The Lasting Enchantment: Mary Stewart’s novels. And a giveaway!

Update: This giveaway is now CLOSED.

I’ve blogged at length about my fascination with romantic suspense pioneer Mary Stewart, whose books feature keen-eyed heroines, sophisticated plots, impressive scholarship (yes, still talking romantic suspense here), and addictive prose. I’ve hitherto found her work in libraries and used-book stores, and so I was delighted to learn that Hodder UK  has now reissued Stewart’s novels, with lovely new covers.  Look at these!

If, like me, you’ve been trying hard to convince yourself that those sepia stains on the library copy were Nothing But Tea,  you can finally get the book new. And perhaps even free! Hodder UK is offering two of this blog’s readers any Stewart novel of their choice.  Just leave a comment on this post about which Stewart you want and why, and the kind folks at Hodder will mail out the requested books to two winning comments. So, Madams, Will You Talk?

If you’ve never read Stewart, here are two of my faves for you to check out.

The Ivy Tree: “An English June in the Roman Wall countryside; the ruin of a beautiful old house standing cheek-by-jowl with the solid, sunlit prosperity of the manor farm – a lovely place, and a rich inheritance for one of the two remaining Winslow heirs. There had been a third, but Annabel Winslow had died four years ago – so when a young woman calling herself Annabel Winslow comes ‘home’ to Whitescar, Con Winslow and his half-sister Lisa must find out whether she really is who she says she is.”

Touch Not the Cat: “After the tragic death of her father, Bryony Ashley returns from abroad to find that his estate is to become the responsibility of her cousin Emory. Ashley Court with its load of debt is no longer her worry. But there is something odd about her father’s sudden death…
Bryony has inherited the Ashley ‘Sight’ and so has one of the Ashleys. Since childhood the two have communicated through thought patterns, though Bryony has no idea of his identity. Now she is determined to find him. But danger as well as romance wait for her in the old moated house, with its tragic memories.”

A full list of the Stewart novels issued by Hodder is available here  (and yes, the Merlin series is included in the giveaway).  So, please do enter! Also, I cannot resist reproducing below a lovely message by Stewart from the Hodder site; no wonder she inspires such fondness  amongst her readers.

“I am well into my nineties now, and I am afraid I have almost forgotten how to write. But if a few vague memories will do, here they are. My first novel was called MURDER FOR CHARITY, and was sent off hopefully to publishers who now prefer to forget that they turned it down. But they were probably right, and their comments did me a power of good. I cut off the last third of the story, re-wrote it, re-named it MADAM, WILL YOU TALK? And sent it to Hodder and Stoughton. Some half century later I am still with my dear Hodder and Stoughton, and can only add that I love the new cover style, and I hope that it will attract a new generation to read my books. MS

The small print
1.This giveaway is restricted to the US, Canada, Europe and the UK, as per Hodder and Stoughton’s specifications.
2. Please leave your comment before June 30; winners will be announced shortly after.
3. If you want to enter for more than one book, please leave a separate comment for each choice.
4. This is my first giveaway of this sort, and is driven solely by my passion for Stewart’s books and my desire to spread the good stuff around. For any legalese, please contact Hodder UK.

Update: The winners are

1. Clair @Answer Girl Net, who picked Nine Coaches Waiting

2. Kate @Kate’s Bookcase, who picked The Moonspinners

3. Rhonda, who picked The Ivy Tree.

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.