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 http://marystewartnovels.blogspot.com/.)
(I usually have a tiny picture on the top left of my posts, but this cover deserves serious eyeballs. )
(Mary Stewart. Source: http://www.hodder.co.uk/authors/author.aspx?AuthorID=1594)
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.