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Friday 1 February 2019

Mary Stewart (1916-2014)

The Golden Age

Romantic Suspense and her links to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction
by Carol Westron

Mary Stewart is a Post-Golden Age author, who published her first novel, Madam,Will You Talk? in 1955. This was the first of several novels in the genre now labelled romantic suspense. This is a modern label for an
innovative style of writing: an adventure/mystery story that was equally balanced with romance, which, in Stewart’s case, is told from the heroine’s point of view. Stewart herself was determined to write what she wished to write and described the genre that her novels fitted into as
'modern adventure story spiced with romance (or romance spiced with adventure; it depends whether you are advertising it for men or for women).' (The Australian Author, 1977.)

I first read Stewart when I was a teenager and I believe that her work helped to shape my own writing style. I still enjoy her books and maintain that she was a remarkably innovative author, introducing a new style of heroine, one who was intelligent, independent, and capable of rescuing herself and, on occasion, the hero from the dangers that beset them. The balance between mystery/adventure and romance is skilfully maintained, with the two elements woven together and driving forward to a satisfying and cohesive conclusion.

In an interview with Raymond H. Thompson in 1989, Stewart said, ‘I've written stories since I was three and a half, and I think you're either born with the storyteller's flair or you're not. You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the storyteller's flair or you don't. It's no virtue of mine. It's just there.’ It’s undoubtedly true that Stewart is a master storyteller, but I believe that all storytellers have been influenced by what they themselves have read, especially in their formative years. Stewart has acknowledged the influence of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Renault on her writing (so much so that she would not read Renault when she was working on her own books) but this appears to refer mainly to her magnificent historical quartet, featuring Merlin, and, to a lesser extent, to her children’s books. While re-reading some of Stewart’s main body of work, which is now classified as romantic suspense, I wondered if any of the authors of the Golden Age had helped to lay the foundations for Stewart’s unique mixture of romance, mystery and adventure. I must emphasise that many of the links that I have found are a matter of interpretation, apart from the obvious links between The Ivy Tree (1961) and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949).

I will keep Stewart’s biographical details brief, as this has already been covered in Radmilla May’s excellent article for Mystery People An Appreciation of Mary Stewart (June 2015)

Mary Stewart was born in 1916. Her maiden name was Mary Rainbow. She was the daughter of a vicar and, although the family were not wealthy, she was a clever girl who attended Durham University and achieved first-class honours in English, followed by a first-class Teaching Diploma and a Masters’ degree in 1941. For the rest of the Second World War, she held various teaching posts, including working as a temporary lecturer in the English Department at Durham University. It was here that she met her husband, Frederick Stewart, a lecturer in Geology. They met at a VE Day dance and, after a short engagement, were married in September 1945. A year later, Mary Stewart suffered an ectopic pregnancy that left her unable to have children. Frederick Stewart became an eminent scientist, professor of geology and mineralogy at Edinburgh University and later chairman of the Geology Department. In 1974 he was knighted, although Mary Stewart did not use the title Lady Stewart. Frederick Stewart died in 2001 and Mary Stewart in 2014, aged ninety-seven.

In 1955, just before the Stewarts moved to Edinburgh, Stewart published her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk? A young war widow, Charity Selbourne, is on holiday in Provence when she comes to the aid of a chance-met child, who is living with a deep and desperate fear. It is interesting to note that, although Stewart’s heroines often adopt the nurturing role, they are far more actively protective than the traditional female role of the time and, in many ways, fight their corner like heroes. This hero’s role comes to the fore when Charity uses the driving skills her late husband had taught her to defeat an enemy: ‘I laughed. I was as cool as lake-water, and, for the moment, no more ruffled. The feel of that lovely car under my hands, in all her power and splendour, was to me like the feel of a sword in the hand of a man who has been fighting unarmed. The Mercedes was my weapon now, and by God! I would use her.’

I looked for correlations with Stewart’s work in two of the foremost Golden Age authors who also had a strong romantic thread running through their books, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth. On the whole, when I considered the love interests in their series detective books, I could find little similarity to Stewart’s lively,  courageous heroines. One exception to this is Christie’s The 4.50 From Paddington (1958). Lucy Eyelsbarrow, is a peripatetic, professional cook and housekeeper whom Miss Marple, now a very old and frail woman, employs to investigate a crime that the police are unwilling to concede occurred. In this book, although Miss Marple solves the murder, much of the narrative follows Lucy, who plays a very pro-active part and ends up with two men both eager to marry her. Christie enjoyed subverting the genres, whether romance or crime, and teases the reader to the last by refusing to reveal which of her suitors Lucy is going to choose. Another Christie series book that might be described as romantic suspense is The Secret Adversary (1922), the first of the books featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. In this book, Tuppence is introduced as a young single woman who goes into partnership with Tommy, styling themselves The Young Adventurers. Tuppence is the driving force in solving the mystery surrounding Jane Finn and, in doing so, finds love. The Secret Adversary is more of an adventure story than a straightforward mystery and, like Madam, Will You Talk?, over thirty years later, uses the aftermath of world war as a pivotal point of the plot.

It is in Christie’s romantic adventure stories that heroines with something of Stewart’s calibre emerge. These are young women who grasp an opportunity and plunge into adventures. In The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), Ann Bedingfeld follows up her disquiet about the apparently accidental death of a stranger and, in doing so, finds foreign travel and adventure, and, of course, love. In such a manner of grasping at opportunity, in My Brother Michael (1960), does Stewart’s Camilla Haven, her engagement to an overbearing man newly broken and striking out for herself for the first time, undertake to drive a car that has been left with her in error from Athens to Delphi, in the hope that she can deliver it to a man known only to her as Simon.

Victoria Jones, the gloriously reckless heroine of Christie’s They Came to Baghdad (1951), is even more active in her pursuit of both adventure and of the young man who has engaged her interest, although Christie delights in misleading the reader by confusing the identity of the villain and the hero, as she also does in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934) and The Seven Dials Mystery (1929). In the latter two books and in The Secret of Chimneys (1925), Christie offers the reader lively, flippant, aristocratic girls seeking out adventure and finding romance. Indeed, many of Christie’s romantic adventure stories have a tone of a Wodehouse farce and, in this way, they are very different to Stewart’s books, where the adventures are entered into in a more serious manner. Also, on the whole, Stewart’s heroines are better educated, usually making their own way in the world, and basically more earnest.

Patricia Wentworth is best remembered for her Miss Silver novels, and in these the heroines range from reasonably sensible people to ineffectual young women, often bullied by those around them, who require a strong man to support them. Indeed, many of the heroes in the Miss Silver books are young men with a military background and firm opinions regarding the roles of men and women. It seems that, with Miss Silver to save them, the hero and heroine who supply the love interest may be reduced to mere ciphers. Hilary Carew in The Case is Closed (1937) is the honourable exception to this; she is a lively and independent heroine who is determined to discover the truth about the murder that her cousin’s husband has been convicted of committing, but even she requires her strong, and still devoted, ex-fiancĂ© to come to her aid.

It is in Wentworth’s stand-alone novels that her true romantic heroines come into their own. Many of Wentworth’s novels are fast-paced (and implausible) espionage adventures. Indeed, the penniless but adventurous Jane Smith in The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith (1923) bears striking similarities in situation and outlook to Victoria Jones in Christie’s They Came to Baghdad (1951). It is interesting to note that in The Gabriel Hounds (1965), Stewart uses the same device as Wentworth in The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, of two cousins whose parents are twins and share exceptional closeness. Many of Wentworth’s stand-alone novels share the narrative between the hero and heroine, with the heroine often intervening to rescue the hero, as in Outrageous Fortune (1933) where Caroline Leigh steps in to save Jim Randal when a head injury robs him of his memory and leaves him prey to villains.

Perhaps the Wentworth novel that is closest to Stewart’s work is Touch and Go (1934), in which Sarah Trent takes on the position of governess to Lucilla Hildred, a seventeen-year-old orphan whose parents were killed in a car crash. Lucilla has been left under the guardianship of relations and soon Sarah, who is also an orphan and alone in the world, is convinced that something is very much amiss, although at first she is uncertain whether Lucilla’s life is in danger from somebody close to her, or whether the girl is creating fake threats to her life in order to gain attention. Sarah is determined to safeguard Lucilla but is in the difficult position of not knowing whom to trust and is unable to put her faith in the man she is beginning to love because a vulnerable child’s safety is at stake. In Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting (1958), Linda Martin has taken a job as nursery-governess to nine-year-old Philippe, Comte de Valmy, who inherited his title and estates when his parents were killed in a car crash. In her eagerness to return to France, a country she loves, Linda deceived here employers, Philippe’s uncle and aunt, and pretended to speak little French. Philippe’s aunt had explained that she wished Philippe to learn to speak English and a governess who spoke no French would facilitate this. Linda, who is also an orphan with nobody to turn to, soon over-hears snippets of conversation that make her uneasy and, when apparent accidents start happening that endanger Philippe’s life, she believes that she has to choose between the man she loves and the child who is in her care. Stewart shows her double mastery of adventure and romance when, after a desperate flight with Philippe through the French countryside at night, at last Linda has to explain her actions and her lack of trust.
‘“Everything conspired to accuse you, and I was half silly with unhappiness and – yes, and doubt, till I couldn’t even trust my own senses any more... It was simply that I couldn’t take the chance! You do see that, don’t you? Say that you see that!”
He jerked the gloves in his fingers. His voice was quite flat, dull almost. “You were prepared to take chances once.”
“Myself, yes. But this was Philippe. I had no right to take a chance on Philippe. I didn’t dare. He was my charge – my duty.” The miserable words sounded priggish and unutterably absurd. “I – was all he had. Beside that, it couldn’t be allowed to matter.”
“What couldn’t?”
“That you were all I had,” I said.’

It would be presumptuous to claim that Stewart’s own regretted childlessness contributed to her return to the theme of children in danger, but certainly three of her most powerful books feature a heroine who will risk everything in order to save a child in peril. These three books are Nine Coaches Waiting (1958), The Moonspinners (1962) and Madam, Will you Talk? (1955), where Charity makes her decision to help David whatever the cost to herself, ‘some of the loneliness of the child’s situation dawned on me and made me feel chilled. I knew a lot about loneliness. And I knew that, come murderers, come hell, come high water, I should have to do something about it.’

With the exception of Vanessa March, Stewart’s only married heroine, who is a qualified veterinary surgeon but has only practised in a voluntary capacity, (Airs Above the Ground, 1965) and Jennifer Silver whose over-protective mother had ‘hurriedly replanted the briars around her sleeping princess,’ (Thunder on the Right, 1957), all of Stewart’s heroines have or have had jobs, which vary between acting and modelling and staider occupations, such as teaching. Even spoiled, rich Christie Mansel has spent some years working for a television company (The Gabriel Hounds, 1967.) With the exception of Thunder on the Right, the narration is in the heroine’s First Person viewpoint, which adds to the power and intimacy of the reader’s experience.

In her obituary in The Telegraph (2014) it was stated that: ‘Unusually for a romantic novelist, Mary Stewart was not afraid of male heroes.’ From the context, it seems probable that the writer of the obituary was referring to Stewart’s historical novels that retell the Arthurian legend through the viewpoint of Merlin, but it is true in another way as well. Stewart’s heroes could be dictatorial, as was the norm in 1950s Britain, but she is also not afraid to reveal their vulnerabilities, both physical and emotional, and on more than one occasion the heroine rescues the hero. Stewart’s heroines are determined, courageous women and her heroes are also courageous and strong-willed, but, with the exception of Lewis March in Airs Above the Ground (1965) they are not professional fighting men. Indeed, in Thunder on the Right (1957), the eminently civilised, musician love interest warns Jennifer, ‘“Don’t cast me as the hero of your story, Jenny.”’

The story of Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), the English aristocrat who spent the last years of her life living in Syria and dressed in the style of a Turkish male, was a gift to any storyteller, and both Christie and Stewart used it as inspiration. Christie’s Parker Pyne Investigates (1934) contains the short story The House at Shiraz, in which an eccentric English lady has elected to live in seclusion in the Middle East. ‘A big divan was placed against the wall and on it reclined a striking figure. Lady Esther was attired in Eastern robes, and it might have been suspected that one reason for her preference lay in the fact that they suited her rich, Oriental style of beauty.’ … ‘Her hand pointed to a heap of cushions. On the third finger there flashed a big emerald carved with the arms of her family. It was an heirloom and must be worth a small fortune, Mr Parker Pyne reflected.’

Stewart’s full-length novel, The Gabriel Hounds (1967) is far darker and more atmospheric. The elderly English woman who has taken up residence in a dilapidated palace near Damascus is not an aristocrat but part of a family of wealthy bankers. When Harriet Boyd’s archaeologist husband died, she remained in the Lebanon and, growing increasingly eccentric with age, had done her best to emulate the lifestyle of Lady Hester Stanhope, even demanding to be called ‘Lady Harriet.’ Curious, and concerned about their great-aunt’s well-being, cousins Christy and Charles Mansel are
determined to visit Great-aunt Harriet, which leads Christy to a most unnerving encounter.
‘If I had not known who it was, I should have taken her for some fantastically-robed Eastern male. She was wearing some kind of bedgown of natural silk, and over this a loose coat in scarlet with gold facings, and over this again an enormous cashmere shawl... Her skin had a sallow pallor and her lips were bloodless

and sunken, but the black eyes and well-marked brows gave life to the fullish, oval face, and showed none of the fading signs of old age … Above this curiously epicene face she had twined a towering turban of white, which, slipping a little to one side, exposed what for a shocked moment I took to be a bald skull: then I realised she must have shaved her head. This, if she habitually wore a thick turban, was only to be expected, but it was somehow the final touch of grotesqueness.  One thing I would have known her by; the ring on her left hand. This was unequivocally as big and as bright as I remembered from my childhood. … It was a cabuchon-cut Burma ruby, the size of a thumb-nail, and had even in those days been immensely valuable.’

Although the Stanhope story is a wonderful inspiration for any novelist and Stewart lists the formidable amount of research, she did for The Gabriel Hounds, it was be noted that both The House at Shiraz and The Gabriel Hounds are imbued with the same atmosphere of theatrical unreality, Oriental trappings and rings of extraordinary value.

In a curious twist, Christie’s Halloween Party (1969) and Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight (1956) share a subtle, underlying resemblance. Both books feature beautiful young men who are obsessed with natural beauty, which has destroyed their mental balance. However, here the tables have turned, because Christie’s book was published thirteen years after Stewart’s psychologically innovative novel, set on the Isle of Skye, which she described as ‘an attempt at something different, the classic closed-room detective story with restricted action, a biggish cast, and a closely circular plot.’

One of Stewart’s books has an undeniable origin in the work of a Golden Age writer. The Ivy Tree (1961) is cleverly derived from Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949), which in turn was partially based on the story of the Tichborne Claimant. In The Ivy Tree, a chance encounter leads a young woman, newly arrived from Canada, into a conspiracy to pretend to be Annabel Winslow, the granddaughter of a prosperous farmer, Matthew Winslow. The motive behind this plot is that her conspirators wish to gain possession of the farm, Whitescar, after Matthew’s death. Brat Farrar, is used as the ‘text-book’ while preparing the deception. ‘With all the methods outlined in Brat Farrar as our modus operandi, Lisa had taught me all the facts about Whitescar, its environs, and the house itself, in those afternoon sessions during my three-weeks’ apprenticeship. And, like the imposter-hero of the book, I soon found myself to be not only involved, but even excited by the sheer difficulties of the deception. The thing was an adventure, a challenge, and, I told myself (with how much self-deceit I didn’t pause to consider), I would, in the long run, do no harm.’ The Ivy Tree is a remarkable example of how the First-Person narrative can be used to enlighten and deceive the reader at the same time, a technique at which Christie had excelled.

Between 1970-83, Stewart focused mainly on her outstanding quartet of medieval novels featuring Merlin. The influence of these novels is evident in her only romantic suspense novel of the 1970s, Touch Not the Cat (1976), a novel with supernatural overtones and many Gothic tropes, in which the heroine, Bryony Ashley has telepathic links with a man she is in love with, even though she cannot be certain of his identity.

In the years following the Merlin quartet, Stewart continued to write but it is generally acknowledged that her romantic suspense novels lack the power of her earlier work. Her first ten novels, from Madam, Will You Talk? (1955) to The Gabriel Hounds (1967) are remarkable for the cleverness of their plots, courageous, intelligent heroines and vivid, atmospheric settings, and Stewart’s love of literature, Roman history and ancient mythology shine through them. In these early books, as well as her historical work, the influence of Mary Renault is clearly visible in the richness of her narrative style, but it seems probable that writers such as Christie and Wentworth may have helped to lay the foundations for Stewart’s mixture of romance, adventure and mystery by their own bold combination of these ingredients.

All of the books mentioned in this article are available, either as paperbacks or e-books, or both.
For  complete list of books by Mary stewart visit

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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