Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

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It has been a lovely month, with memories of Mary Stewart to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beloved author’s birth. Known for her groundbreaking fusion of mystery and romance set in exotic locales, Stewart is also widely adored for her interpretation of Merlin—and setting up of him as the main character—in her best-selling series, The Merlin Trilogy.

The Crystal Cave, first in the trilogy, provided for me an amazing transport into a new but old world, some of which I began to discuss last week, and continue today, below. This concludes our “Month of Mary Stewart” series as a small gift to the author’s memory, with long hope that all the characters she has brought to life will remain as bright sparks—Merlin’s favorite element—”clear and brightly colored.”

Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

And so there I stood, on a precipice between times, knowing I was about to launch forward into something entirely new, even though it wasn’t entirely new—it was to be my own experience of Merlin, mine, and Merlin, not so much Arthur, as my mother’s stories had always stressed, even when she spoke of the background tales, such as Tristan and Iseult’s romance or the brothers Balin and Balan, and of course, Galahad, Gawain and Lancelot.

Merlin as he appears with his mother before Vortigern, as he is about to gives prophesy of the two dragons (from Wace, Roman de Brut [a verse epitome], England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 24r( (click image)
Merlin as he appears with his mother before Vortigern, as he is about to give prophesy of the two dragons (from Wace, Roman de Brut [a verse epitome], England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 24r) (click image)

Inviting Merlin into my room and my life gave me greater views into worlds I had heretofore only seen in glimpses, and I began to write in greater earnest. I also begged my mother to deliver me upon the doors of every library she was willing to drive me to as I sought to collect any book remotely related to Merlin and Arthurian legends that our system owned. I think she knew she had opened these doors, for she never complained about the ferrying schedule and its frequent jaunts.

I actually did write about many other topics beside Merlin, perhaps reflective of his own study of subjects in addition to magic. And it seemed to me like such magic that I could enter into the lives of so many other people who existed in other realms, unaware I was watching them. I even began to spy on ghosts, writing into my journal the secret passageways they traveled in order to pass through veils, mists dividing time and spheres.

I had been writing poetry for some time and the epigraph at the start of The Crystal Cave, Edwin Muir’s “Merlin”—

O Merlin in your crystal cave

Deep in the diamond of the day,

Will there ever be a singer

Whose music will smooth away

The furrow drawn by Adam’s finger

Across the memory and the wave?

Or a runner who’ll outrun

Man’s long shadow driving on,

Break through the gate of memory

And hang the apple on the tree?

Will your magic ever show

The sleeping bride shut in her bower,

The day wreathed in its mound of snow

and Time locked in his tower?

 —and Stewart’s magician gave me the courage to directly address Merlin in my search for him in all these and other shrouded locales. He remains extant in a collective memory, my part of which sought him out, asking when, when, Merlin, will you unfurrow the world’s brow, or is the best part of any era—the “diamond of the day”—long gone, accessible only to you? Will you breach Time, will anybody ever be able to move fast enough to greet you, accompany you into the world we have now and in which we need your healing arts?

I had always been a very creative child, so it came as no surprise that Merlin appeared in my dreams, and I woke once to write out the words, I seemed to sense him in his oaken shadow. I had detected him very close by and felt more as if I had been transported than dreaming, though conventionality dictated I chalk it up to what my mother labeled “a strong imagination.” Within it I explored what Muir calls the “gate of memory,” wanting to know what could be discovered in the shadows of our past experiences. In search of this and more, I wrote out thousands and thousands of words discovered, experimented with, targeted, discarded, twisted, conjured—all in a quest of sorts, to find this figure I knew I had encountered already.

I wrote Mary Stewart a letter and received a reply. Sadly, I no longer have the wonderful, typewritten return message, though I recall her encouragement of various interpretations of Merlin and best wishes with my own writing. Printed on House of Letterawe letterhead, it traveled the world with me for some time as I often pulled it out as part of my Merlin conversations with people intrigued by tales that swirled around their own memories, and I have been encouraged by how many are genuinely interested in not what is the past, but indeed our past.

“[T]he recent past is misted, while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly colored.”—Merlin, The Crystal Cave

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

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The Complete “Month of Mary Stewart”

Friday Night Flashback: The World of Mary Stewart

Review: Thunder on the Right

Review: Nine Coaches Waiting

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin

Review: The Crystal Cave

Review: A Walk in Wolf Wood

Image of the Week: The Hollow Hills

Review: The Prince and the Pilgrim

Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

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We ♥ Mary Stewart

Month of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)
Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)

I have never encountered any reader who did not adore Mary Stewart’s gothic mystery, Nine Coaches Waiting. From the author who invented the suspense-romance, this universally admired classic is often referenced as the favorite of all Stewart novels. Literary allusions seamlessly sewn into the narrative, each chapter is headed by an epigraph bringing deeper meaning and connection to events within.

It is not long into the tale when Linda Martin, just arrived in Paris to serve as governess to the young and newly-orphaned heir to Château Valmy, reflects on the draw to her assignment, simultaneously embedding observers in a close read and unwittingly receiving a glimpse into events ahead. Though she dismisses her remembered poetic reference as inappropriate to the moment, her insight into significance behind the novel’s title is telling.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace:

Securèd ease and state, the stirring meats,

Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now

Quicken when they’re eaten. . . .

Banquets abroad by torch-light! music! sports!

Nine coaches waiting — hurry, hurry, hurry —

Ay, to the devil. . . .

Having also lost her parents at an early age, Linda is returning to her mother’s homeland, where she herself was raised until taking up residence in an English orphanage. As an adult she is recruited to the governess position, contingent upon her Englishness, for Léon and Héloïse de Valmy want young Phillipe to perfect his English language skills. She conceals her French fluency from the uncle and aunt, later chalking up her tension at their first meeting to her keeping a secret from them.

Her wariness, however, persists as she is unable to shake a feeling of menace. Léon comports himself with a strange brand of arrogance and soundlessly rolls through the estate in his wheelchair. Héloïse is aloof, with a “chilly elegance” that sets Linda into an inexorable state of second guessing herself. Thankfully she and her charge, the nine-year-old Comte de Valmy, develop a good rapport and, in fact, we see his growing attachment to and somewhat dependence upon Linda, for he is not only a lonely little boy but also one deeply disattached from his uncle and aunt. Linda reasons that his bereavement surely plays a role in this, until an accidental shot fired at Phillipe during a walk in the forest results in a near miss that Linda begins to contemplate might not have been so accidental.

Through the novel Stewart’s trademark descriptive powers are in full evidence, leading us from one occurrence to the next on a narrative as flowing and verbally picturesque as the settings she describes. When Linda is invited to the Easter Ball and gathers the courage to attend, she admires the dress she has sewn; the natural world is threaded through Stewart’s portrait of her gaze, fractal light references indicating Linda’s spirits, the mood, possibilities.

The long window curtains mirrored behind me were of rose-colored brocade. The lighting was lovely. As I moved I saw the gleam of the cobwebbed silver thread shift and glimmer through the white cloud of the skirt the way sunlight flies along blown gossamer.

Stewart also engages her protagonist in a budding romance, albeit one that defers to the central mystery as the novel’s primary focus. We see Linda initially becoming attached and the relationship develops, though as events play out we can never be sure where Raoul’s motives position him, or of his explanations for his actions. The suspense becomes wound so tightly that by the end, no matter what readers may have suspected regarding this character, the end results nevertheless come as a twist because it always could have gone either way. Being the consummate master that she is, Stewart utilizes character self-reflection as technique to turn the screw.

Wikimedia Commons (click image)
Wikimedia Commons (click image)

The characters of Nine Coaches Waiting are drawn to the era of the then-contemporary novel, set in the 1950s, and as a result readers will find some interaction that dates the work. At one point Linda refers to herself as “only a woman,” though it is set in a passage in which she remonstrates herself and may be employing a bit of sarcastic self-reflection.

Curiously, however, Stewart periodically engages postmodernist technique within character interaction, such as by noting Mrs. Seddon’s accent in her pronunciation of Rowl—in a manner noted only by readers and Linda; she herself is unaware. Linda, in concealing her ability to speak French, places her awareness in the minds of others in order to perceive herself as they do, and remember not to acknowledge what she has heard.

As Linda’s initially guarded response to the de Valmy clan transitions into distrust, suspicious behavior elevates and unexplained accidents continue. The young governess must face the terrifying consequences of remaining at the isolated château with her charge or find a way out, and work out if the man she loves is who she should be running from.

As with Thunder on the Right, Nine Coaches Waiting is a blast from my past, and the thrill I felt as events began to heat up was no less enthusiastic this time round. Perhaps more than any other of her many novels, Stewart’s background in literature is quite evident in this one: the literary snippets throughout foreshadow events and reflect the young woman’s thought processes. Linda is compared to Jane Eyre and Cinderella, and she hearkens back to her earlier ruminations on The Revenger’s Tragedy when she inwardly contemplates Léon de Valmy as the Demon King (and hears him refer to himself as the fallen Lucifer). That the author can effectively manage a sweep through centuries of poetry and prose while remaining true her plot strengthens the story and is a testament to the mastery that even today continues to mesmerize and gain new readers as they discover the magic that is Mary Stewart.

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

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Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with the “Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin” and a review for The Crystal Cave.

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries. 

Month of Mary Stewart: Thunder on the Right

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

I first read Thunder on the Right at a fairly early age (11) and recall enjoying the book quite a lot. Shortly before my recent re-read, however, I had to confess I remembered very little of the plot. As I settled in for my re-visitation I wondered how much would catch my attention in “drifts of memory” beckoning from the pages.

thunder on the rightI was surprised to learn that the one utterance I thought I recalled, on the part of the protagonist, did not actually occur—although I could pinpoint the spot I must have been thinking of and which settled into my brain erroneously. Apart from that, none of it seemed familiar, actually a positive circumstance because it enabled me to approach the novel from an almost-first-time reader’s perspective with very little bias.

The caveat I will throw out here, though, is that while I deliberately avoid reviews of books I plan to write about, I hadn’t planned or avoided in this case—not last year when I had been wading through books read in the past and threads regarding what others made of them. Lucky for me, I read reviews with a grain of salt, given how utterly opposite so many predictions have been as regard actual outcomes.

As it turns out, I enjoyed Thunder on the Right as much or more than I did as an eleven-year-old child. In truth, likely more, owing to greater understanding of certain references—“Velasquez getup” and “Roland’s great sword Durandel,” e.g.—and ways of the world. As our story begins to roll, within the “Academic Overture” Stewart utilizes to position the acting out of a dramatic performance, readers are given to understand that protagonist Jennifer Silver’s mother embodies the traits of a parent who today might be labeled “helicopter.” “[W]ith [an] unswerving devotion to the standards of a fading age,” she restricts her only child from much life has to offer under the guise of speaking what she believes Jennifer is too timid to do. For her own part, Jennifer is easygoing and quietly reserved. Together “[m]other and daughter got on very well indeed, with a deep affection founded on almost complete misunderstanding.”

At 22, the well-educated but inexperienced Jennifer makes a sojourn to post-war France, where she plans to meet up with her cousin Gillian, who for a time lived with the Silvers following the deaths of her parents in one of the first air raids. She meets up with Stephen, a suitor rejected by her mother just before a two-year study stint, now come to “claim” her, a circumstance Jennifer is unaware of, though not Professor Silver, her father.

Jennifer finds herself enlisting Stephen’s aid subsequent to her first visit to the convent in the Pyrenees, where the widowed Gillian had been staying—and possibly planning to join. Having met with one of the resident orphans and the convent’s bursar, Doña Francisca, the young visitor learns that Gillian had indeed been there, though as a patient following a motor vehicle accident and pneumonia, and had died two weeks earlier. The strangeness of the place, Doña Francisca’s odd demeanor and dodgy response to Jennifer’s appearance, and the sum of reported events not adding up all combine to spur the suspicious Jennifer to investigate.

Initially skeptical, Stephen plays along until events wind up and the fate of poor Gillian is at last confirmed. In Stewart’s groundbreaking style, mystery is joined by romance as the pair become close, noted even by our protagonist, who chides herself for repeatedly “running into Stephen’s arms.” Nevertheless, strong and determined, Jennifer performs her sleuthing as she follows, eavesdrops, noses around and pays attention, eventually drawing a conclusion that now requires the hardest part: follow up. As danger intensifies, so too does the thematic thunder of the title, initially present but aloof. The tension rises as the self-aware nature of the two main characters sparks fears that this play will ultimately end as a tragedy.

One critique of Thunder on the Right is that it has adjective overload and that at least portions of its plot are predictable. In truth, Stewart probably could have made her prose less descriptive heavy and it still would have come out a marvelous story. However, I wouldn’t agree the adjectives add too much weight, and in fact find her descriptive prose stirring and sometimes magical. At her first visit to the convent, Jennifer waits in the unmoving heat of a silent moment:

A grasshopper, leaping across her shadow, spread parasol wings of palest powder-blue and the tiny lizard that flicked across the baked stone seemed part of the same enchantment that hung around her in the stillness.

thunderI would concede the possibility of a predictable reveal, though Stewart did keep me guessing as there was at least one other eventuality to consider. Moreover, there are many more instances of intrigue, action and circumstance that potentially throw up roadblocks to assumptions, and the shifting nature of the thunder’s presence, with characters seeking its location on the right—nod to an ancient omen and the eastward positioning of a tempest now past—leaves readers wondering, with perhaps not a few jitters, what danger it might really be signaling.

As Stewart moves her narrative along readers get a sense of musical accompaniment to pair with “Tragic Overture: stringendo,” or “Danse Macabre” and other chapter titles reflecting events within. As murder becomes a tool to enable continued criminal activity, the thunder is mirrored in betrayals, facial expressions, dangerous waters … a memento mori for all involved, no matter how, in the chilling underworld of the darkly ambitious.

One of my favorite passages in the book serves as part of this linkage, in many instances so subtly placed:

It was a swift beat, accelerando, that thudded behind her, up the turf of the valley track, bringing with it that faint crawling sense of excitement, that slow apprehensive prickling of the skin that is our inheritance from countless long-dead men to whom the sudden sound of galloping hooves spelled danger.

Here Stewart brilliantly captures an involved, collective response sharply, concisely, the rhythm of our own blood beating in time with the musical pieces she summons as we “watch” this story play out, simultaneously becoming part of it. She masterfully manages the multiple threads running throughout, all the while keeping the suspense element dominant over a developing romance. An end result is a thrilling race against time as Jennifer searches for the questions to ask and the answers to lead her forward.

While not the most well-received of Stewart’s novels, I still find this one drew me in and consider it an overlooked gem in Mary Stewart’s legacy. For those new to the author or who haven’t picked up her work in some time, Thunder on the Right is a spectacular choice with the twists, surprises and intrigue that will keep readers up far past bedtime.

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

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Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for Nine Coaches Waiting.

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Update: This post has been corrected to reflect its series title and add links to related entries.

Friday Night Flashback: The World of Mary Stewart

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.

madamWhile 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.

MyBrotherMichaelThe 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.”

airsStewart 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.

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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

Thunder on the Right.

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Works Consulted

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.

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Note: This post was updated to include a link to the next installment in the “Month of Mary Stewart” series.