Part One of my post about Mary Stewart is here. You may want to check it out before reading this post.
Much of the dramatic tension in a Stewart comes from the setting–her heroines usually land in a mystery while vacationing in some exotic (read non-English) locale. The romance then may be read as a safe haven in an unfamiliar and (hence) threatening world. More than almost any in this genre, Stewart’s plots require that an alien landscape be brought alive for the reader, so the prose must pull its weight if the plot is to work. Very different from most contemporary thrillers, where a complicated plot is held up as an excuse for inadequate prose (think Dan Brown). Vivid (along with evocative and poignant) should be eliminated from the reviewer’s stable, but vivid is one of Stewart’s middle names. Consider this description:
“It is never quite dark on a clear June night in the highlands… Back in the city, or in fact anywhere that I had lived, the night sky was disfigured by street lamps and the city’s emanations. But here, in a clear arch of pewter-grey air, the stars were low and bright and as thick as daisies on a lawn.” (from Stormy Petrel)
It’s pretty clear to me that Stewart is a writer first and a romantic thriller writer second, in that her prose stands alone on its merits regardless of the genre where her work might be placed. (Stewart can lay claim to romance, mystery, history and fantasy with equal authority, and one could easily imagine her making a living off non-fiction, writing essays and travel pieces and so on.) The tightly furled plots, the quiet passion of her prose, and her trademark combination of accessibility and erudition make Stewart’s novels unique; at their best, her work reminds us of the potency of the storyteller in history and myth, a figure who beguiled listeners into laying aside their daily cares for a few moments to enter other worlds, other lives.
But just as I’m completely smitten by Stewart’s writing, I smash up against the biases in her work. I’m always wary about viewing older works in the light of my feminist, post-colonial sympathies, but I cannot overlook this: Stewart’s protagonists don’t really interact with the locals in foreign locales in a way that counts. The lead couple is always British. The main villain is always British. The locals are nicely, sometimes even flatteringly described, but they are props to further the main action. They make for good friends or accomplices, but no more. I’ve read seven Stewarts, and I’m pretty sure the author would sooner hook her heroine up with a dolphin than a non Anglo-Saxon (man). And in The Gabriel Hounds (1967), set in Damascus, Stewart’s painterly prose is all but overshadowed by her tin ear for orientalist clichés. References to the “primitive mind”, the greed of the natives, the sloe-eyed charmer who wants to become an English lady, the “rapid stream of Arabic…which sounded like nothing more than the spitting of an angry cat”—all this is plain embarrassing to read. Of course, these views are but the products of the time, and while I’m not in favour of revising the work in any way, I have to say: WTF. And: thanks, Stewart, for not setting any of your books in India; it would’ve broken my heart.
And I must mention the heroines’ penchant for the Dramatic Swoon. Charity in MWYT and Linda in Nine Coaches Waiting and Gianetta in Wildfire at Midnight all faint, and Christy in The Gabriel Hounds and Annabel in the Ivy Tree have near-faints. Yes, the heroine usually passes out after some terrifically arduous task, but still, must she? Also, Stewart usually has the hero show up to finish the adventure off post-swoon—it’s as though the heroine couldn’t quite see the task to fruition without male help. And the climax often has the heroine sheltering thankfully in the hero’s protective/safe arms. This is a sad, sad thing, especially since the two have an equitable relationship during the course of the novel; why infantilize the heroine towards the close?
I should mention that my impressions of Stewart’s work are based on seven out of her twenty-odd novels; I would be happy if the rest prove me wrong. I read the following in the order mentioned below:
Madam Will You Talk
Nine Coaches Waiting
The Ivy Tree
The Gabriel Hounds
This Rough Magic
Wildfire at Midnight
I could not stand Wildfire at Midnight. This one should sport a warning sticker “Not for Stewart beginners.” The prose is impeccable, and the plot well-oiled as ever, but the heroine is an idiot disappointing. Since when is a woman’s youth and sexual inexperience an excuse for her partner’s infidelity? The answer, at least for this genre, is: NEVER. At the very least, I expect the hero to have suffered agonies of remorse, and bear visible signs of the same (premature greyness would be a good start) before the grand reconciliation. A blasé ex-philanderer sauntering into the heroine’s waiting arms has me diving for the Gravol. But I like to think Wildfire… is the aberration in an otherwise delightful body of work, and I would recommend any of the others if you’re a Stewart novice.
For more about Stewart, there’s always Wikipedia. And Jennie and Julie’s unashamedly admiring Stewart site MaryStewartnovels.com, which really nails why Stewart commands such affection and respect from her readers. Their site has wonderful Stewart resources including a great bibliography, and a blog where you can find lovely snippets about the author as well as the very occasional giveaway.
And a bonus: a quiz site on Stewart’s books. The site looks dodgy but hasn’t harmed my computer (yet).