Last in the current tranche of books read was Touch Not The Cat (1976), which requires the reader’s suspension of disbelief, since one of the main plot points is the existence of a telepathic link between the heroine, Bryony Ashley, and a man whom she knows only as her ‘lover’, but who, she thinks, must be one of her cousins, since this is an Ashley family gift. The story begins with the sudden death in a hit-and-run accident of Bryony’s father, recuperating from a serious illness in a German spa town. Bryony, who’s currently working in Madeira, flies to Germany to speak to her father’s friend, to find out what happened to her father, then returns to the family home in Worcestershire with her father’s ashes. Ashley Court, the family home (though it’s currently rented out to a wealthy American family, and part is shown to visitors) now belongs to Bryony’s uncle, Howard, though he lives in Spain and is currently ill. Instead, business is being undertaken by the twins, Emory and James, Howard’s elder sons. The house and its grounds are very strikingly conveyed, but unlike Stewart’s other books, the immediate surroundings aren’t – unfortunately it does give the slight impression of the house almost existing in a vacuum.
Bryony finds that her uncle’s business is failing, and his two eldest sons are conspiring to break the Ashley trust and sell the place. Family history is strongly evoked in this book, and the characters are, as usual, well-drawn. The story takes a little while to get going, since Stewart spends quite a lot of time setting up the details and establishing motives, though when it does it is very exciting. Interestingly in this one, published in the 1970s, Stewart evidently felt she could be more upfront about her characters’ feelings for each other – or possibly, that she felt it was expected – and there’s explicit mention of sex (though no actual description) – which aren’t mentioned except very obliquely in the earlier books.
To round off the round-up, as it were, two of her books which I often re-read. This Rough Magic (1964) finds Lucy Waring, resting actress, visiting her pregnant sister Phyllida Forli on the island of Corfu. The Forlis, a rich Italian family, have three houses on Corfu, two of which are rented out: one to writer/photographer Godfrey Mannering; and the ancient Castello to eminent but now reclusive actor, Sir Julian Gale and his prickly musician son Max, with whom Lucy soon clashes. There’s a shock to come, however, when Spiro, one of Sir Julian’s godchildren, is drowned one night in a sailing accident from Godfrey’s boat, and Lucy finds that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Danger comes, too, and Lucy finds her acting ability coming in handy.
Whereas Romeo and Juliet is a theme running through Touch Not the Cat, it’s The Tempest in This Rough Magic, in which Sir Julian is Prospero, perhaps – but certainly the idea that Corfu is the setting for the play is discussed. The setting of Corfu is beautifully described, I really like the characters and their relationships, and there’s a good deal of adventure and excitement – as well as a friendly local dolphin.
Lastly for this review, Stewart’s first published novel, Madam, Will You Talk? (1954). This is set in the south of France, where widowed Charity Selborne and her friend and former colleague, Louise, are on holiday together. At their hotel Charity meets and befriends a boy, David Shelley, travelling with his step-mother, Loraine Bristol. They’re not going by their real names, since Loraine’s husband and David’s father has been accused of the murder of his friend, and understandably don’t want to be associated with his surname. Charity assists David for all she’s worth, even when he runs away, though she does come to find out that the situation is not quite as simple as she thought. The tension is high in this book, there is a great car chase in which Charity outwits the following car of Richard Byron, and the descriptions of the countryside (and a fabulous meal!) are terrific. The characters are believable and sympathetic, and the motive for the murder is very clever.
Only one thing bothers me slightly about the book, though, and that’s the time when it’s set – Charity was widowed in the war, and she’s portrayed as though her husband’s death was only a few years before, rather than the eight or nine years before implied by the publication date. Anyway, this is only a minor quibble – the book is excellent.
And one final word – if you’ve seen the Disney film of The Moonspinners, with Hayley Mills and Pola Negri, there are a few degrees of similarity with Stewart’s book, but not many. Naturally, the book is much better!
All these books are highly recommended, though the better ones are the earlier ones, in my opinion. If pressed to pick favourites I’d probably choose Madam, Will You Talk?, The Ivy Tree and The Gabriel Hounds, though I did enjoy them all.
If you’d like to have the chance to obtain a free copy of one of Stewart’s novels, pop over to Brown Paper, where Naranjana Iyer is hosting a giveaway!