Next month sees the centenary of the birth of novelist Mary Stewart, so I’ve volunteered to host a Reading Week in her honour – mainly because she wrote what has to be one the best ever versions ever of the Arthurian legends. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim (known collectively as The Merlin Chronicles) are just wonderful, especially the first three. I must admit, I don’t know the rest of her work all that well, but I remember reading and enjoying Touch Not the Cat when it first came out, and much more recently I liked Thornyhold, so this will be a bit of learning curve for me.
And hosting a Reading Week is unknown territory as well: I’ve never done this before, although I’ve taken part in events organised by other bloggers. I’ve no idea if anyone will support it, but I’ll be enormously grateful if you do – and if anyone has any advice that would be lovely! I realise I’m a little late with this introductory post, which should have been published much earlier, but since Mary Stewart was born on September 17, 1916, I thought we could kick off on her actual birthday (Saturday, September 17), and run until Friday, September 23, which would give us a bit more time.
Mary Stewart, who died on May 9, 2014, at the age of 97, was credited with creating (or
popularising) ‘romantic suspense’. In 1954, when her first novel was published, she was working part-time as a lecturer, but had always wanted to write. Encouraged by her husband she wrote a book , which she called Murder for Charity, and sent to Hodder & Stoughton under her maiden name, Mary Rainbow. The publishers liked it and issued it as Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. It was as an instant success and over the next 40 years Mary Stewart penned another 19 novels, as well as children’s stories and a volume of poetry.
She is regarded, first and foremast, as a superb story teller, but her heroines were utterly unlike most of the female protagonists featured in novels previously: they were modern women, who knew their own mind. They were intelligent, independent, and feisty, and were not afraid to seize life with both hands, make their own decisions, take the initiative in relationships, and cope with whatever problems came their way. The Guardian obituary says Stewart referred to this as her ‘anti-namby-pamby’ reaction to the ‘silly heroine’ of the conventional contemporary thriller who ‘is told not to open the door to anybody and immediately opens it to the first person who comes along’. Her books were well researched and her love of nature and Greek and Roman history, music, theatre and art is obvious.
As far as her private life goes, Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (I can’t think why her publishers didn’t like that surname – I think it’s wonderful) was a vicar’s daughter, born in Sunderland, and claimed she learned to read at the age of three, writing her first stories (about her toys) when she was seven. She attended boarding schools, which she hated, studied English at Durham University, and was a teacher during WW2. Then, in 1945, she met Frederick Stewart at a fancy dress party in Durham Castle, and they were married just three months later. In 1956, they moved to Edinburgh, where he was a professor of geology and mineralogy, and they spent their time in Edinburgh and at their second home, by Loch Awe, in the Highlands. Frederick became one of the UK’s leading scientists, and was knighted in 1974, making his novelist wife Lady Stewart, though apparently she hated using the title. He died in 2001.
I would guess she was at her most popular during the late 50s, the 60s and the 70s, and I’m not sure how widely read she is today but, unlike some novelists who fall out of favour, she is still published and her work seems to be widely available. It has been said that she built a bridge between classic literature and modern popular fiction, which makes me curious to read more, and it would be nice to remember her on this special anniversary, so please join in if you can. Just write a review on your blog and leave a message here, with a link, and I’ll co-ordinate them.
I’ve included a completed list of her work:
- Madam, Will You Talk?(1954)
- Wildfire at Midnight(1956)
- Thunder on the Right(1957)
- Nine Coaches Waiting(1958)
- My Brother Michael(1959)
- The Ivy Tree(1961)
- The Moon-Spinners(1962)
- This Rough Magic(1964)
- Airs Above the Ground(1965)
- The Gabriel Hounds(1967)
- The Wind Off the Small Isles(1968)
- Touch Not the Cat(1976)
- Stormy Petrel(1991)
- Rose Cottage(1997)
The Merlin Series
- The Crystal Cave(1970)
- The Hollow Hills(1973)
- The Last Enchantment(1979)
- The Wicked Day(1983)
- The Prince and the Pilgrim(1995)
- The Little Broomstick(1971)
- Ludo and the Star Horse(1974)
- A Walk in Wolf Wood(1980)
- Frost on the Window: And other Poems(1990) (poetry collection)