Archive for the ‘Mary Stewart’ Category

Prefacing this sure-to-be-rambling post with this information, for those of you who wonder what I’m actually talking about way down below. As different as can be in time periods and settings, but all at heart clinging to a similar traditional structure, that of the Gothic Romance Novel. The three books under discussion will be:

  • Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
  • Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

All of these are velvety dark, thrillingly romantic (for the most part), highly predictable (ditto), and guiltily enjoyable tales.

Perhaps this won’t be the most sober-minded book discussion, which would indeed be fitting, for these books are not High Literature in any sense of the term, and are therefore free game for a little bit of mild mockery, all in good fun, because I did read them willingly and with general pleasure, though occasionally that pleasure was all about their fulfillment of stereotypical Gothic Romance Scenarios.

I have had recourse to our ever-handy Wikipedia to quickly define the main elements of a proper traditional gothic novel, and by applying the criteria to the books in question we can get a nice overview of how well the authors fulfilled the requirements of this assigned genre.

So, cribbing from the article and adding some of my own descriptive notes to those provided, we generally must have:

  • Virginal Maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past, and later discovered that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family.
  • Older, Foolish Woman – who often has charge of or advises the Virginal Maiden, or acts as an Awful Warning due to past errors of judgement, which Virginal Maiden may or may not take into consideration
  • Hero – who may or may not be misrepresented as The Villain for the earlier stages of the plot
  • Tyrant/villain – who may or may not be disguising his (her) True Evil Nature for the earlier stages of the plot. Usually male, occasionally female.
  • The Stupid Servant – acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward. Sometimes takes on form of Humble Social Inferior or Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, well-meaning but ignorant of darker designs of Villain.
  • Ruffians – always under the secret (or not so secret, depending on if he is the Disguised or the Obvious species) control of the Villain
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (says Wikipedia, but in more modern gothics I have noticed that the Clergy figure is often absent, being replaced by a Doctor or Lawyer or other Figure of Social Authority, acting under the influence of the Villain)
  • The Setting – The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own.
  • And, if I may add to this list, The Secret. There is generally some Great Big Secret which the heroine – er, Virginal Maiden – either sets out to investigate or unwittingly stumbles upon. Sometimes (frequently) The Secret is, of course, that of her own mysterious past.
  • Also added by me: The Forced Marriage. Another common element I’ve noticed in my own perusal of gothics. So many times the heroine faces matrimonial peril, either by being forced to marry the Disguised Hero (who she then realizes she loves in Chapter Ten), or by a Weak Male Character under the control of the Villain, or by the Villain himself.

So, let’s see how these measure up. I’m going to present these in order from my least to most favourite.

Warning: There may well be some significant spoilers here and there, but as the plot twists are all highly predictable by anyone with the least bit of experience with the genre, I doubt if having these confirmed ahead of time will lessen one’s reading pleasure. 😉

Cousin Kate georgette heyer 1968Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer ~ 1968. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1968. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

Finding that her youthful appearance and the lack of accomplishments caused by a childhood spent following the drum prevent her from securing a position as governess, Kate Malvern, recently orphaned, gratefully accepts an invitation from her unknown aunt Minerva to make her home at Staplewood, the seat of Sir Timothy Broome, Minerva’s elderly and invalid husband.

On arrival at Staplewood, Kate finds herself in beautiful and luxurious surroundings, and is treated by her aunt with a kindness which is regarded by those best acquainted with Minerva with considerable surprise. At first grateful, Kate gradually becomes uneasy, and with the arrival on the scene of Sir Timothy’s nephew, Mr. Phillip Broome, the plot rapidly thickens. Minerva’s motive for bringing Kate to Staplewood is revealed, and her machinations are brought to a dramatic conclusion.

Okay, let’s see how Cousin Kate does on the Elements of Gothic Fiction scale.

  • Virginal Maiden – check! No secrets as to origin, as Kate is legitimately accepted as a family connection. She is an orphan, reasonably young (24), beautiful (“a flower-like countenance”), appears younger than her age, is sexually pure but well aware of the “facts of life” from her experience as a soldier’s daughter, and is definitely kind and sensitive, though she also fearless and well able to stand up for herself in socially awkward situations.  A most promising heroine.
  • Hero – check! Our Hero turns out to be one of the disguised ones, who operates under a cloud of misunderstanding engineered by the Villain, or, in this case, the Villainess.
  • Villainess – check! No mystery here, though it takes a while to reveal her true nature. It is, of course, suspiciously friendly Aunt Minerva.
  • Humble Social Inferior – Moving the plot along is Kate’s old nurse, Mrs Nidd, who bring’s Kate’s need of succour (she’s just been fired from her first job and has little prospect of finding another due to lack of training or experience) to Aunt Minerva, setting things in motion. Mrs Nidd reappears later in the story to aid Kate in unravelling The Secret.
  • Doctor – weak rather than deliberately evil, and under the complete influence of the Villainess, the Doctor plays here merely a supporting role
  • The Setting – It is 1817, mid-Regency. Most of the action occurs at a stately country home, Staplewood, with Aunt Minerva established at the centre of things controlling all of the domestic strings, and separate wings housing the frail Sir Timothy and the family son and heir, beautiful, erratically-mannered Torquil, who is under the fulltime care of the Doctor, for reasons no one is prepared to elaborate on. Mysteriously locked doors, male screams in the night, random shots being fired, a suicide-worthy lake, a lonely country setting leading to easy isolation of characters not wanted to be out in public circulation by the Villainess.
  • The Secret –  Insanity! Torquil’s. Kate has been tagged by the Villainess to be a suitable wife for her mentally unstable son. She (Kate) is to produce a son and heir to the Broome family fortune, after which Torquil will be put into ever-deeper seclusion as his insanity worsens (the Doctor is quite sure it will), and Kate will be allowed to discreetly seek consolation elsewhere.
  • The Forced Marriage – see The Secret.
  • Great Big Climax – Revelation of Secret! Murder! Suicide! Horror-stricken Virginal Maiden flees to arms of Hero! And once all of the details of The Secret are revealed, a blissful future is embarked upon via Glorious Holy Matrimony between the two who have suffered so many setbacks to the progress of their romance through initial misunderstanding and deliberate machinations of the Villainess, who has now had her ultimate comeuppance.

My verdict: While Cousin Kate had its appeal, and was quite nicely written and full of Heyer’s dependably engaging Regency slang. Kate is a likeable enough heroine, but the whole thing dragged on just too long for my interest to be sustained completely; the plot was desperately predictable, and the whole thing became rather depressing, what with its dependence on a mysterious insanity and the ditherings of all those concerned regarding the proper treatment of the sufferer.

The ending is rather brutal, as Heyer fatally disposes of two of her characters under horrific circumstances. The imagination of this reader was boggled regarding the possibility of a happy future for the heroine and hero with that sort of emotional baggage to deal with.

I rated Cousin Kate at 6 because of Heyer’s competent handling of her setting and the quality of her writing. Some serious themes (position of women/class distinctions/treatment of the mentally ill) were touched upon but never thoroughly examined – not really to be expected in this sort of light novel. But for a light novel it had some desperately dark strands.

Hard to classify, really. I know I said “boring” in the header, and that seems to be my ultimate feeling. Rather flat. Heyer could do much better.

tregaron's daughter madeleine brent 1971 001Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent ~ 1971. This edition: Doubleday, 1971. Hardcover. 251 pages.

My rating: 7/10. I bumped it down just a bit because of the inclusion of Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity, a plot strand which I found exceedingly annoying for some reason. (Perhaps because a similar character plays a major role in Heyer’s Cousin Kate?)

Flyleaf says:

Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.

Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements in her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There, among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams – dreams that seem to hold the an eerie and menacing prophecy of the future.

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

  • Virginal Maiden – check! Our heroine, Caterina (Cadi), daughter of a half-Italian mother and sturdy Cornish fisherman father, is young (late teens), beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And (spoiler alert!) she does turn out to be the descendent of the Italian nobility. No doubt because of this innate blue blood, our heroine has just naturally developed far beyond the expectations of her humble place in the world. Her language is surprisingly upper class (due to the convenient society of a cultured retired governess in the neighbourhood, who has taken the bright young Cadi under her tutorial wing), and she is fluent in Italian (learned from her grandmother), which comes in handy later. And she starts the story off as a half orphan, mother dead some years (fell off a cliff with grandmother in a tragic accident – sob!) and loses her father as well soon after we enter the story, which precipitates the now-fully-orphaned Cadi into the next stage of her saga.
  • Hero – check! This one is the conflicted type, and is disguised (occasionally deliberately) as a villain. Classically gothic  introduction of hero and heroine involving heroine being pulled up onto horse and forced to cling closely to rock-hard-muscled hero as they gallop to rescue of hero’s uncle who is caught in a dangerous current in his borrowed sailboat. (This is the life-changing thing which Cadi saw from the cliff.) Bonus first-meeting episode: as Cadi, her father, and the hero row out to the rescue, the bodice of Cadi’s dress rips, leaving her lily-white skin exposed in a rather delicate area, and causing the hero to take a deep breath and force his gaze away, manfully resisting the surge of testosterone this incident inspires. Predictably, hero’s taciturn silence is misunderstood by heroine – “He thinks I am below his notice!” Oh, no, darling, that ain’t it.
  • Villain – check!  Disguised variety. Cadi’s Italian relation, Count Chiavelli, who is surprisingly warm and welcoming to the little English chit who is apparently going to bump him from both his title and his fortune – unless, of course, she can be enticed into a marriage with the Count’s weak-natured son – shows another side to his nature as this plan fails to advance.
  • Hero’s Sidekick – not at all stupid, though a slight social inferior, the Sidekick keeps things moving by his unexplained presence at key points of the saga. He is eventually assisted in his efforts by Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, as they join forces to assist Hero in rescue of Virginal Maiden from the Villain’s foul clutches.
  • Ruffians – check! The Villain has a full complement of brutish henchmen, but as bad guys in gothic novels are always slightly slower (and much more stupid) than good guys, these particular ruffians are continually foiled by the Hero, Sidekick and Maiden.
  • Lawyers – These People of Social Authority – we have an English and an Italian version – are in general full of good intentions and quite helpful to Heroine, though they are completely hoodwinked by the Villain. I would like to put forward that a too-trusting lawyer = weakness, so this element is included, albeit in a very minor role.
  • The Forced Marriage – The Virgin is pressured to marry the Villain’s weak-willed son, in order for the Villain to get his hands on the fortune the Virgin is coming in for, and also to keep the title in the family.
  • The Setting – Gorgeous settings, full points for those. We start out in a humble cottage in a little Cornish fishing village – towering sea cliffs above it, treacherous currents swirling offshore – progress to turn-of-the-century London as the heroine is adopted by the beneficent and wealthy family whose patriarch she helped save back in chapter one, and end up in Italy in a gloomy Venetian palazzo, with a final nighttime chase scene by boat through mist-shrouded canals.
  • The Secret – Hmmm, aside from the confusion around the true nature of the Hero-disguised-as-Villain, the only other secret of major import was that Granny was almost murdered by the Villain’s sister, and that honestly came as no surprise, being telegraphed strongly right from chapter one. Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity was also something of an obvious twist, and quite wonderfully similar to the same figure as depicted in Cousin Kate. (Do we need to add him to our list of shared elements?)

My verdict: A better-than-average modern gothic, and an excellent first-novel-in-the-genre by – drumroll! – a male author writing under a female pseudonym.

For “Madeleine Brent” was actually Peter O’Donnell, British mystery novel and comic strip writer, and creator of the pop culture character Modesty Blaise.

O’Donnell’s publisher, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, pleased by the success of O’Donnell’s thrillers, asked his author to try his hand at writing gothics under a female pseudonym. The Madeline Brent novels were a decided success, and Peter O’Donnell eventually wrote nine. All are set in the Victorian or immediately post-Victorian era, and feature young women in exotic locations seeking the truth about their identity. O’Donnell’s authorship was kept secret until after the publication of the last one, Golden Urchin (featuring a Caucasian girl raised in isolation from mainstream society among Australian Aborigines), in 1986.

An interesting side-note, this revelation of the gender of the author, and one which sheds some light on the structure of the Tregaron’s Daughter. Do I dedict a technically-minded male slant in – just one example – the inclusion of the details about construction of gondolas which allow them to be operated from one side by a single person?

Great details in the setting throughout, and the action was well maintained. The plot was (predictably) groaningly predictable, but my interest was held despite the lack of surprises. Good job, Mr. O’Donnell!

nine coaches waiting by mary stewart 1958 001Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart ~ 1958. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01439-3. 317 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Now this is how you write a gothic! Mary Stewart, after her previous year’s rather dire first attempt, 1957’s Thunder on the Right, pulls up her authorial socks and takes another run at the genre, this time succeeding brilliantly.

Chicago Review Press blurb:

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant—his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma—though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

  • Virginal Maiden – Check! Our heroine Linda is indeed young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And orphaned, too, which should really be one of the traits listed alongside young, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. No mysterious past, unless one counts Linda’s own concealment of her French heritage in order to pass for a strictly-English governess as required by her new employer.
  • Older Woman – Check! Elegant Madame de Valmy, who acts as an extra set of eyes and legs for her wheelchair-bound spouse, brings Linda into the household and complicates the plot by her alternating moments of warm we’re-all-women-here-together friendliness and cold putting-the-help-in-her-place slap-downs to our heroine.
  • Hero – Check! We actually have a choice of two Heroes, either or both possibly of the disguised variety, and in the interests of not spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t read this, I will not say any more. Just that both are perfectly perfect for their chosen roles, and I was up in the air guessing as to which one was going to be the ultimate winner of the lovely Linda’s heart.
  • Villain – Check! The debauched old nobleman now confined to his wheelchair, of course. And he is masterful at disguising his True Evil Nature, though our heroine catches a disturbing gleam in his eye when he looks at his hapless nephew, the young Heir to the Family Fortune who has tied up the riches which the Villain would like to further his own ambitions.
  • The Servants – Linda finds herself associating with several useful servant-figures who fill her in on all the gossip and aid in her attempts to discover why her young charge, The Endangered Heir, is having so many close brushes with death. We have a chatty English housekeeper, who came to France some decades ago, and a sprightly local maid who has rather tragically (but usefully, as he drops some hints which can then be related to the heroine) fallen in love with the Wicked Henchman.
  • Wicked Henchman – One is indeed in residence, and he is secretly under the control of the Villain.
  • The Setting –  Time: The early 1950s. Place: A vast French château, isolated from all neighbours and tucked away in its own private forest among the craggy hills of the High Savoy in France. A steep, narrow, twisting road leads to the château, ideal for those sorts of engineered “accidents” where one’s automobile brakes unexpectedly fail, or where a pedestrian can be “inadvertently” run down on a one-lane bridge over a rushing torrent.
  • The Secret – How far will someone go out of personal and family pride, and for love for a piece of land?

This is one of the very best of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Decidedly well written, with abundant clever humour, and an ongoing literary thread as revealed in the title, for the Nine Coaches Waiting reference comes from a rather obscure Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which a poor but pure and beautiful young woman is tempted with the luxuries of palace life to yield up her virtue.

The parallels between the Tourneur scenario and the Mary Stewart gothic are not particularly apt, but as a poet’s daughter herself (did I mention that bit? – I don’t think I did) our heroine in the novel is of course a highly imaginative (and literate) type, and the snippets of the play included by Mary Stewart are most intriguing and set the mood of rushed passion and moral unease very well indeed.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now
Quicken when they are eaten…
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting – hurry – hurry – hurry –
Ay, to the devil…

My verdict: Hands down, Nine Coaches Waiting was the best of these three novels, but they all had their moments, and are all nice diversions for those times when one doesn’t want to think too hard, and wishes to recapture those long-ago (for many of us – I know a number of my regular readers are my generational compatriots) days of teenage summer reading, wrapped up in these darkly sensuous – but really quite chaste, kisses being as far as our heroines go – gloriously suspenseful, absolutely predictable romances.

(Ha! Grammar police, sort out that last paragraph. I dare you! It boggles me, rather, but I will let it stand, as a challenge to those of you who would perhaps like to dissect it and see of it actually works.) 😉

Read Full Post »

the gabriel hounds coronet mary stewartThe Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart ~ 1967. This edition: Coronet, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-04353-9. 256 pages.

Oh. My. Goodness. This was utterly over-the-top, and if it had been written by anyone lesser (say Phyllis A. Whitney) I would have savagely panned it. But I’ve now embraced this author fully, and therefore completely forgave her the bizarre plot and the very weird and unlikely “drugging” scenes. (And the slightly ick-inducing cousinly love.)

Drum roll, please (or you may substitute the snarl of an accelerating Porsche engine here) …

My rating: 9.5/10

Loved it.

Okay, this isn’t even going to be a “proper” review, because I want you to come to it with no idea of where the plot would go, like I did. I will instead throw out these teasers. This story contains:

  • A lovely, unapologetically wealthy, 22-year-old sophisticated world traveller as the heroine.
  • An eccentric old lady who has completely channeled Lady Hester Stanhope and has created her own legend in a decaying Lebanese castle.
  • A ne’er-do-well young Englishman, handsome and intelligent but fatally weak-willed, who has gotten into a situation very much over his head; perks being the privilege of enjoying the favours of a dusky local maiden and galloping about the countryside on a beautiful Arab horse, accompanied by two gorgeous saluki hounds.
  • A scene in which the heroine unwittingly (???) smokes three “marihuana” cigarettes and only succumbs to their “self-will erasing effect” until the end of the third one, after which she is unable to walk and is carried away giggling.
  • A dastardly villain who eventually confesses absolutely EVERYTHING in a long, rambling monologue.
  • A handsome young man who can scale steep cliffs (and crumbling castle walls) without benefit of climbing gear, and who (bonus feature!) drives a white Porsche 911 S with utter aplomb and finesse.
  • Oh, and a fabulously unique and valuable ruby ring, which no one of the evil-doers seems to be able to recognize for what it is. (Among other priceless heirlooms which they casually dismiss and bundle away as “junk”. Hmmm, not quite as sophisticated as all that, then, these out-for-the-main-chance types.)

There. How can one resist all of that? And there’s more. Oh yes, much, much more!

Enjoy!

Couldn't find a white Porsche 911 S, but here's a 1966 in an elegant shade of sand, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How'd you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

Couldn’t find a white 1966 Porsche 911 S, but here’s one in an elegant shade of cream, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How’d you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

 

Read Full Post »

the wind off the small isles mary stewart 001The Wind Off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart ~ 1968. This edition: Musson, 1968. Illustrated by Laurence Irving. Hardcover. 96 pages.

Provenance: Montreal Books (ordered via ABE), October 2013. Purchased after warm recommendation by fellow reader Susan.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ve been saving this book for just the right time, and, upon hearing of the recent death of its author, now seemed perfectly appropriate.

It was enjoyable, to be sure, and one which will join the others of Mary Stewart’s best on my re-read shelf, though it was unsatisfying in its brevity – there seemed so much more possible to do with these characters, almost as though it were a rather incomplete first draft of a longer novel.

This slender work is very much a vignette; a lead-up-to and description of an incident. Beyond the violent action of the climactic episode-of-peril, most of what goes on is friendly conversation between the four main characters: two very different writers and their young assistants.

Perhaps this is completely intentional? Danielle, in her long and exceedingly well thought-out must-read post on this novella on her marvelous (and perhaps now moved-on-from?) blog, The Romantic Armchair Traveller, has this to say.

In an essay published in 1973 Mary Stewart calls The Wind Off The Small Isles “a kind of coda” to the ten gothic and romantic suspense novels that precede it and “a bridge” to The Crystal Cave, her first historical novel (“Teller Of Tales” in Techniques Of The Selling Writer, edited by A. S. Burack, p.42). Now that I have finally had a chance to read the book, I think I can see what Stewart means. A novella of less than a hundred pages, The Wind Off The Small Isles can be inhaled in one quick, casual sitting. But in doing so one risks overlooking the allegory hidden within the simple story of lovers lost and found. For this is Mary Stewart’s dialogue with her own work, a meditation on the writer’s craft and a summing up of her philosophy.

This is reportedly the rarest of the Mary Stewart works. I have seen mention that it was originally published as a “feature novella” in a magazine – either (or perhaps both) Redbook or Good Housekeeping – but the promotional blurb on the book jacket inclines me to thinking that it was written as a stand-alone book, albeit a very short one. Never published in book form in the United States (ah! – perhaps that is why it appeared in the American magazine(s) instead) it is rather rare in the vintage book trade. Sadly so, for my edition is a physically lovely thing, beautifully illustrated by Laurence Irving and printed on thick, cream-coloured, heavily textured paper. A pleasure to handle and a definite enhancement of the short story.

From the jacket flyleaf:

Mary Stewart’s new story is lit with the special magic of people and of place that are the hallmarks of a famous author’s best work. In a series of deft brushtrokes she brings her heroine, Perdita—a beautiful twenty-three year old—to vivid life. A secretary to the redoutable children’s novelist, Cora Gresham, Perdita’s job carries her to the Canary Islands in search of local colour for a new masterpiece, and a peaceful house in which to write it.

But the house is already occupied—once by the past, and the haunting memory of what happened there a century ago; and now by its present owners—very much alive—a famous playwright and his research assistant, Michael. In the fierce beauty of the volcanic landscape, in the persons of Perdita and Michael, past and present meet, violently. The weird, semi-deserted island of Lanzarote is the scene for the collision which reshapes the lives of the young lovers, as it did a hundred years ago.

The Wind Off the Small Isles, for all its brevity, is complete and quintessential Mary Stewart. It is a book to read and re-read.

What a dramatic build up to what turns out to be a rather slight, rather thoughtful, perhaps not particularly dramatic story, though we do indeed have two sets of lovers in deadly peril, and a climactic action scene to cap off the gentle set-up. Well, three sets of lovers, really, if you count the couple in Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes, which provides a rather good framing device and some appropriate chapter-heading excerpts. (Click image to enlarge to reading size.)

the wind off the small isles excerpt mary stewart 001

The most unusual element in this particular story is that while we have all of the other romantic-suspense standards – the lovely heroine and strong hero united in a situation of peril which throws them (literally in this case) into each others arms, absolute lashings of coincidence – we have no villain, no nefarious plot, no sinister complications with other characters. The danger comes from the setting itself, which is the evocatively depicted closest-to-Africa of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote, at the point in time when it was just starting to be developed into the tourist destination it is today, all super-civilized posh resorts set amidst a starkly contrasting natural setting.

Mary Stewart writes setting brilliantly, and the complex beauty of the bleak volcanic landscape is perfectly portrayed; searching out images of the places she described brought an instant nod of recognition. (I also spent a ridiculous amount of time off on a rabbit trail started by the references in the book to the cochineal industry which flourished on Lanzarote in the 1700s and 1800s; I had of course heard of the famous red dye produced by tiny insects, but was not familiar with the actual details. Quite amazing!)

The characters are instantly recognizable as well, for we’ve met them many times before in the vintage novels of Mary Stewart, Helen MacInnes, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and others of this writerly sisterhood.

The two older writers are well-respected (and rather lionized by their respective “publics”), financially secure, exceeding well-read and exceptionally well-travelled (those necessary “collecting local colour” excursions, don’t you know!); as much at home in their exotic writers’ retreats as they are in their English country cottages and New York brownstone walk-ups.

Their assistants – the equivalent of today’s young literary interns, though perhaps rather more generously financially compensated – are merely younger version of their employers. They combine athleticism and adventurous spirit with intelligence; they are charmingly golden in their youthful promise, and the dreamy bit of me is so very jealous of each and every one of them – they do lead rather envious lives, at least on paper!

In other words, the mixture as so many times before, and even in this highly abbreviated form, happily worthy of keeping about for a dash of escape reading to liven up our own same-old same-old days.

Because of its rarity and costliness – and the fact that it is a very slight thing, not a “proper” novel – I can’t comfortably recommend that you try to acquire this book unless you are an absolute Mary Stewart fan and need to own every single thing she published. It will likely still be available in the Canadian and U.K. library systems, though probably hidden well back in the most obscure stacks. The Goodreads page mentions the existence of a scanned version taken from Redbook; read through the reviews for hints on how to access this. Good luck on the quest!

 

Read Full Post »

mary stewart

Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart

September 17, 1916 – May 9, 2014

************

Mary Stewart Obituaries – May 15, 2014

The Guardian and The Telegraph

This saddens me greatly, even though the announcement of the death of a woman of 97 is not to be unexpected.

Mary Stewart was a writer of great sensitivity to detail and abundant good humour; in the few short years I have been “tuned in” to her I have received immense pleasure from her books, and I am most definitely not alone.

Two of her books currently sit here on my desk waiting for their reviews, which will, when written, be enthusiastically favourable. They are Madam Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart’s first and fourth “romantic thrillers”, and alongside My Brother Michael and The Ivy Tree, well and away my stand-out favourites of the thirteen of her twenty-four books I have so far read. She is one of those writers whose work I now approach with great anticipation, opening each new-to-me book with a mind completely open to the adventure about to unfold. Comfort reading, to be sure – utterly perfect for taking one out of the troubles and travails of one’s here-and-now and into another place and time – and no bad thing.

Occasionally Mary Stewart causes me to raise a cynical eyebrow at her heroines’ unlikely escapes from certain death – what I personally term the “scrambling-across-precipitous-chateau-roofs-while-dodging-a-professional-assassin’s-bullets-and-not-losing-one’s-high-heels-or-irretrievably-ruining-one’s-favourite-leaf-green-linen-sheath-dress” school of literature – but I always forgive these, because I’ve become (mostly) reconciled to “the formula” – such as it is! –  and the majority of her writing is extremely intelligent, not to mention often poignant (consider all those tragically bereaved protagonists), usually humorous, and, occasionally, rather darkly sophisticated.

In her own words:

“Perhaps the commonest question of all is: ‘I suppose you have to have had all the experiences you describe?’ Considering the kind of thing that commonly befalls the heroines of my books, this always startles me a little. What sort of life do people imagine that I lead? The answer to that, of course, is that the word “imagine” means nothing to them, and to them one can hardly start explaining how imagination allows a writer to describe vividly something he has never done or seen. I personally have never been threatened with a gun while driving a racing Mercedes at ninety miles an hour. I have never been hunted with a fish-spear off the coast of Crete. I have never even been alone with a homicidal maniac on a Scottish mountainside. But I think I know how it would feel if I were. The place for truth is not in the facts of a novel; it is in the feelings.”

Literary Guild Review, August 1964

and

“[I] take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.”

“The story comes first and is served first…These novels are light, fast-moving stories which are meant to give pleasure, and where the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed. I am first and foremost a teller of tales, but I am also a serious-minded woman who accepts the responsibilities of her job, and that job, if I am to be true to what is in me, is to say with every voice at my command: ‘We must love and imitate the beautiful and the good.'”

“Teller of Tales,” in The Writer, Vol. 83, No. 5, May 1970

I am deeply indebted to those of my online book friends who encouraged me to more deeply investigate Mary Stewart these past few years, calling me out when I dismissively referred to her as “just one of those romance writers.” Their united enthusiasm made me take a closer look, and for that I am most humbly grateful.

Thank you, Mary Stewart, for the pleasure of your story-telling, and for the care and craftsmanship you invested in your work.

Rest in peace.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

rose cottage mary stewartRose Cottage by Mary Stewart ~ 1997. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-340-69560-9. 234 pages.

My rating: Honestly, all I want to give is a 4.5/10, upped to a 5 because it is Mary Stewart, and I will be looking for a copy to purchase and add to my collection of gentle books maintained for my mother’s perusal.

I feel absolutely rotten giving this low of a rating to a writer I have come to greatly enjoy, but it is an honest assessment of my reading experience. Rose Cottage is indeed a lovely story, a nostalgic journey into the past, and I do believe that the author meant it to reflect her own pleasant memories, dedicated as it is

To the gentle shades of Henry, George, Patsy, Nip, Rosy, Maudie and Muffin, and all the other friends whom I meet again in my stroll down Memory Lane.

But it was vaguely unsatisfying, and a bit too – dare I say it – mild, with an anticlimactic happy ending and love and flowers and reconciliatory kisses all round and even a kitten.

And how could one not love a kitten? Well, in this case, the kitten felt superfluous, the one adorable straw which caused this particular camel to sag at the knees and subsequently dock several points off the rating scale. Do I feel like a big old meanie discounting the kitten? Oh, yes, I do indeed. But I can’t, in all honesty, recant. Sorry, George-the-kitten.

And sorry, Mary Stewart. I’ve come to admire you greatly these past few months as I read my way through a selection of your novels. But Rose Cottage, though a sweet thing in its own way, is not representative of your work at its peak. It’s a step down and back, a lessening-off, a gentle coda to round off your life-long symphony of written words.

Looking back down the vista of years, Kathy (Kate) Herrick reminisces about the summer of 1947, when her life took an abrupt turn.

Kate was brought up in a tiny thatched cottage – Rose Cottage – attached to the estate where her mother (Lilias) and grandmother were employed as maid and cook. Kate’s mother lost her position when it was discovered that she had become pregnant; Kate has never been told who her unknown father is. Her grandfather dies, and sternly religious Aunt Betsy comes to stay. Aunt Betsy’s bitter disapproval of Kate’s mother’s “fall” results in Lilias leaving for parts unknown when Kate is only six. Some time later word comes that Lilias has been killed in a bus accident; Kate is effectively left an orphan.

Kate grows up in an atmosphere of combined love (Gran) and puritan repression (Aunt Betsy), and, when the war comes, it is not as much a break as it could be when Kate moves away, and then falls in love and marries a bomber pilot. Their short marriage is happy, but ends tragically when her husband is killed in action. Kate takes this in stride in her quiet way, and goes on to keep herself occupied with an interesting job in a plant nursery, though she has been left well-provided for in her late husband’s will.

Then, out of the blue, Kate gets an urgent phone call. Gran has been ill; she has something important she needs Kate to look after for her. Can Kate please come to Scotland, where Gran’s employers have migrated due to the requisition of their English house during the war, and hear what it’s all about?

Aunt Betsy has since died, and Gran’s old home, Rose Cottage, is due to be renovated and sold, but all of Gran’s things are still there. Could Kate please go and pack up Gran’s furniture and small treasures, including the family’s personal papers and the bits of sentimental jewelry and keepsakes hidden in a small wall safe?

So off Kate goes to her childhood home, where she immediately discovers that there has been a recent intruder. The wall safe, which was papered over and known only to household intimates, has been opened, and the contents are gone. Now who would ever have known the safe was there? And what did it really contain?!

Luckily one of Kate’s old school friends, handsome, still-bachelor Davey Pascoe, is more than happy to renew acquaintance with pretty Kate, and to help her solve the mystery.

Many worrisome coincidences and much foreboding evaporate into a purely domestic situation with a prosaically reasonable explanation, and everything is tied up very tidily indeed by the last page. Definitely a feel-good sort of read, a very meek and tame adventure despite the potential of the early events to be worked into something much more melodramatic.

I can’t help but wish there had been some more dramatic developments, even though those sorts of plot twists in Mary Stewart’s earlier novels sometimes made me roll my eyes with readerly disbelief. But I’ve become used to this sort of thing from this author, and her stepping away from drama left me feeling surprisingly let down.

Still and all, a nicely written and completely sweet story. One to give to one’s own granny for gentle entertainment over a nice cup of tea, if one’s relative is of the type to enjoy a non-challenging sort of tale with a blissfully happy ending.

Read Full Post »

the stormy petrel mary stewartThe Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart ~ 1991. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1991. Hardcover. ISBN:  978-0-688-11035-2. 176 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Short and refreshingly sweet, this pleasant contemporary romance reads like the author was in a confident and relaxed mood when she dashed it off. It’s smooth and seamless, and a fast and effortless read. I enjoyed it.

Twenty-seven-year-old Cambridge don Rose Fenemore is ready for a break from her busy life; as well as lecturing and tutoring, she is a published poet as well as a writer of popular science fiction – the poetry under her own name, the sci fi under a pseudonym. When she sees an ad for an “ivory tower” retreat, a cottage on a remote Scottish island, she is intrigued enough to convince her physician brother to join her there for a holiday. Crispin is an avid bird watcher and photographer in his rare free time, and he and Rose have a marvelous relationship, each allowing the other plenty of space on their trips together, but also happy companionship when their interests merge.

Off to the tiny (and apparently fictional) isle of Moila, then, where Rose finds a small community of welcoming villagers, a recently renovated seaside cottage, and a stunningly beautiful natural world. Steep cliffs, shingle beaches, a few sandy coves, stands of seagrass and wildflowers, tiny rockbound lochs, a ruined Iron Age stronghold (a “broch”), and an abundant population of seabirds, seals and otters all unite to make Moila a very special place indeed. The finest part of this likeable book is Mary Stewart’s very evident delight in describing all of the previous; if Moila is a fictional place, then it must be based on a reality which the author is very familiar with. Her descriptive prose has the authentic ring, from the scent of the sedums growing on the tumbled stones of the broch to the iniquities of the “Defenders of the Highlands”, the vicious clouds of biting midges which swarm in their thousands when the breeze dies down.

But no sooner has Rose settled into her quaint cottage than things begin to go sideways; her peaceful retreat is suddenly a hive of activity. Rose wakens one night to the sound of someone in her kitchen; and stumbling down to welcome her brother – she assumes he has unexpectedly arrived in the night – she finds a handsome and charming young man making tea as if he owns the place. Which, he claims, he does. Or did. The cottage was apparently his foster parents’, and he has no idea that they have moved away, as he himself has been out of touch in an unspecified location for several years. Many apologies and all the rest, but surely Rose will forgive his unwitting intrusion?

No sooner have Rose and the smooth-talking Ewen made tentative friends over tea than another young man tumbles in out of the rain. This arrival claims he is a camper chased out of his tent by the rising wind; he has seen the lights in the cottage and seeks refuge from the storm. He identifies himself as a visiting geologist, John Parsons, but there is something about the cold and calculating glances the two men exchange which suggests something may be up. Rose sensibly retreats to her room, leaving the two young men to make do as best they can on sofa and floor, and when she awakes to find them gone, she thinks she’s seen the last of them.

She hasn’t.

I admired this heroine. She is most sensible and cool as a cucumber when things begin to tumble down around her ears. She deeply appreciates the place she has found herself in, and her rhapsodies on nature are sincere and unsentimental. She is properly cynical regarding the things that require such a view, and her musings on integrity, artistic and otherwise, are well stated and generally spot on.

A slight novel, with little in the way of true suspense; we never really fear for our capable heroine, as emotionally and physically she proves she is able to fend for herself. The romance aspect is low key as well, but comfortably there; we don’t quite know where our characters are all going to end up, but we’re pretty sure at that last page that their futures bode well.

Bonus portrayals of Rose’s two visiting students, and an intriguing glimpse into Crispin’s world and his “his life-her life” marriage. What the author doesn’t follow up is as telling as what she includes.

Nicely done. Thank you, Mary Stewart.

Read Full Post »

thornyhold dj mary stewartThornyhold by Mary Stewart ~ 1988. This edition: Ballantine/Fawcett Crest, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-449-21712-4. 289 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Three-quarters of this romantic suspense novel was absolutely excellent; the promising plot evaporated just a little disappointingly in the concluding chapters, but on reflection my overall impression is favourable. It’s keeper, and it gets a very decent rating of 8/10 on my personal merit scale.

I do believe I am turning into a Mary Stewart fan; I’m feeling rather ashamed of my prior dismissal of this writer; I’m discovering that she is a more than competent writer; she has full control of her words, and I don’t believe I’ve yet to read an awkward phrase. She can write action scenes in vividly cinematic detail – see any of her romantic-suspense novels written between 1954 and 1976 – and accompany those with lyrical descriptions of the places where the action takes place. In a genre which encompasses some disappointingly sub-par stuff – Phyllis A. Whitney springs to mind for some reason, perhaps because I’ve been reading her this year too, and finding her sadly lacking – Stewart’s prose stands out. It’s not high literature, but it is well done, and most enjoyable to read. So I’m adding Mary Stewart to the shelf beside D.E. Stevenson and Georgette Heyer, as ones to track down, read with pleasure, and keep safe for future re-reads. Thank you, fellow internet book people, for giving me the nudge to explore these writers. You were more than right!

Mary Stewart’s heroines are uniformly well-drawn (so far every book I’ve read by her has been focussed on a leading female character), though they do always seem to share some characteristics. They are always good-looking, instantly attractive to men, and much prone to impulsive behaviour, with expected results. Each one of them does have her own personality, though, her own quirks and talents and weaknesses. The heroines are slightly interchangeable, perhaps – a test of a “stock” character is to imagine him or her in another of the author’s books – I could see Stewart’s young ladies managing quite well wherever they were placed within her fictional settings.

The heroine in Thornyhold is no exception, though the action in this low-key novel is confined to occasional verbal sparring. No drawn knives to avoid, no bullets to dodge, no trains to outrace, no rooftops to clamber over – our author at this point was likely ready to take a bit of an action-scene rest; Thornyhold was published in 1988, when Mary Stewart was a most respectable seventy-two.

Young Geillis – Gilly – Ramsay lives a lonely life, with an oddly assorted pair of parents.

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out. She dwindled from a potential Morgan le Fay into an English vicar’s wife, and ran the parish, as one could in those days – more than half a century ago – with an iron hand disguised by no glove at all. She retained her dominance, her vivid personality, a hint of cruelty in her complete lack of sympathy for weakness or incompetence. I had, I think, a hard upbringing.

Gilly grows up; her mother dies, and with the natural mourning there is some relief, for her mother was a difficult person to live under. Gilly abandons her University classes and settles in to housekeep for her father; when he dies in his turn, Gilly is twenty-seven, with no resources to fall back on, and no real idea of what her future holds. Then, lo and behold, on her return from her father’s funeral to the vicarage which she will soon have to vacate, she receives a letter informing her that her godmother, (her older cousin, also Geillis, after whom Gilly has been named) has died and has bequeathed to Gilly a small country house and a very small income. Along with the lawyer’s letter is a note to Gilly from Cousin Geillis, telling her that she will find “everything here that you have most wanted.”

Cousin Geillis was something of a pagan, rejecting the outward trappings of Christianity, which made things just the tiniest bit awkward with her uncle-in-law the vicar. Her neighbours in the country regard her as something of a white witch, with her knowledge of herbalism and her sometimes peculiar behaviour, not to mention her large cat – her familiar? – Hodge. Gilly herself has had occasion to note that her cousin has some unique powers, showing up now and then just when most needed to help her young namesake over emotional hurdles in her life, and on one memorable visit providing Gilly a fleeting glimpse into the future, via crystal ball.

So Gilly steps into the life her cousin has left waiting for her. Needless to say there are some twists in store, chief among them being her cousin’s neighbour, Mrs. Trapp, who seems more at home in Geillis’ house than she should be. She brings Gilly meals, and nags her about finding a certain handwritten notebook she claims Geillis would have wanted her to have, and behind her ready smiles Gilly glimpses a steel-trap disposition which is most unnerving.

And, being a romance, there does in due time appear a man. And because it is a Mary Stewart romance, the man in question is preceded by a charming young son, whom Gilly befriends with no idea at all that the friendship will lead to something much, much more.

There is a certain intensity in the first part of the book which was rather heart-rending; one wonders if some of it is autobiographical? Or perhaps it is just cleverly imagined. The lonesome child Gilly is nicely portrayed, though the tone is carefully unemotional; our narrator telling the story is Gilly herself, some seventy years onward, looking back from her (happy) old age.

With the escalating escapades of scheming Mrs. Trapp, the tale turns towards farce, with the ending sequence – concerning, among other things, a love potion gone awry – striking something of a frivolous note after the emotional seriousness of what has come before.

A well-written book in its way, and one I will no doubt return to when I want something not too challenging to pass an hour or two. Good reading for a waiting room or a journey; easy to pick up and put down; the limited number of characters and the straightforward storyline are easy to keep hold of even with frequent interruptions.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »