Readers of this blog know of my lifelong love affair with Merlin, in particular the version of him presented in Mary Stewart’s best-selling novel The Crystal Cave. However, I haven’t really mentioned Stewart’s other works so much—perhaps not at all— and this month is a wonderful time to rectify that, as it marks the 100-year anniversary of the novelist’s birth. Stewart’s bestselling novels were renowned for merging romance with mystery and suspense, and presented determined and capable heroines who didn’t shy away from dangerous situations.
While Stewart herself never endured any of the experiences her heroines did, she didn’t shy away from keeping on through adversity, adjusting when needed, but also grabbing life by the reins, taking chances on what she believed in.
Born September 17, 1916 to parents who cherished the spirit of adventure—her father was a vicar who sailed around Cape Horn and brought a New Zealand bride back home with him—Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a reader and writer from very early on, publishing her first poem at age five.
Following the end of World War II, she met the future Sir Frederick Stewart and distinguished geologist at a war victory celebration. The pair were married within three months, though it was not until 1953 that Frederick Stewart persuaded his wife to submit her first novel, Madam Will You Talk?, which was an immediate success.
A lover of Roman history, Stewart took full advantage of her husband’s travels to pursue observations of her settings, the details and research informing her novels, rich with descriptive landscape and natural environment. Despite its outdated use of semi-colons substituting for commas, the strength of her prose is such that it remains eloquent and mesmerizing. From My Brother Michael, set in Greece and on the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time:
All along the Pleistus—at this season a dry white serpent of shingle beds that glittered in the sun—all along its course, filling the valley bottom with the tumbling, whispering green-silver of water, flowed the olive woods; themselves a river, a green-and-silver flood of plumy branches as soft as sea spray, over which the ever-present breezes slid, not as they do over corn, in flying shadows, but in whitening breaths, little gasps that lift and toss the olive crests for all the world like breaking spray.
Thunder on the Right, set in the French Pyrenees—the first Stewart novel I ever read, at age eleven—is one she “detested and [was] ashamed of.” A criticism of the novel is its adjectives, though one reader counters this with her defense, remarking that she “always wonder[s] what people have against adjectives. To me they represent the difference between colour and black and white television.” It is also of note that certain activities in her books, such as smoking, a character often tossing the butt down and grinding it into the ground, frequently dates or diminishes the appeal of various works. However, Mary Stewart has invested so many other timeless and intriguing angles to reel readers in, that these images become more like time capsules into a world that was.
The author went on to publish a catalogue of other mystery romance novels and it is curious to note that her publisher didn’t even want anything to do with Merlin, when she broached the topic. “Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses.” Stewart herself confesses medieval times never appealed to her, though she had always wanted to write an historical novel. Upon reading through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain one day—she had no idea why she would be doing that—she found her story. Setting the medieval knight Arthur back in Roman Britain, and re-inventing Merlin—given his full name of Merlin Ambrosius, she wrote Ambrosius in to be the wizard’s father—she invented nearly all the series’ details, though writing the books one at a time. That is to say, she never set out to create a trilogy. In the end she felt Mordred had “been given a jolly hard deal as a character,” a perspective resulting in The Wicked Day, capping off the quintet.
Given the time in which Stewart wrote all her books, it is unsurprising she would have used a typewriter, though many fans likely don’t know the agony she endured to get it all done. Dictating and sending to a typist’s was the easy part—as were subsequent revisions, four in all. An ordinary portable “wrecked” her wrist, and at first she was terrified of a new electric. Later she developed spinal arthritis, but wrote through the agony, maintaining her sense of humor, quipping with a thematic link back to her war era mechanic qualification that “All this makes me sound like a proper old wreck. The chassis may be, but the engine is fine.”
Stewart also maintained a humility about her craft, stating that “You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the story teller’s flair or you don’t. It’s no virtue of mine. It’s just there.” Also not one for labels, she perhaps brushed off her status as a groundbreaker in the same way she did the stylization she acquired after her husband was knighted: Lady Stewart never used the title. However her work may have been categorized, she maintained, “To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written.”
It’s clear to me which one of these Mary Stewart’s books are, though she herself would likely just have repeated a previous plea: “Can’t I say I just write stories?”
Yes, dear lady, you certainly may. You wrote stories that captured the imagination of readers the world over and in subsequent generations who continue to drink up your words and hope you don’t mind that we kind of adore you. You are a writer’s writer, not threatened by an admission that you hadn’t the energy to pursue a particular idea, gracious in response to those inspired in their own work by yours, secure enough to have a chuckle at your own expense. It is in human DNA to want to hear a story, and you answered this call, thrilling us, keeping us on edge, making us guess. We have lost you in this world now, but you are there for all time.
Mary Stewart’s last book was Rose Cottage in 1997, and her beloved husband, Fred, passed away in 2001, after which she stopped writing, for he had always been her first reader.
Continuing the journey, I’d like to play my small bit by reviewing Mary Stewart through the month, which also will be a bit of reminiscing for myself. Each week I will revisit a novel with a brief review and commentary about how I remember reading them the first time. Tomorrow’s installment, for example, brings me back to a book that, when I picked it up recently, I knew I barely remembered. Re-reading it reminded me how our memories can play tricks, for I recalled a musing, on the part of the protagonist, that I seem to have invented! There is one scene that could be what stuck in my mind, however flawed the settling in was. Nevertheless the journey continues in earnest and I hope I can persuade you to re-visit or acquaint yourself with the world of Mary Stewart, which is sure to enchant yours.
A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.
“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for
Hauptfuhrer, Fred. “Novelist Mary Stewart’s a Lady, Like Antonia Fraser—by Title; and That Ends the Similarity.” People. September 6, 1976. Accessed August 31, 2016.
Hutchinson, Chris. “Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart: Doctor of Letters.” Durham University Honorary Degrees Speech. July 3, 2009. http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ceremonies/congregation/stewart_mary.pdf. Accessed August 31, 2016.
Page, Katherine Hall. “Mary Stewart: Teller of Tales.” Mystery Scene. mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2354:mary-stewart-teller-of-tales&catid=38:profile&Itemid=191. Accessed August 31, 2016.
Thompson, Raymond H. “The Camelot Project: Interview with Mary Stewart.” Robbins Library Digital Projects. April 14, 1989. d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/interview-with-mary-stewart. Accessed August 31, 2016.
Von Behren, Diana Faillace. “Stormy Locale Packs a Wollop.” Review of Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart. Amazon. amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R326X91CN955C9/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0060747463. Accessed August 31, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2002.
Note: This post was updated to include a link to the next installment in the “Month of Mary Stewart” series.