Recent Events

Thursday 18 June 2015

Heroic Heroines

An Appreciation of Mary Stewart
by Radmila May

The novelist Mary Stewart died in May 2014 at the age of 97. In her lifetime she published more than 40 novels and was a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Nearly all her novels are still in print, the most recent reprint being by Hodder & Stoughton, her original publishers, in 2011. She is credited with being the founder of the ‘romantic suspense’ genre which spans both romance and crime fiction although, having been a fan of her novels since her first, Madam, Will You Talk? I cannot remember the description being used at the time. The obituaries were full of praise for her, particularly (to my surprise) the Guardian which I should have thought would have scorned any writer with the ‘romantic’ tag.

Stewart was the daughter of a clergyman whose parish was in Sunderland in north-east England. The family was not well-off so that, although she was sent when only eight years old to boarding school where she was bullied for being clever, when she won bursaries to Oxford, Cambridge and Durham to read for an English degree, she chose Durham because their bursary was the biggest. She achieved a First but when World War II broke out she found herself home-teaching local children. Immediately after the war she married a young geology lecturer, Frederick Stewart; he became one of Britain’s foremost scientists, was knighted in 1974, and died in 2001. She would very much have liked children but an ectopic pregnancy put an end to her hopes and nearly killed her. She lectured part-time at Durham University but wanted to write; when that first novel was an overnight success, although being shy she was dismayed by the publicity, it did enable her to go on writing.

The novels do have to a certain extent to be read as period pieces. No sex before marriage. No swearing – the worst permitted word is ‘beastly’. Married women from the sort of background she writes about don’t work except possibly in a voluntary capacity, eg for the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (Vanessa, Airs Above the Ground). Everyone is privately educated, even the most hopeless establishments being preferred to local good state schools – not that she ever says so but to a modern reader it stands out. Grown women refer to their parents as ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’. Literary and classical allusions abound – today some might class this as ‘elitist’ but I must say at the time it didn’t bother me. The covers of the latest reprints of Stewart’s thriller titles, with their Audrey Hepburn lookalikes in elegant 1950s fashions, reinforce the period aspect of the books. But one has to remember the post-War social pressures of the time when men returning from conflict wanted the peace and quiet of domesticity and women were expected to conform. Pre-Pill the sexual revolution hadn’t happened. Career opportunities for ambitious women, even with university degrees, were extremely limited, and childcare provision, except for women rich enough to employ nannies, was virtually non-existent. These social attitudes were strongly reinforced by commercial interests driven by the arrival of the new labour-saving appliances: while they undoubtedly did free women from much of the appalling drudgery of housework, the notion that true happiness consisted in the acquisition of the latest model vacuum cleaner or washing machine was pernicious. I re-read for this piece Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique: I recommend anyone who has not read this seminal book to do so especially chapters 9 and 10 which deal with the deliberate manipulation of ‘housewives’ as legitimate consumer targets by manufacturers. This was particularly true in the United States but the ethos that all that women really wanted was to get married young, have children, and a home full of white goods was also prevalent in 1950s Britain.

So what was it about these novels of Mary Stewart that not only fired the imagination of a young teenager in the 1950s but also led to praise for her work from modern women writers in the Guardian and elsewhere?  It was the strength of her heroines. This arose from her ‘anti-namby-pamby’ reaction to the ‘silly heroines of contemporary thrillers.’ A Mary Stewart heroine is the centre of the novel, not ancillary to the hero. She is self-reliant and also highly educated, the hero’s intellectual equal. And both heroine and hero are ‘ordinary people’ (albeit privately educated!) with ‘normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear; not conventionally heroic but who could be shocked or outraged into defending what they held to be right.’ In her novels, when the heroine’s finds herself in danger, she gets herself out of it largely through her own efforts, doing so with courage and resolution. My main memory of Madam, Will You Talk?, read all those years ago, was of Charity driving a powerful car along the perilous mountain roads of Provence at 70 miles an hour (which seemed enormously fast to me at the time), and thereby reducing one of the villains to a quivering jelly. And Charity also disables the hero’s Bentley with a simple but effective technique. I then read all the others as they came out, and enjoyed them all. Not all featured heroines with Charity’s driving skills but each one was as determined and resourceful as the others. At the time this was a welcome respite from the James Bond stories in which women might be either sexually available luscious beauties or hideous monsters but were always completely disposable. And more serious thriller writers could state ‘what woman was ever stopped by a want of information? She felt. And despised him for not acting in accordance with her feelings’ Smiley, in John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Nor are similar attitudes unknown today: only recently a well-known TV historian opined that women were merely of average intelligence, it took a man to be really brilliant.

As for the traditional ‘happy ending’, although the Stewart heroine does end up with the hero,
because the novels are all one-offs we have no idea whether the marriages will be successful –  the reader hopes so but there is no way of knowing. The story’s over now – on to the next one.
Stewart wrote nine novels in this genre; they are listed at the end of this article. She then wrote several historical novels based on Arthurian legends with Merlin as the main character, and they were, and are still, particularly highly praised. She then returned to the genre with three more novels but to my mind they are not as successful as the earlier ones. She also wrote well-regarded children’s stories.

She wrote well and compellingly. The very first sentence of
Madam, Will You Talk?  - ‘The whole affair began so very quietly’ – draws the reader into the story inescapably. And in that novel the hero’s anger with Charity is for good reason, or what he thinks is good reason, is both chilling and convincing. She excelled at cliffhangers – ‘The lifting of the door latch sounded, in that sleepy silence, like a pistol-shot’ (Nine Coaches Waiting). Her descriptions of landscapes are beautiful although by today’s criteria somewhat wordy. She was an excellent cook and there are mouth-watering descriptions of meals in the various foreign locations where most of her novels are set. However, one thing her heroines were not are the 1950s fashionistas depicted on the covers of the latest reprints; those frilly frocks and dainty hats would have been quite unsuitable for careering around precipitous mountains! And her heroines are enviably fit and trim despite not spending an hour a day at the gym or running 10km or living on a diet of exclusively tofu, kale and quinoa!
There were other romantic suspense writers although none were as successful as her. Then the genre declined, at least in Britain. Why should that be? In my view there are several reasons. Such novels are one-offs and could not be anything else, and crime readers are said to like series – certainly publishers like them as do TV producers. There was a general feeling that crime novels should be realistic, and that, since in real life crimes are almost always investigated by the police, fiction should reflect this. The pigeonholing of the genre as ‘romantic suspense’ meant that most if not virtually all male readers eschewed them. Similarly the term would have repelled the younger generation of women who, without reading the novels, would not have realised that in the context of their time by depicting these ‘can-do’ heroines they empowered women. On the other hand they are not standard romances because the hero-heroine relationship is only part of the narrative – the thriller element is at least equal if not more so - I suspect that bookshops find it difficult to decide whether these novels should be placed in the crime section or the romance section. Moreover, British crime fiction tends to take itself rather seriously by providing psychological or political insights into whatever period a crime novel is set in. However, romantic suspense is well-established in the United States although most titles tend to be at the more popular end of the market. There is an excellent analysis of the genre by the U.S. writer Lisa Gardner in the form of eight on-line lectures: ‘Secrets of Romantic Suspense’ on Google along with more on-line contributions by other writers.

Is there a future in the British market for the genre? The publishing firm Choc-Lit has published several titles specifically categorised as romantic suspense: their authors include Evonne Wareham, Henriette Gyland, and Clare Chase. Other publishers are remarkably coy about using the term. Nonetheless, perhaps  the tradition established by Mary Stewart will continue in the future.

Romantic Suspense Novels by Mary Stewart.
All these novels were reprinted by Hodder & Stoughton in 2011.
Madam, Will You Talk? (1955: Provence)        ISBN: 978 1 444 71120 2
Wildfire at Midnight (1956: Isle of Skye)                ISBN: 978 1 444 71098 4
Thunder on the Right (1957: French Pyrenees)                ISBN: 978 1 444 71099 1
My Brother Michael (1959: Greece)                 ISBN: 978 1 444 71123 3
The Ivy Tree (1961: Northumberland)                 ISBN: 978 1 444 72046 4
The Moonspinners (1962: Crete) (this title was also filmed)    ISBN: 978 1 444 72048 8
This Rough Magic (1964: Corfu)                     ISBN: 978 444 72050 1
Airs Above the Ground (1965: Austria)         ISBN: 978 444 72052 5
The Gabriel Hounds (1967: Lebanon)         ISBN: 978 444 72054 9
Touch Not the Cat (1976: Worcestershire)         ISBN: 978 444 71503 3
Thornyhold (1988: Wiltshire)         ISBN: 978 444 71505 7
Stormy Petrel (1991: West Highlands)         ISBN: 978 1 444 71507 1

Radmila May was born in the US but has lived in the UK ever since apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and has been working for them off and on ever since. For the last few years she has been one of three editors working on a new edition of a practitioners' text book on Criminal Evidence by her late husband, publication of which has been held up for a variety of reasons but hopefully will be published by the end of 2015. She also has an interest in archaeology in which subject she has a Diploma.


  1. What a wonderful post, Radmila. Mary Stewart is one of my favourite writers, and Madam, Will You Talk is one of my favourite ever novels. I first read it as a teenager, and I, too, was struck by the heroine's driving skills! As you mentioned, this was a time when the war was still hanging over people, and the sense of that legacy is strong in this book - Charity's boyfriend (who taught her to drive in such a dashing way) died in the war. Mary Stewart is a brilliant writer, and it's a shame the term "romantic suspense" is held in such low esteem. Her books are full of romance, both in the relationships and in the setting, and full of the most nail-biting suspense.
    Thanks for this post - I really enjoyed it.

  2. I really enjoyed this fascinating post too, Radmila. I’m another lifelong Mary Stewart fan. I first read her books in the 1980s, and even by contemporary standards then I found the heroines refreshingly self-sufficient. It’s very interesting to get your take on romantic suspense, and attitudes to it in the UK. It strikes me that films in the genre seem to remain enduringly popular, both here and in the US, but there is that reticence in the UK about books that carry the label. It’s lovely to be mentioned in your article.

  3. I was a teenager in the 70s and can't remember how I came across Mary Stewart - probably at my grandmother's (she was in her 60s by then). I think she had "The Gabriel Hounds" and lent it to me, and I was hooked and read them all (including the Merlin books). I still have my favourite, "The Moonspinners", and her children's books, which are little gems.

    1. Thanks to you all for the various comments. I would welcome comments from other people. And if anyone can think of an alternative description for the genre which appeals equally to crime readers and romance readers that would be great and could help re-establish the genre in the UK

  4. Thank you for such an interesting post, Radmila. I too love Mary Stewart's romantic suspense books and re-read them happily. Yes, they do have an old-fashioned quality, but I love that the heroines are so feisty, especially when women at that time were so often portrayed as passive, if not helpless!

  5. Another brief tribute to Mary Stewart and her clever attractive heroines confronting danger appeared in The Guardian Review Section on Saturday 17th September 2016 which would have been her hundredth birthday (A Kind of Coda, by Alison Flood).

  6. Mary Stewart's novella, The Wind from the Small Isles, set on the volcanic Canary island of Lanzarote, which had disappeared for 40 years has been found and republished in a beautifully bound edition by Hodder. It is not, however, a suspense book!