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 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).
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.
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.