Revisiting an old flame: Mary Stewart

Revisiting a teenage passion is fraught with potential self-hatred. It’s like coming upon old photographs where I’m encrusted with acne and acid-wash denim, with a giant lace butterfly on my skull (thanks a lot, Facebook tags). But I succumbed to the siren’s call, and here is the result: a blog post on Mary Stewart.

Mary Stewart sounds like she belongs somewhere between Henry the VIII and Victoria (yes, a nice safe spread there), but she actually keeps company with Georgette Heyer and T.H. White. I’m not sure if Stewart is better known for her Arthurian novels or as a romance writer, but she is to the romantic suspense novel as Einstein is to relativity, and it is the latter novels I want to talk about in this post. Her first novel Madam, Will You Talk was published in England in 1955, and marked the start of a long and successful career–all her books are still in print today. Truly remarkable for this genre.

When I stumbled upon Madam, Will You Talk at my local library, I was instantly awash in nostalgia. Along with her soul sisters Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie,  Stewart gave me hours of teenage reading bliss–the closest I get to that nowadays is watching Project Runaway cuddled up with a jar of warm Nutella. I immediately checked out MWYT along with four other Stewarts, and I’ve been (re-)reading her work the past couple of weeks.

First off: Stewart has dated really well–MWYT’s story line and its heroine are as likeable and urgent  fifity years after they first appeared. While vacationing in Provence, Charity Selborne befriends a troubled young boy whose father has been (perhaps wrongly) acquitted of murder. Intelligence, along with an obdurate refusal to acknowledge when she’s beaten help Charity set things right. In Stewart’s world, this means the wicked are punished and the innocent protected from further harm. Also notable: Charity’s love for fast cars, and not as a passenger; Stewart’s heroines are all at home in the driver’s seat.



(Pic from

(I usually have a tiny picture on the top left of my posts, but this cover deserves serious eyeballs. )

(Mary Stewart. Source:

The other four novels I read feature similar quick-witted, resolute, competent  heroines, and follow roughly the same pattern. The primary tension in Stewart’s work lies in the struggle between conscience and love–some honorable scruple prevents the heroine from realising her attraction to the hero, at great personal cost. Stewart’s protagonists have often experienced tragedy (Charity lost her husband in the war, while Linda of Nine Coaches Waiting was brought up in an orphanage), and their familiarity with loss and loneliness makes them place a very high value on  love. Their choice of honor over happiness appears even more remarkable in this light.

It also seems clear to me that Stewart does not care for the naive heroine. Her protagonists  are innocent but not unworldly–many have been sexually active in the past, for instance. They always display a certain maturity when faced with danger; they may get  angry or frightened, but they are unsurprised that the world could be so malignant–we do not once hear the entitled child’s cry of  “why me?” in these stories.  Stewart’s heroines are never passive—they usually tumble into adventure in the course of aiding the vulnerable (a child or a wounded animal are favorite hooks). The trouble they land in is never of their own making, but they are nonetheless eager to help.  They are also resourceful and practical and don’t care too much about their appearance. A Mary Stewart heroine would always have spare batteries in the kitchen drawer and sheets flapping whitely on a line out back, and her hair would never fall in her eyes.

Stewart’s characters also correspond very closely to my (post colonial) conception of a certain type of literary Britishness. Her women are fond of understatement and decorum, they prize courage and hard work and detest (melo)drama, and scorn those who don’t share their predilections. And while her protagonists are all cut from the same serviceable cloth, Stewart styles them uniquely;  each stands distinct even though she is essentially writing about the same character in every novel.

The novels also completely satisfy as thrillers–the mystery is juicy and complex enough to never seem like an excuse for romance. Stewart uses the gradual solution of the puzzle to develop her characters, thus providing legitimate ground for a relationship; much more than shared danger and adrenaline draws the principals together. The novels are entirely character-driven; thus, the protagonists don’t fight shadowy criminal gangs but grapple with villains who are friends or even family members, whose actions are shaped by logic and/or personal enmity. The violence in these books is hence never casual or thrilling, but a brutish and messy betrayal that exacts a terrible moral toll on the perpetrators and their accomplices.

(To be continued. I’ll provide some MS links and resources in that post. And what I didn’t like 😦  about her work )

Update: the second part of my post on Stewart is up here.

22 thoughts on “Revisiting an old flame: Mary Stewart

  1. Love her work. I was introduced to her works late (a few years back actually) and I devoured the ones I could lay my hands on. Of course her most famous work is on Merlin and that was a whole new world to me.

    But I love her ‘modern’ works. I haven’t read her recently. will have to check my local library.

  2. @ Munimma: I always envy people who discover her late–a lovely backlist there waiting to be devoured.
    Most North American libraries do stock her work, I think. I’ve also seen many of her books in used-book stores and charity shops.

  3. Mary Steward’s merlin/king arthur series will always rank as some of the greatest books of my youth. To this day all Arthurian legend movies/book are held to her standards, and are found lacking. They were pure magic.

  4. Requested a Mary Stewart Omnibus from my library on your recommendation.. Nine coaches Waiting was a good read. Her novels seem to be midway btw Barbara Cartland and Mills&Boon…

  5. @ Blake: Most Arthurian legends don’t do it for me–I really disliked The Fionavar Tapestry, for e.g., but Stewart’s series caught me and wouldn’t let go. IMO, she is such a good writer that considerations like genre and subject become secondary to the prose.

  6. @ Pattikadu: Nice handle 🙂
    Glad you liked NCW. I’d rate Stewart’s work higher than Cartland or genre romance though–she is a first-rate prose stylist. Cartland’s fondness…for…ellipses…makes her books unreadable IMO.

  7. Did Mary Stewart ever address the remarkable similarities between The Ivy Tree and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar? They are terribly similar–I wondered if she ever said anything about it.

  8. @ Robin: Stewart does acknowledge the similarities–in fact, she tips her hat to Tey in the novel itself. When Con’s sister meets Mary Grey, they talk about Brat Farrar, and how that’s just a novel and how such an impersonation wouldn’t work in Annabel’s case. Very meta.

  9. I found your post through the Mary Stewart Novels blog. I wish I would have discovered Mary Stewart as a teenager, since it would have saved me from a lot of the rubbish I did read. But I didn’t find her until I was working at the public library in my twenties, and devoured all of her books as fast as I could get my hands on them. This is a great tribute to a wonderful novelist, and I’ll be checking back to see what else you have to say about her. 🙂

  10. I liked your comments on Stewart’s novels. She’s the grande dame of romantic suspense for a reason! Look forward to exploring your blog site further~~

  11. @ Emily: Thanks. I’ll probably do Part 2 next month.
    Teenage years are meant to be mis-spent, I say. How else do you explain a passion for Wham!

    @ Hannah: Thank you so much; I hope you enjoy visiting my blog 🙂

  12. Mary Stewart would have made an ideal teenage “flame” if I had only discovered her back then! I discovered her only a few years ago and devoured her entire romantic mystery list (and have just discovered that some of the books made it into films, too) – they are such absorbing reads. One book of hers, in particular (I think it was Wildfire at Midnight) though, struck me as nauseatingly Mills&Boon-ish in its male chauvinism. If I remember correctly, the heroine divorced her husband for his roving eye but forever spent her time telling herself that his infidelity was all her fault (coz she wasnt as sophisticated as he’d assumed!) and her family never accepted the divorce! That was the last Mary Stewart I ever read…

  13. @ Bollyviewer: I haven’t read Wildfire–it sounds spectacularly dated, quite awful actually. I’ll have to get hold of it before writing the next part of my post.
    I got on to Stewart in my teens because I have a Mom-Who-Reads. She’s also the mom who informed me that this-is-a-house-and-not-a-hotel, but that’s a different story.
    I’ll stop by to comment on the Bollywood goodies on your blog soon!

  14. loved the disney movie MoonSpinners with hayley mills which came out when I was 12, and was thus introduced to Mary Stewart, reading all her books throughout my teens.

    I tutor and assign the merlin trilogy for students to read, the prose is so descriptive and the books have extensive vocabularies, all in great stories (like sugar making the medicine go down!)

    • Interesting because I utterly loathe that film which I think is a complete travesty of the book. Admittedly it isn ‘t one of my favourites – I’d say it is her “third worst” after Thunder on the Right (which she herself loathes) and Wildfire at Midnight.

  15. @ KK Lady: thanks for visiting! I haven’t seen the movie, but I couldn’t agree more about the vocabulary in these books. And the unfamiliar words don’t hamper the readability of the text–quite a tricky feat to achieve.

  16. Pingback: Mary Stewart’s novels: Part Two « Brown Paper

  17. replacing an old flame can be terribly difficult, I know because I have been there many times… honestly, though, online dating can help you to meet new friends and get your mind off things for awhile. Who knows? Maybe once you forget about your ex, they will start thinking about you…. you want what you can’t have right?

  18. Enjoyed reading the review of Mary Stewart. Did enjoy her thrillers very much when I read them for the first time as a young person. Thanks to your write up II decided I would read them again as a senior citizen to find out if they still interest me! Chan Badrinath

  19. Pingback: The Lasting Enchantment: Mary Stewart’s novels. And a giveaway! | Brown Paper

  20. I’ve only read Nine Coaches Waiting so far but really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to reading more of Mary Stewart’s books, just got copies of The Ivy Tree, The Moonspinners and Madam, Will You Talk. 🙂 I want to collect all of her romantic suspense novels.

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