Mary Stewart is perhaps best known for her five Arthurian novels, beginning with The Crystal Cave (which I haven’t read, and thus am not going to write about now), but I first came across her ‘romantic-suspense’ novels some time ago when I read The Moonspinners. I’d forgotten most of the plot when I re-read the book again a couple of years ago, except for one thing – the heroine’s using the song of a nightingale to explain what she’s doing out of doors at night when she’s actually snooping around – I’d remembered the incident and ascribed it to one of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, for some reason. I also have a hardback copy of This Rough Magic which I’ve often re-read, though when I bought it I don’t think I remembered I’d read anything else by this author.
There’s a good – if short – summary of Mary Stewart’s life and writing career on Wikipedia (though don’t read the synopses of the novels on Wikipedia if you don’t want to find out what happens!) and on this fan site.
Hodder are re-printing these as ‘Mary Stewart Modern Classics’, and when I found a stack of them at my local Waterstone’s recently, I bought four that I’d not read before, devoured them all in two days, borrowed another from my sister, and then bought two more for my Kindle. They are exciting, moving, sometimes amusing, beautifully written, and have a strong sense of place. Her heroines are usually young (not one is over thirty), but are often crossed in love or bruised by it, independent, though not usually by choice, and resourceful; the heroes are real, complex men, competent and often with a dash of danger about them. Many of Stewart’s novels are set outside Britain – France (Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk?, Thunder on the Right), Greece and its islands (My Brother Michael, The Moonspinners, This Rough Magic), Austria (Airs Above the Ground), Syria and Lebanon (The Gabriel Hounds) – as well as in the UK, and the sense of place is beautifully conveyed, without the scene-setting ever sounding like it was culled from a guidebook. Rather than writing individual reviews, I’m going to post reviews of nine of her novels, in three parts.
I started the present binge with Stormy Petrel (1991), one of the more recent of her books (her last book was published in 1997 and she’s rather elderly now, being ninety-four). It’s an entertaining read, set on the Hebridean island of Moila, off Mull, and involves inheritance and robbery. The heroine is a poet, and teaches English at Cambridge University: she makes arrangements to go on holiday with her (married) brother Crispin, a doctor, who is keen on birdwatching and photography. Due to one thing and another, Rose ends up spending the first few days on Moila alone: one stormy night, she has two unexpected visitors – Ewen Mackay and ‘John Parsons’ – neither of whom are telling the truth about their reasons for their arrival. In my opinion, however, the book doesn’t stand comparison with her earlier novels – everything is sorted out too early on, Ewen and Neil’s actions aren’t sufficiently ambiguous, and the romance feels tacked on abruptly rather than this being obvious from the characters’ actions. Still, Moila is beautifully described, and its bird-life (though stormy petrels, which are found in the book, should, strictly speaking, be termed storm petrels). Also, as a geologist, I do like the way Stewart brings a little geology into many of her books, as she does here (her husband was formerly professor of geology at Durham and Edinburgh).
The next was the much earlier Wildfire at Midnight (1956), set on Skye, and is almost a straight-forward detective novel. Gianetta is a fashion model who comes to Skye for a bit of rest and relaxation, and walks into a murder investigation – a girl with her throat cut on the slopes of Blaven – then a climbing accident which leaves one person dead and a limited circle of suspects. To Gianetta’s confusion, her former husband, Nicholas Drury (from whom she has been divorced for about four years), is also staying at the hotel and is one of the suspects. There are an odd bunch of people staying in the hotel: fishermen, climbers, walkers – and an actress who brings an air of light humour into her interactions with Gianetta – and Gianetta finds herself drawn to Roderick Grant, a fellow guest. Gianetta’s in the odd position of being free from suspicion, since she was not on Skye when the girl was killed, and she has to struggle with her feelings of loyalty to Nicholas (since she comes to think that he must be the killer) and public-spiritedness. This novel was genuinely mysterious, edgy and atmospheric, with interestingly varied characters and good dialogue. The only drawback, I felt, was the slight absence of Nicholas from the narrative and, when he does appear, there’s not much evidence to show what Gianetta might have seen in him.
Next up was Nine Coaches Waiting (1958): this was a longer novel, with a very young heroine – Linda Martin is barely twenty – hired to be governess to a young boy, Philippe, Comte de Valmy, at the Valmy chateau near Geneva. Linda’s an orphan, but before her parents died she lived with them in Paris, and she speaks fluent French: a fact that she’s hidden from her employers, for the simple reason that she got the distinct impression that they would not have hired her if she did confess her competence. Leon de Valmy is Philippe’s uncle, confined to a wheelchair since an accident some years earlier, but very much in charge at Valmy. Linda gradually becomes aware, through two near-accidents, that someone may be trying to harm Philippe. This is something of a gothic novel, though the gruesomeness doesn’t have anything to do with locked chambers and ghastly apparitions, but in the personalities of the Valmys, and their egotism and complete lack of morals (at least when it comes to Valmy). Linda deals with her problems and the dangerous situation with courage and resource, and Stewart makes her hero’s involvement and behaviour nicely ambiguous, so that the reader along with Linda herself, don’t know whether to trust him. Again the setting is well-described, the relationship between Philippe and Linda is touching, and Stewart beautifully conveys the anguish and the ecstasy of love.
That’s all for today – part two to come.