The Wenches talk among themselves nearly every day on a variety of topics, from the silly to the sublime. But as you can well imagine, books figure prominently in the discussions. And recently, as the questions of early “influences” came up, the name of Mary Stewart jumped to the fore. As we waxed enthusiastic, it occurred to us that our thoughts would be a fun thing to feature on this month’s “What We Are Reading” as many of you no doubt share our love of her books. So, here are some of our thoughts on her works. And we encourage you to share yours as well!
Mary Stewart was one of those authors I discovered at a young age. Her books totally swept me away. They still do even though I have read and re-read them more times than I can count. The first one I read was Airs Above the Ground and I adored the element of foreign travel, which seemed very exotic to me as a teenager, spiced with mystery, danger, a strong heroine and an enigmatic and sexy hero. Mary Stewart was one of the few authors I remember discovering collectively but in an informal way. My school friends and I swapped her books amongst ourselves and had a sort of Mary Stewart book club where we met up to chat about which ones we liked best and what we particularly enjoyed about the settings and the characters.
As I grew older and started writing myself I began to recognise what a consummate storyteller she is. Her wonderfully evocative descriptions add so much to the atmosphere of the story. I still remember how her descriptions of the heat and aridity of Crete added to the tension in The Moon Spinners, and the first line of The Gabriel Hounds is one of my favourites: "I met him in the street called Straight." Some of her heroes are to die for and I loved that her heroines always had a lot of gumption, as they say where I come from. Some of those books can still make me cry even though I know them so well. There's a particular scene in This Rough Magic that gets me every time. I'd better stop there or I'll be eulogising about Mary Stewart for pages and pages!
When I discovered and relished Mary Stewart as a teen I didn't note her excellent writing; I simply enjoyed her stories. She wrote damn good adventures with central female characters who weren't wimps. Yay! I was, and still am, a mostly historical reader, but perhaps her Continental settings such as Provence, Greece and French chateaux were as beyond reach to a working class girl in Lancashire as the middle ages. Though perhaps not my favorite, the one that sticks in my mind is The Moon Spinners, mostly because of the 1964 film starring Hayley Mills. Her character was younger than in the book, but that meant she was my age, so that I felt I could almost be in an adventure in Crete myself.
I grew up with a fascination for the Greek myths. Read the Odyssey. Read Greek plays even. I imagined Dryads and Neriads and naughty Fawns wandering among classical white marble temples and wide fountains. Think Maxwell Parrish, and remember I was very young.
I'll just add that when I got to visit Greece in my late teens, I found it nothing at all like that mannered land of my child's imagination. I loved the reality even more.
Anyhow, my first Mary Stewart books were The Moon Spinners and My Brother Michael. I didn't think of them as love stories. (c.f. I was very young, above) To me they were adventure stories, set in the familiar landscape of great epics and mythical beings. Adventure stories made more marvelous because the protagonist was female.
Stewart had an unparalleled ability to connect to setting. Whether it was wild flowers on the mountains in Crete or the Lipizzaner horses and a traveling circus in Austria, she created a 'sense of place' in her stories. Her landscapes are rich with embedded story, stuffed plum-pudding style with possibilities ready to be plucked out. I was as enthralled by her places as by her characters.
My favorite line is from another of her Greek-set books, This Rough Magic: "You wanted to eat his heart, little sister. I have cooked it for you."
I read my first Mary Stewart when I was a young teenager and my eldest sister, who was a librarian, brought home some books that had been cancelled and were going to be tossed out. I was the kind of kid that was always looking for something to read, so she fed my habit (thanks Big Sis!)
The first was Madam Will You Talk and I loved it to bits. I loved the car chase, I loved the descriptions of the French countryside, and I vowed one day I'd visit those places. It's a cracking good romantic suspense and remains a favorite of mine. After that I devoured everything of Mary Stewart's I could find. Another favorite is Nine Coaches Waiting, where the hero was the delicious Raoul.
Mary Stewart's heroines are the kind of women we'd like to be. They're intelligent, attractive, well read, sophisticated but also down to earth, and when they're thrown out of their comfort zone, as they inevitably are, they use their wits and act courageously. Her settings are drawn in wonderfully textured detail, whether it's a picturesque English village, or a Greek island or the south of France. She's a born storyteller, but is also very much a writers' writer.
My first introduction to Mary Stewart was not on the page but on the screen, when as a kid, I saw Disney's The Moon Spinners with Hayley Mills and Peter McEnery on TV - and fell in love. Learning that it was a book, I was off to the library like a "pea from a catapult," to quote La Stewart--and discovered my favorite author, hands down. In high school, I cleared the library shelves of all the Mary Stewarts in their collection, read each one, and started over. I did an oral book report on The Ivy Tree. When Mary Stewart wrote her Arthurian series, I devoured each one, completely enchanted. I now have every book she's ever written, including the YAs, and I've read each one more than once. Some, I've read many times. She is my comfort read--the author I turn to most often, even in repeats.
Why? Because Mary Stewart is, quite simply, magic on the page. Her writing is fluid, sparkling, evocative, her characters authentic and appealing, her settings beautifully created and utterly essential to the story. She has a gift for visual and sensory description and she conjures a sense of the ancient and historical in timeless contemporary settings. Her heroines are sympathetic in their vulnerability and adaptability--and her heroes are quiet, intelligent, understated and all the more charismatic and sexy for it. She is a skilled, subtle, artful writer. Not only have I loved every story--as a writer, I've learned a great deal soaking up atmosphere and craft among her pages.
Most of us have one or two utmost favorite Mary Stewart novels. For me, those are The Moon Spinners (masterful romantic suspense and an extraordinary evocation of sun-drenched Greece); Wildfire at Midnight (Scotland, the power of the Cuillins, and a strong, subtle hero with a dark side), and for a third, it's a toss up between My Brother Michael and This Rough Magic (Greece again!). I've never visited Greece--but thanks to Mary Stewart, I feel an affinity for it. I'm happy and proud to have a Mary Stewart shelf of honor in my library.
Mary Stewart is one of the triumvirate of writers who influenced me most. (The other two are Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett.)
With each of these writers, the first book read was as memorable as it was powerful. My first Mary Stewart was The Ivy Tree, and I read a condensed version on a women's magazine of my mother's. I was riveted--and the big plot twist left me stunned and forever shaped my impressionable young mind. <G>
In later years I read and reread all her books. Among the romantic suspense, I particularly loved Madame, Will You Talk?, My Brother Michael, and of course, The Ivy Tree. I adored her exotic settings and Greece went on my travel bucket list. (Yes, I've been there, and I want to go back!)
I loved her characters--her heroines were interesting women who did interesting things, and her heroes were honorable, very appealing men. And, though I didn't realize it at the time, I loved the quality of her writing. She did marvelous light handed descriptions and created a wonderful sense of place, and she was never, ever dull.
That's not even mentioning her Arthurian books. The Crystal Cave was another book that changed the way I thought, this time about Roman Britain and the Arthurian tales. I read the trilogy three times, but the fourth book, The Wicked Day, only once. The way Stewart treated Mordred was brilliant, but the story is inherently tragic. Reading it once was enough.
Like the other Wenches, I could go on and on and on, but one must draw the line somewhere! I'm looking forward to hearing what other readers have to say about her.
I remember distinctly my first Mary Stewart book—I was thirteen and my best friend had just gotten The Moon Spinners from the library and gave it to me when she finished. I was entranced—the exotic setting, the whiff of danger, the handsome stranger . . . but most of all, the spunky heroine, who was resourceful and bolder and braver than she thought she could be when push came to shove. I was hooked! Add to that the weaving in of history (This Rough Magic came next, and it’s still one of my favorites) Stewart’s wonderful sense of storytelling and descriptive details of place, and it’s no wonder that to this day, they are still books I go back to time and time again for the sheer magic of losing myself in a grand adventure for several hours.
I think part of the universal appeal of her books is how real her heroines are—a mix of vulnerability and strength, a self-deprecating sense of humor, curiosity, and the ability to rise to the occasion even when she scared witless. I know they shaped my sense of what made a great “intrepid heroine.”
So what about you? Are you a big fan of Mary Stewart? Did you discover her early in your reading life, and did she have an influence on you? Please share your thoughts!