I am SO sorry people. Way back last August I posted a piece in which I volunteered to host Mary Stewart Reading Week to coincide with the centenary of the novelist’s birth on September 17, 1916. I’d acquired a little stack of her novels (from Oxfam – where else!) and I was all set to go. But, as with so many other things last year, it didn’t get done, because I spent so much time with my mother, providing her with a bit of company, chatting about the past, looking at old photos, listening to stories of her childhood, taking her to various appointments, chasing things up and generally sorting things out. Somehow, even when I was at home, I found I was so focussed on her, and so tired (and stressed) that I couldn’t get to grips with much else, though I have just about managed to keep up with my Distant Stitch creative sketchbook course, which has been something of a lifesaver, because however slow I may be I find it so therapeutic to be doing something creative. Now, however, we seem to have the right care package in place, Mum is happy, and I am hoping things really have settled down, so I can relax and try to ‘reclaim’ the activities I enjoy doing.
Anyway, here is a quick piece about Mary Stewart, who was enormously popular for most of the last half of the 20th Century. I thought there was less enthusiasm for her work these days, but her books are still published, so I guess I’m wrong. I admit I didn’t know much about her, but I did a bit of research, so there is a potted biography in my previous post, along with a little bit about her writing. In an effort to get back in to the swing of things I’ve done brief reviews about two re=reads – Touch Not The Cat, which I first read many years ago (long before computers and blogging), and Thornyhold, which I read a couple of years back, but never wrote about.
I have read a couple of her other titles, but I’m not writing about them today, and her brilliant retelling of the Arthurian legends is in a class apart, and deserves a post of its own. As far as the two books mentioned here are concerned, they’re not ‘great literature’ but they are very well crafted, undemanding ‘comfort reads’ – and sometimes that’s exactly what I want!
Touch Not the Cat is, I think, is a classic Stewart tale of ‘romantic suspense’. It’s a love
story, but woven in with that is a thriller, with a mystery
which must be solved before the past can be laid to rest, leaving our hero and heroine free to start their new life together. And on top of all that it’s a supernatural tale.
The plot is a little tricky to explain, but I’ll try to keep it simple. Bryony Ashley returns to her ancestral home after receiving a telepathic message from the man she calls her lover (although she does not know who he is) saying her father has died from injuries received in a hit and run accident. Before dying he uttered a mysterious warning, and as Bryony struggles to discover its meaning she begins to wonder if her father’s death is the accident it appears to be – or are dark forces at work, and was he murdered…
To make matters worse, precious items have disappeared from the house, vital parish registers are missing, a shadowy figure stalks the area, and there is the enigma of the family crest and motto to be puzzled out – involving a maze and the words Touch Not The Cat.
And Bryony is also desperate to find the identity of her telepathic ‘lover’, with whom she has been mentally linked since childhood, and he can hear her as clearly as she hears him. She is convinced her destiny lies with this man, but all she knows is that he must be a family member for, according to legend, the ‘sight’ is a ‘gift’ bestowed on some family members down through the generations. The obvious answer is that the unknown man must be one of her cousins – but the more you see of twins James and Emory, the more you hope it isn’t one of them, because they are so very unpleasant.
The intriguing history of an older love affair involving a long-ago Ashley ancestor plays out alongside Bryony’s story, and there are all kinds of twists and turns in the plot as hidden secrets are revealed, including a clandestine marriage (which explains the identity of the telepathic lover), and events move rapidly towards the cataclysmic climax of the novel (for which the word melodrama might have been coined). Before the requisite happy ending can take place there is a storm, a flood, attempted murder, and the speed of events in this grand finale just takes your breath away.
Re-reading this after so many years, I found that I hadn’t remembered the characters very clearly, or the plot. What had stuck in my mind were the descriptions of Ashley Court, the crumbling old manor house in the Malvern Hills, with its moat, the overgrown garden and maze, and the beautiful old summer house.
Thornyhold has one of the greatest openings I’ve ever read:
I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out. She dwindled from a potential Morgan le Fay into an English vicar’s wife, and ran the parish, as one could in those days – more than half a century ago – with an iron hand disguised by no glove at all.
but I’m not sure the rest of the novel quite lives up to it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely, magical, feel-good novel, and I enjoyed it very much, but I thought the end petered out a bit, and it could have done with a bit more ‘bite’, and there were times when I was reminded of Cold Comfort Farm, and consequently almost decided this was a spoof on idyllic rural romances!
Our narrator is Gilly (Geillis) Ramsey a lonely, unloved child, who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. The one bright spot is a meeting with Cousin Geillis, whose view of life is, to say the least, quite unusual. Years later Cousin Geillis leaves her home to Gilly. Beautiful though it is, the old house has a slightly spooky feel, and the local villagers are all (well, almost all) a little peculiar. And it seems Cousin Geillis was pretty odd as well, for the villagers believe she was a white witch – and Gilly may have inherited her powers.
Gradually, Gilly begins to gain confidence, to find her place in the world, and to know what she wants from life. But her happiness is threatened by the ‘bad’ witch of the village, who covets the man she loves, and Gilly must choose whether to use the power of magic with its dark spells and nightmare dreams, or to rejoice in the ‘sane and daylight world’ of reality and common sense.
Gilly is an engaging heroine, but for me Thornyhold itself takes centre stage. The shabby, dusty old house and its neglected gardens are like a world apart, protected on three sides by woodland, and on the fourth by river, and I liked its sense of history and continuity, and the way that old values still hold sway.