Tribute to Mary Stewart

Today I learned that Mary Stewart has died. Given she was 97, it shouldn’t really be a shock, but emotion surged within me and I found I could not think about anything else.

The hours and hours of reading pleasure… The influence of her novels on my travels… The letters we once exchanged… The numerous secondhand bookshop visits with one goal in mind…

Although I was happily ensconced in a cafe with my computer this afternoon when I heard, it seemed I wouldn’t be doing any more writing. I needed to get home, to be with my collection of Mary Stewart paperbacks. I needed to handle them, remember them, write about my relationship as a reader with Mary Stewart.

I needed to mourn.

mary stewart books pile

Mary Stewart is an author whose novels I’ve loved for a very long time. I first encountered them as a teenager, when my mother picked up This Rough Magic and Nine Coaches Waiting as paperbacks at a school fete. She thought I would like them. I looked at the ancient covers and screwed up my nose.

As with many things, my mother was right. I loved them. So much so that I immediately set about acquiring as many Mary Stewart novels as I could. Being a high-school student and not very cashed up, this meant numerous secondhand bookshop crawls with my friends. I didn’t care about the covers. I even bought multiple copies of the same titles, just in case I ever lost one. (I believe I ultimately gave these to my sister.)

I even tracked down a copy of the little-known and out-of-print The wind off the small isles from the library, because I simply couldn’t find it anywhere to buy (and I still haven’t).

mary stewart books covers

Although Mary Stewart is perhaps best known for her Merlin series (beginning with The Crystal Cave, 1970) it is her romantic suspense thrillers (most written in the 1950s and 1960s) that I love. Surprisingly, I have never actually read the Merlin books, something I will now perhaps rectify.

But her romantic suspense thrillers are wonderful. Each centres upon a young woman ‘out of place’, often on holiday somewhere wonderfully exotic — like Delphi, Crete, Corfu, Lebanon, the Pyrenees…

Her heroines invariably find themselves caught up in something dangerous — smuggling, conspiracy, murder — and there is always a lovely young man too.

The love story is always secondary, and often extremely understated, and the relationships unfold beautifully within the crucible of a terrifying life-or-death situation.

Mary Stewart’s writing is lyrical and wonderfully evocative of place and character and emotion — which are the three primary things I look for in a novel. Most are written as a first person narrative and she quotes a lot from literature and poetry. (Her characters are all amazingly well read – heh.) I have read these novels over and over and over again in the 25 years (more?) since I was introduced. They are my comfort reading on a hangover day… or even just a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Because of the wonderful setting of My brother Michael, I made sure Delphi was the first place I ever visited outside Australia. Similarly, I’ve made sure to visit Provence in France (Madam, will you talk?), Hadrian’s Wall in England (The ivy tree), the Pyrenees in France (Thunder on the right), Skye in Scotland (Wildfire at midnight)… but I haven’t made it everywhere on my Mary Stewart list yet.

Back when I was 20, I wrote Mary Stewart a letter. It is now a very embarrassing letter, in which I express myself a little like Anne of Green Gables and label myself as ‘a romantic’, but I had a query about one of her books (The ivy tree) and so I wrote a fan letter (this being before the days of email, let alone Twitter). To my delight, she responded to my letter, and I share it with you here.

mary stewart letter_2

I believe Mary Stewart’s novels are now available as e-books, which is a wonderful thing for today’s generation. I daresay they have dated a bit — all her characters smoke rather a lot, for one thing — but her heroines are remarkably independent and outgoing and sassy for their time.

To help you get started, I will list out my top 5, if I can convince myself to narrow it down:

  • This rough magic — Lucy is visiting her sister on Corfu (Greece), when she witnesses someone taking pot shots at a dolphin in a private cove and a body is washed up on the shore. At first she thinks the culprit is Max, the musician son of a retired stage actor renting a villa nearby…
  • My brother Michael — Sipping coffee in Athens and wishing something would happen, Camilla accidentally agrees to drive a hire car to Delphi for someone called Simon. There she finds herself embroiled in danger and intrigue high on Mount Parnassus.
  • Madam, will you talk? — Charity is touring Provence, when she befriends a young boy, who seems to be at the centre of a custody battle with the murderous father hot on the trail.
  • The Gabriel Hounds — Christy is holidaying in Damascus, when she bumps into her cousin Charles, who convinces her to accompany him to visit their eccentric old aunt who lives in a crumbling palace in Lebanon. But all is not as it seems.
  • Airs above the ground — Vanessa thinks her husband of two years is in Sweden for work, except he shows up on a cinema newsreel in Vienna… When she gets there, she finds herself caught up in a conspiracy centred around a circus.

Oh my goodness, I want to re-read them all right now.

Vale Mary Stewart. You will live on through these books forever.


18 thoughts on “Tribute to Mary Stewart

  1. Hi Ellen, I came into Mary Stewart novels via the Merlin series – which MY mother has bought! I so agree with you on her style, her characters and her writing. Nice tribute – thanks


  2. I think I read some of Ms Stewart’s romantic suspense books in junior high, and I KNOW I read the first couple Merlin books then. The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills defined the King Aurthur myth for me; in fact, later when I read The Once And Future King, I didn’t like it because “they didn’t get it right”.
    I’ll join you in mourning, and raise a glass to one of my favorite authors.


    1. I really should read The Crystal Cave… I actually do have it, and started reading it years ago and it didn’t grab me. But so many people love it. I had a glass or two last night in honour of Ms Stewart. She definitely had a profound impact on my life.


    1. Thanks, Jill. Mary Stewart is certainly an author whose works resonate with me. I was talking with a friend about how it’s so often those books we read as young adults and children that do shape us. They certainly capture and cling to a corner of our hearts, and nothing can pry them loose! It’s hard to know what I’d think of Mary Stewart’s books were I to read them for the first time now. I’m almost certain I’d still love them, although possibly not with the same passion. When we are young, we are such blank canvasses, waiting to be shaped!


      1. So true, and well said! Actually, your post got me thinking about Judy Blume’s book “Tiger Eyes”. I can’t remember how old I was when I read it — 14? — but it really made an impression on me as a budding writer. I have no idea what I’d think of it now, but I will always love it for the impact it had on me then. 🙂


  3. Ellen – I’m here late, but had to check in. Saw this link on Facebook. Can’t believe she is really gone. You must frame that letter – what a wonderful thing to have.

    The first Mary Stewart I ever read was Madame Will You Talk? That is the only one I do not have a copy of. Now I will look for it to add to my collection. I’ve read her books many times, love them all. You will like the Merlin ones too, maybe not as much as her earlier ones which are my favourites.

    Thank you for writing a beautiful tribute!


    1. Oh, Suzanne, another kindred spirit! What a shame we can’t sit down and have a proper natter about what Mary Stewart meant to each of us. Madame, will you talk? would definitely be a good introduction — as was This rough magic, for me. Love them both so much. I agree the earlier ones are the best ones of her suspense novels.


  4. I am sad to hear this. The Merlin trilogy shaped my obsession with a ‘historical’ Merlin. I have finally gotten on to her romance thrillers and loved Madame Will You Talk which I agree was surprisingly feminist for the era. Then I read Nine Coaches Waiting and wanted to throw the book violently against my wall because double whammy of abelism, sexism and pretty much every stereotype ever. It happens.

    What other ones do you reccomend by her? I hear Wildfire at Midnight is good.


    1. It’s hard for me to judge them now (from a feminist perspective, that is), because I read them all when I was so young and not so concerned with such things. It’s been years since I read Nine Coaches, and I think I can imagine what you’re referring to. I might well have the same reaction if I read it now, but then maybe not, because I’m not coming to it new.

      I’ve just re-read My Brother Michael, which mostly holds up from a feminist perspective, although there are some problems that are of its time (which I just roll with, albeit with a wince!) — but that’s my view as someone who has loved the book for 25 years. But if you liked Madam Will you talk, you could try that one. The heroines are similarly independent. (I just posted yesterday about My Brother Michael actually…)

      Wildfire at Midnight isn’t one of my favourites, I confess. The Ivy Tree is another that’s good, although it’s rather different from all the others.

      Thanks for dropping by!


  5. I am more of a Josephine Tey fan really, but I was very interested to read that Mary Stewart borrowed the plot of Tey’s ‘Brat Farrar’ for ‘The Ivy Tree’ (which she acknowledged). I started reading Mary Stewart at the age of 19 when a dear aunt gave me ‘The Gabriel Hounds’. I followed this up with what I shall call The Romances – like you I could never get into the Merlin series. My favourite has always been ‘Airs Above the Ground’ followed by ‘This Rough Magic’ , ‘Madame Will you Talk’, ”Wildfire at Midnight’, ‘My Brother Michael’ , ‘The Ivy Tree’ and so on.
    I have forgotten the plot of ‘Nine Coaches Waiting’ and am a bit intrigued by an earlier comment re its anti-feminist lack of lure so will be reading this one again soon to find out why it is enraging, as I can’t imagine Mary Stewart enraging anybody!

    Thank you for your lovely tribute to Mrs Stewart, and thank you so much for sharing her precious letter.


    1. Hi Genevieve! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and sending me back to re-read this post. I have never actually heard of Josephine Tey, but if you are mentioning her in this context I should check her books out. Exciting.

      In the past year or so I revisited This Rough Magic as an audiobook, which was a pleasure. I have been trying to decide which one to listen to next. I also re-read Airs Above the Ground recently. Now I have lent a few of my favourites to my 16YO niece. Mary Stewart will live on!


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