January’s author-in-focus is Mary Stewart (1916-2014), who wrote romantic suspense novels, as well as a romantic fantasy series based on the King Arthur tales, and several children’s books. A year ago, a dozen of her romance novels found their way to my bookshelves, and last October I began reading them. Having finished 11 of them*, I take this final day of January to focus on what I loved — and didn’t love — about them.
Stewart, born in County Durham, the daughter of a vicar, began writing stories before she reached school age, and published her first poem at age 5 (in her father’s parish newsletter). An English major, after 1938 she taught various age-levels until her marriage in 1945 to a geologist from Scotland. After her first novel was published, she and her husband moved to Edinburgh, where she continued writing until her husband’s death in 2001.
There’s no question that Stewart’s books, although beautifully written and, I have to admit, enthralling, would be classed by many as “escapist” fiction. Stewart felt no shame in that description of her books. According to the Mary Queen of Plots blog, Stewart was convinced there is a place for such work, as a refuge against the realities of everyday life, against what she described as some people’s version of facing reality: “doing the washing up or cleaning the drains or watching scarifying TV documentaries about the vilest aspects of human nature”. Ironically, those vile aspects appear in many of these stories, but that’s a minor cavil.
Regarding the value of escapist literature, I agree with Stewart, especially since her own writing is not just enjoyable, but masterful. Her descriptions of woods and rivers, farms and fields, cities and villages, castles and barns — all so natural and full of sounds, scents, colors and motion, I’m convinced that Stewart has been to the places she describes — from Northumberland near Hadrian’s Wall, south to the Pyrenee Mountains, the vineyards of Provence, the Alps of France or Austria, further south to Crete, and then east to Damascus and Syria. (She might well have visited these places with her husband, while he conducted geological research.)
Strong on plots as well, Stewart knew how to start gently but then move quickly into the central mystery. Red herrings are everywhere, but also carefully planted clues, with some surprises in her plots, misdirections that lead to stunning twists, weather and terrain that help or hinder the heroine, people not who they first appear to be. There is violence, and a couple of her heroines are beaten up, but the violence makes sense given the various characters’ motivations. There are also some thrilling chase scenes involving cars, or boats, or even a cog-wheel train up an Austrian alp. Everything happens quickly, and within a week all is resolved, with villains exposed and carted away, and the happy couple united and ready to lead what I assume will be a quiet life.
Each book features a strong, intelligent and brave young woman who meets and falls in love with a man she soon learns is already deep in some mystery. Could be a troublesome relative about to die, with an estate to dispose of; could be missing jewels or smuggled art work; could be murder planned (of a child, no less!), or murder already committed. She might initially believe the man is a villain, but fall for him anyway (Why?) and spend several chapters wondering is he? or isn’t he? (Invariably, he isn’t.)
What makes me cringe is how each heroine suddenly becomes helpless and weak, wishing her love would come get her out of this mess, and then grateful because he comes just in the nick of time to rescue her (or, in one case, just after a horse beans the villain before he can kill her). These women seem to melt, turning soft and almost gooey. The heroes, in turn, become even more manly (i.e., protective and bossy) as they fall in love with the heroine. It’s almost sad to watch these strong women stand back and let the men handle things. One heroine explains, as she and the hero are closing in on the villains, “It was not simply that as a man he wasn’t prey to my kind of physical weakness and fear … He was, quite positively, enjoying himself.” (my italics) Another notes how she no longer resents the hero bossing her around, watching herself fall more deeply in love with him as he takes charge and tells her to stand back.
I don’t even want to think what that’s all about.
Final assessment: I’ve enjoyed these books, and I’m holding on to them for now, but I may send them to a Little Free Library later this year. Except for The Moonspinners. It was the first Mary Stewart novel I read, soon after the movie came out in 1964, and I still love it, despite the tiresome weakening of the heroine towards the end.
*Novels read for this review (with US publication dates): Madame, Will You Talk (1955), Wildfire at Midnight (1956), Thunder on the Right (1957), Nine Coaches Waiting (1958), My Brother Michael (1959), The Ivy Tree (1961), The Moonspinners (1962), This Rough Magic (1964), Airs Above the Ground (1965), The Gabriel Hounds (1967), and Touch Not the Cat (1976).
Want to read more about Mary Stewart? Check out Mary Queen of Plots, an extensive blog with answers to nearly every question you could think of. This is where I found reference to Stewart’s comments about writing escapist books.