, I HAVE actually read the whole of Lawhead's PENDRAGON CYCLE, including the odd little postscript book AVALON, which I actually liked best of all. I only read the books once, though, several years ago, so I don't know that I drew on Lawhead so much as I drew on a lot of things Lawhead also draws on: the MABINOGION, for instance, and the idea of Logres as a sort of symbol of the Kingdom of God which CS Lewis developed so strongly in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. Now that you mention it, the symbolism of Logres as "the Summer Kingdom" that pervades Lawhead's Cycle is the thing that made the most impact on me. I don't recall his treatment of Morgan le Fay anywhere near so well, by contrast.

Oh, I'm so glad you read PENDRAGON'S HEIR, and I suspect you enjoyed it? Whether you did or not, could I perhaps ask you to leave an honest review on Amazon if you haven't done so already? Even a very short review would be an incredible help to me in my efforts to spread word about the book. :)

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Ah! Yes, I had heard that Mrs. Rivers was once a secular romance writer. That does explain a few things.

I did not know that AVALON was tied to the Pendragon Cycle books. Thank you for letting me know! I agree that the themes in Lawhead's books seem to be drawing in many places on other sources. I guess that I just found them to be presented in such a unique way as to be quite striking.

I loved PENDRAGON'S HEIR! It is tucked up nice and snug on my shelf with my other favourites.
I would be glad to write a review for it. :)

Suzannah said...

I keep meaning to reread AVALON; it'll be interesting to see what it's like on this side of PENDRAGON'S HEIR!

I'm so glad you enjoyed my novel! And thanks so much for being willing to write a review :)

PD Webb said...

I am rediscovering Stewart having run out of Stevenson. Stewart tends to be hit and miss. I did enjoy Airs Above Ground. Ivy Tree was a bit contrived, and since I had just read Tey's Brat Farrar, the plot was a bit spoiled.

Suzannah said...

I agree, Stewart can be a little hit and miss. I have to say though, THE IVY TREE was a hit for me--perhaps because I wasn't expecting it, and plus I didn't read BRAT FARRAR until a few years later.

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