Mary Stewart’s novels: Part Two

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
Stormy Petrel
The Ivy Tree
The Gabriel Hounds
This Rough Magic
Wildfire at Midnight

Wildfire at MidnightI 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, 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).

23 thoughts on “Mary Stewart’s novels: Part Two

  1. Pingback: Revisiting an old flame: Mary Stewart « Brown Paper

  2. “Premature greyness” of remorse sounds very, very attractive! 🙂 Wildfire at Midnight made me wonder if Stewart hadnt secretly written for Mills&Boon at some point.

    I think some of Stewart’s novels (its been a while since I read them) have heroines being pursued by, and even attracted to “exotic” locals – but they usually turn out to be the villain-in-chief or at least high up in the villainous hierarchy.

  3. @ bollyviewer: I ended my Stewart streak at Widlfire. I’ll probably pick up a couple more after a sufficient ly long gap to check out those attractive locals.

  4. I’m also re-reading Mary Stewart’s novels as an adult. I was feeling a bit embarrassed. Glad I’m not the only one! I think your analysis of the writing is spot-on. I think This Rough Magic is the best, in terms of making the heroine self-sufficient up to almost the very, very end. She falls a little too instantly in love, but I like the way Stewart delineates the physical attraction. Some of her heroes and heroines are just a little too prim. Plus, the evocations of Corfu (as is all her novels set in Greece) is amazing. Love the scene on the boat and then the heroine’s swim to shore. Nine Coaches Waiting felt too much like a Harlequin Romance.

  5. @ Kryssa: Thanks! I sometimes feel I over analyze this kind of writing, so nice to hear i have company.
    Yes, I agree some of the heroines are too propah. I think it’s a function of the time when Stewart began writing–she retained those mores even in the later books. And sometimes her voice is that of a much older woman, even though the character is a young girl…that adds to the feeling of primness.

  6. “The lead couple is always British. ”

    Well Mary Stewart is British so what do you expect? (Although having said that, the hero of Nine Coaches Waiting is French incidentally.)

    As for “The main villain is always British. ” No he’s most certainly not! In Airs above the Ground he’s Hungarian, in Nine Coaches Waiting he’s French, in Thunder on the Right the villain is French and the villainess is Spanish, in Madam Will you Talk the villains are French and German, in My Brother Michael, he’s Greek, in This Rough Magic he’s Greek or Albanian, I forget which.

    SO hardly “always British” are they?

    As for the heroines being prim, maybe it depends on your definition of the word but don;’t forget she wrote her first book in 1955 and her last good ones were writte in the late 70s . People WERE more prim then – and personally I don;t think that’s a bad thing necessarily.

    They are “of their time”. Accept it or don;’t read them.

  7. @ Liz: Okay, we are all admirers of Stewart here. Enough with the hostility.

    First: About the Britishness, the point is that Stewart is happy to set her stories in exotic locales, but assigns the local people supporting roles alone. This brings in the larger issues of representation or its lack thereof, which some readers find problematic.

    Second: Perhaps you missed the part in my post where I said “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. ” You are welcome to contradict the contents of my post, but please keep the tone polite. The bad guy in This Rough Magic is the British Godfrey Manning btw.

    Three: No-one is saying that “primness” is a bad thing necessarily. As I said in my earlier comment, it is a function of the time she began writing. Yes, some heroines are too prim for my taste; it is my prerogative as a reader to like some characters more than others.

    Four: Of course these books are of their time, and hence when read today, some aspects are disturbing. I don’t understand why you (or any other reader) would find this observation objectionable. “Accept it or don’t read them” is not a logical argument–does that mean we should not read critically, that we should only read books where we agree with everything the author says? Every reader knows that you can dislike certain aspects of a book and still enjoy the work. I can’t and won’t pretend that my discomfort with some of the things Stewart’s written doesn’t exist. Equally, I would not stop appreciating her work because of these perceived faults.

  8. I certainly don’t think you shouldn’t read critically but I don’t think a book should be criticised simply because it is set in a different time with values which may be different to those of a particular reader. You refer in glowing terms to her erudition, the quality of her prose and her plots so obviously are not faulting her as a writer. Personally there are many books that I could criticise for similar reasons but I accept them for what they are and when they were written – that is what I mean by “accept it or don’t read them.” It seems to me you are indeed over analysing – just enjoy them for what they are and if you can’t enjoy them because of what they are – if your concern (your use of the word “disturbing” seems over emphatic) over the datedness of the work is greater than your enjoyment of the writing, which is the impression you give – then maybe they are best left alone?

    Just as I don’t think we can judge historical characters by the standards and mores of our time rather than theirs, I don’t think you can expect a white upper middle class woman writing in the 1950s and 60s to produce work that will please everyone amongst a modern multi cultural audience, especially since only one of her books is set outside Europe. Absurd though it may seem to us, at the time these books were written, women couldn’t get a mortgage on their own, were often expected to give up work when they married, to get their husband’s approval for all sorts of things etc etc – and that was in the so-called enlightened western world, where a woman’s lot was much better than in third world countries (and of course often still is). Mary Stewart’s heroines are actually adventurous and independent for the times. Also at the time they were written, very few “ordinary” British ventured abroad at all which may account for the “lack of representation” of foreign heroes or heroines.

    I don’t find it objectionable that you have some of these concerns, although obviously I don’t share them, but I don’t think they should be your major focus when reading these books. I also hope that you will read all of her books in order to decide whether or not you retain the same opinion of her work as a whole.

    • Well, first off, I don’t think my “concern over the datedness of the work is greater than [my] enjoyment of the writing.” Over two fairly lengthy posts, I have one paragraph about the datedness in terms of cultural views, and one about gender roles–that’s not a “major focus”, especially given that I tend to focus on gender and race in my reviews (as I mention in my review policy) . And I think I make it clear in the conclusion that my stance is very positive overall–I end by calling her writing a “delightful body of work.”

      But that is actually a minor point. Your concerns address two (bigger) issues. Should readers engage with all books deeply, or are some books best left un-analyzed, read as a product of that time and place and no more? In my particular case, I enjoy analyzing a text–I think I appreciate them more for such a reading. And in a broader sense, I am all for a deeper reading whenever possible, because a close reading pays homage to a writer, IMO. An artist infuses her work with meaning; in analyzing a text, we are essentially taking the trouble to uncover the layers, the thought in her work. This can work in positive and negative directions, but the result is a far more rewarding read than engaging minimally with the story. At least in my opinion.

      Your second point is that identifying/analyzing flaws hampers the reading experience, so such books are better left unread. I’d argue that it’s really not a question of “if you don’t like it, don’t read it”–I can like the work while disliking certain aspects. Lots of books evoke both sets of feelings in me, and I certainly would not want to have missed out on these reads because of the foreknowledge that they contained elements I’d dislike. My likes and dislikes can and do co-exist together, quite often actually. I recently wrote a post on Enid Blyton, for e.g. stating that I had problems with her work–all in the context of just having acquired a much-prized first edition of one of her books.

      I agree with your comments on Stewart’s depiction of her heroines. In fact, my minor complaint was made in the context of the heroines being so independent and resourceful–if they were doormats to begin with, I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning this.

      And yes, I do hope to read more of Stewart’s works. Especially now 🙂

  9. For all the chat about the books being so prim, many of the British originals were edited for America, changing first cousin lovers to ‘distant’ relatives. Apparenly we are even more prim here.

    Con and Annabel in THE IVY TREE were cousins and Annabel’s supposed pregnancy, the reason she ran off to Canada, was completely edited out of the USA version of that story, along with a whole chapter. The couple in THE GABRIEL HOUNDS were first cousins whose fathers were brothers, changed to more distant cousins whose fathers were cousins for us prim Americans.

    I grew up when these books were published and they made perfect sense to me – the times. Today’s similar romances, filled with gratuitous sex (with humans and dead people) seem absurd to me, and the women sex-addicted and slutty. I find the suspense far more interesting and important, not the overdone sex. But I do understand that they make sense to today’s young readers who think along those lines.

    Mary Stewart is probably the best of all the romantic suspense writers. I agree that THIS ROUGH MAGIC is her best, but a close second is THUNDER ON THE RIGHT, a novel she herself grew to despise because it is so verbose – but that’s one of the things I like best about it.


  10. @ mike: The Canadian editions are the same as the British eds–no changes in these as far as I can tell. I haven’t read the American versions, but the changes you mention are fascinating; thanks for bringing this to my attention.
    Re: primness, I wasn’t referring to (the lack of) explicit sex scenes, more a mindset on the part of the heroine which is judgemental, indicting behavior that she considers immoral. The heroines are sometimes severe, in an intimidating, headmistress fashion. I’m not rooting for teen vampire fests here–my observation is to do with the characterization of the heroines, and not about the romance itself.

  11. Thank you for your thoughtful review and comment responses regarding some of this author’s work. I enjoyed your pointing out some of the less “politically correct” attitudes these stories you reviewed may compare with seemingly more enlightened and educated Western viewpoints of today. The next time I re-read Mrs. Stewart’s books I will no doubt be considering some of the points you have mentioned – for the first time! I’ve never read Stewart’s book in a “critical analysis” manner before as you have for your published review, rather as enjoyable interludes with a story-teller I’ve enjoyed since the 1960’s. So perhaps I overlook or disregard passages or plotlines that would otherwise offend my current sensibilities – much like my re-reading beloved works by Jane Austen nowadays. I’m glad you enjoyed the part of Mary Stewart’s writing that can enchant and transport us into the world she knew and could portray to her readers so elegantly.

  12. @ Jen: Thank you for commenting. I don’t rate Stewart’s abilities as a storyteller any lower for my criticisms, and I’m so glad this distinction is meaningful to you. Your response is exactly what I’d hoped for when I wrote this review!

  13. Ooh! I love MS! (Somehow, your blog went off my feedreader a few months ago. Wonder why?)

    You’re totally right about the heroines being these very clingy types, but I’ve loved all the books regardless. I’ve read *everything* but Nine Coaches Waiting (and own everything else). I have to say, I find the situations fascinating in each book. She has two more in the Greece/Corfu area – My Brother Michael and The Moonspinners and I think you’ll find the heroines a little more proactive there.

    I read those, and Touch Not The Cat first; so I guess I forgave her that Wildfire At Midnight and Thornyhold type women.

    But I love her best for the Merlin books.

  14. @ Space Bar: I hope all the feedy-reedy issues are sorted now.

    And yes, although the suck fairy has touched her work, I love Stewart too. Nine Coaches is really well-done. It does have the same problems as the rest of her oeuvre, but she blinds you with her prose in this one.

  15. I just came back to this thread months later by accident — I realize everyone has moved on — and read Mike’s post about the edited U.S. editions. That’s amazing!! I read the edited American version of Ivy Tree (and I guess all the others); had no idea know there was another. The pregnancy makes so much sense. I can’t believe they cut it; that’s so Victorian. I thought Ivy Tree might make a good movie — also This Rough Magic and Touch Not the Cat. Hollywood in a good way. I wonder why only one of her books has ever been adapted…

    • The Ivy Tree was published in 1962–I think American popular culture was very conservative then. Wasn’t the word pregnant banned on television in this period?
      And yes, considering Brat Farrar was made into a film, I would think The Ivy Tree is a cinch!

  16. Just came to your posts on Mary Stewart because of the Mary Stewart novels blog and because I’m doing a big read of her novels myself. Very thoughtful post and one which I agree with, largely. I quite agree with you about Gianetta in ‘Wildfire at Midnight’ – though I thought she started off the novel definitely anti-Nicholas – but I really liked the rest of the novel: it was so beautifully described and really creepy.

    I can’t believe that the references to pregnancy in ‘The Ivy Tree’ were removed from the American editions – that would confuse readers, I’d have thought!

  17. Pingback: The books of Mary Stewart – Part 2 | Ela's Book Blog

  18. I am also rereading Mary’s novels-starting with crystal cave that I bought for my teenaged son. He said he couldnt get past the first fifty pages which I thought was strange and now I have gotten so hooked on to them that I am spending money buying them! I love them just like I did before. I guess, we remain what we are – the body grows old but the mind is not altered. What fun!

    I love your articles on Mary Stewart. I like the way you have read them so carefully and slowly (in my case, I read them very fast first to get over the suspense and then I come back lovingly to read them again). I watched her interview on the youtube and was disappointed when she said that her books were translated into european languages and indian dialects ( I dont know when I will stop getting angry with europeans calling indian languages as dialects).
    Well, I guess as many people point out in this blog- she is from a different time. Her novels are timeless in a way but since my son, who reads pretty much everything, found her novels slow moving I think that todays readers need more action.

  19. I have loved Mary Stewart since i was a girl and The Ivy Tree is my favorite. In reading Mike’s comment to this very insightful blog I am absolutely stunned to learn of a supposed pregnancy and entire chapter edited out of the American version (the only one I knew existed). I’ll be desperate to lay my hands on the British original – no idea how, but what a revelation!

  20. Thanks for this blog post on an author who I’ve always loved for how she shaped my teenaged imagination. I re-read the novels later, with a PhD in hand, and was thrilled with how beautifully crafted they are while aware for the first time of their inherent ethnocentrism. PC gets treated as a vaguely fuddy duddy aunt itself sometimes, but it’s not that she’s violating some prissy rule. Literature matters. And I’d argue that values her characters hold demand that we reject their own colonial perceptions, and recognize this limitation in her work (which I’m sure has hurt sales since the 1980s).

    I write this with huge respect and love for her. And I believe that in many novels her non English characters to some extent transcend the limitations she gives them both because she’s just that good a writer with a fundamentally respectful view of the places and cultures she loves and writes about.

  21. Off on a tangent here, is it something that only I have noticed? The constant cigarette smoking! I read these books, most of ’em anyway, as a teenager, as my older sister had them. Though I was ‘grabbed’ by the romantic plot, my interest was more sustained by the geographic/historic detail, and lead to my deciding for example, to visit Delphi in Greece when interrailing through Europe with my sister in 1989. Recently I was back home and started reading the entire oeuvre ( a few were missing from the shelves back at my parents’ place), and addictive as always as the prose was, I found myself gasping for a fag. Now, I’ve never been a habitual smoker, just the odd social smoke, and hadn’t smoked a cigarette at all for a year, prior to that maybe one a month at the most. Hardly a habit. Anyway, launched into ‘ Madam , Will You Talk?’ and was feeling pretty tense towards the denouement, contemplating a walk to the local to buy cigarettes in order to smoke them, along with the hero and heroine ,imagining their faggy breath as they kissed, especially after that sumptuous meal in Marseilles. The final book, The Ivy Tree, that I read in my somehow guilty, devouring of everything Mary Stewart in some kind of tenenage retrograde shameful feast, had so much smoking that even Con remonstrated with Annabel about it. Found myself wondering, along with the sexual mores, the British Imperial attitudes,whether anyone else has felt the same impact of nicotine, in these romantic novels. So, after I had a nostalgic catch-up with them, I googled Mary Stewart, astounded that she was still alive, and her smoking (or was it her husband’s ) hadn’t caught up with her. And there she is, at Loch Awe, aged 96 , no longer writing but still going. Perhaps having the odd crafty fag, no I can’t write it romantically…and it is from a different era. Look at any film with Humphrey Bogart, the atmospherically coiling plume of grey smoke .—-smoking was cool in the 50’s, women were submissive, life was very different for a woman. Mary Stewart was born in 1916, she was a teacher and academic, her heroines were daring and independent for their time, but yes, their real-life contemporaries had to leave jobs once they were married, and couldn’t get mortgages on their own, but hey…they could smoke!

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