Thursday, 15 May 2014

What Mary Stewart Means To Me


It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove that started it.
This single sentence, the opening line from The Moonspinners, sums up what Mary Stewart means to me. The to-die-for sense of place expressed in just a few skilful words. The delicious hint of adventure and romance. The promise of a glorious few hours, curled up with one of my favourite authors, oblivious to the outside world. I read Mary Stewart's books over and over again, and every time, I'm transported to that precious state where nothing else matters except what I am reading.

Mary Stewart wrote romantic suspense before the genre had a name. To me as a teenager her books were adventure mixed with love and sprinkled with humour and I didn't see how the combination could possibly be bettered. (This also held true for Georgette Heyer whom I discovered at roughly the same time.) Even now, I have only to think of any Mary Stewart book and I am there. The novels come as a whole package: sights, sounds, smells. To add to the immediacy, all but one are written in the first person, so when I experience the narrative, I do so from within the heroine's skin.

My first Mary Stewart novel was Airs Above the Ground. I read it at age 12 or 13 and was hooked by her style and her voice. My all-time favourite is Touch Not the Cat, an unashamed love story with a paranormal thread. But it is her Hellenic books - This Rough Magic (1964), The Moonspinners (1962) and My Brother Michael (1959) - that captured my heart all those years ago and caused me to fall in love both with her and with Greece.

Nowadays, of course, everyone has been on holiday abroad, but at that time affordable foreign travel was in its infancy so the authors writing about Provence or Morocco or the many regions of Greece were opening their readers' eyes to a whole new world. Certainly that was how it worked for me. This Rough Magic is set on Corfu, The Moonspinners is based in Crete and My Brother Michael - perhaps the most starkly beautiful of all her books - takes place near Delphi in mainland Greece. In it the hero says, "Everyone has two countries: his own - and Greece", and such is Mary Stewart's skill that that is exactly how I felt on reading the books, despite never having been there. A lot later I went to Greece myself and felt at home from the moment of getting off the plane; the warm air, the bright curiosity of strangers, the terrain, the voices - it was all so much as I expected that I ached with the joy of being there.

The majority of Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels can be loosely described as the story of a young woman stumbling on adventure and finding romance along the way. The landscape, whether at home or abroad, is always part of the story. I love the way she arranges darkness and humour, description and dialogue, passion and the commonplace, into a perfect whole. Light reading these books may be, but she isn't afraid of strong emotion: Nine Coaches Waiting, for example, contains some heartbreaking moments of self-sacrifice.

It is My Brother Michael that moved me the most, however. Pure chance causes Camilla Haven to deliver a hire car to Simon Lester, who is in Delphi to discover the truth about his brother Michael's death towards the end of World War II. Mary Stewart described the book as her love affair with Greece. Her affection and respect for the country and its people shines through and imprints itself indelibly on the consciousness. That was the first point. The second was that My Brother Michael introduced me to John Donne. What a thing to do to an impressionable teenager besotted with words and their rhythms! In particular Mary Stewart quotes Donne's 'No man is an island' passage and uses it to describe the hero. And he is the final reason that I fell in love with this book. Simon Lester. He is tough, fanciable, understated - and cares deeply. He is 'involved in mankind' as a matter of course. The sort of man a girl yearns to know is out there. The sort who spoils her for all others. Aragorn for the modern world.

Whether I would feel the same way now on finding Mary Stewart for the first time I don't know. I always think we are shaped by our reading, so I am the person I am because of discovering her in my teens. The fact remains that for me she has that rare gift - page-turning quality by the bagful. The best thing about being so familiar with her books is that now I can take my time enjoying each page without the what-happens-next need to rush on.

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The blog post above was one I contributed to Norman Geras's wonderfully wide ranging NORMBLOG. Many thanks to Adele Geras for agreeing to my republishing it here.

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I was incredibly sad to learn this week of Mary Stewart's death. As this post shows, I owe her a great deal, which is one reason that I dedicated FAIRLIGHTS to her. The other reason, of course, is simply that her writing is quite, quite awesome.
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11 comments:

Liz Fenwick said...

Wonderful post Jan x

Jan Jones said...

Thanks, Liz!

Jenny Harper said...

Jan, I so agree with you. I, too, have a shelf full of Mary Stewart novels, though I haven't reread them as much as you have! I won't part with them, though, as I part with other from time to time to make space for more...

I'd forgotten about the John Donne part. I didn't really discover Donne till I was at uni (but still a teenager) and yes, I was also smitten by his poetry. 'Busy olde fool, unruly sun. must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?' and 'I wonder, by my troth, what thou, and I, did till we lov'd?' - and many more. I also loved his epigrams: 'If in his Studie he hath so much care to hang all old strange things, let his wife beware.' Tee hee, still makes me laugh.

Mary Stewart is a great loss. I wish she'd managed to come to the RNA awards made at the Scottish Parliament.

Lovely tribute, thank you.

Jan Jones said...

Oh, yes, Jenny, wouldn't that have been wonderful! She'd never have got away for all of us surrounding her :)

And yes, those lines of Donne...

Karen said...

Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer were my favourite authors years ago, I remember rushing home one evening because I couldn't wait to finish My Brother Michael. The atmosphere Mary Stewart evoked with her writing was amazing - for a girl who'd never left Scarborough back then - and timeless. I've re-read several of her novels since, and probably will again :o)

Karen said...

*to* a girl who'd never left Scarborough... !

Jan Jones said...

I knew what you meant, Karen! And yes, I'd never been anywhere foreign so her writing to me really was like another country. Still beautiful now.

Natasha Hadleigh said...

What a lovely tribute to Mary Stewart and so tantalizing for anyone yet to read her. I read her for the first time only six years ago at the age of 48 when I was working in a second hand book shop and was struck by the sense of place and the immediacy of the writing. Now looking forward to reading Fairlights.

Jan Jones said...

Lovely to find another Mary Stewart fan, Natasha. I hope you enjoy Fairlights.

Lesley Cookman said...

Just found this, Jan, and you've been inside my head again. You conjured up exactly how I felt when I discovered her. Oddly, it was because I went to see the film of the Moonspinners and fell in love with Peter McEnery, so my parents bought me the book. That was it - hooked. Great post. (You should be a writer.)

Jan Jones said...

Goodness, Lesley, Peter McEnery. That's me fit for nothing for the rest of the day...