Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The reading nostalgia spot: Mary Stewart

I was grazing recently through a new acquaintance's liberal bookshelves, and found myself walloping back through my reading memory when I hit a vein of Mary Stewart's books.

I have not read her fantasy Arthurian novels, though I hear they are popular. What I read, as a teenager, was her romantic suspense novels. She only died three years ago at the age of 98, and was prolific enough to do: an Englishwoman and an English graduate she married a Scottish geologist and was a professor's wife in Edinburgh, retiring to Loch Awe in later years to garden. Ah, bliss!

So I reread, with a little trepidation for one does not always enjoy revisiting what one liked reading at sixteen, The Gabriel Hounds and Touch Not the Cat, though as I reviewed the titles and remembered the books it was hard to choose. Wildfire at Midnight, for example, is set on Skye at the time of the 1953 Coronation, and with references to Fraser's The Silver Bough is a chilling exploration of some Celtic superstitions. This Rough Magic is set on Crete, though it's steeped in Shakespeare's The Tempest. The Moonspinners is there, too: The Ivy Tree uses a trick that appears elsewhere too: she takes, quite openly, the plot of Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar (which I also love), and gives it an extra twist. My Brother Michael (the first I ever read, I think, and one in a series I scrabbled for in charity shops and library sales) is set in Greece; Nine Coaches Waiting in a French chateau where the heroine is a valiant Jane Eyre, while Madam, Will You Talk? is a frantic chase along the French riviera; Thunder on the Right is French, too. Airs Above the Ground is set amongst the Lippizaners of the Spanish Riding School; Thornyhold, one I managed to buy new when it came out, in a sweet cottage somewhere in England with layers of witchcraft sown into it. The books tend to feature first person narration by a woman with an independent streak (remember these were if not all written in the 1950s, certainly set in that period in style), have a romantic interest, and an adventurous plot with a criminal side, and often a bit of a paranormal one, too. The settings are well described and offer something I particularly value in books, the ability to learn something new in each book, even if it's only an awareness of Gilbert White writing The Natural History of Selborne. In my early teenage years these added considerably to my general knowledge, even if they were, even then, a little dated. Because of that there is an innocence to them, but the characters are well-rounded and different, and there is throughout a thread of ironic humour which I enjoy. The richness of the story is enhanced by the writer's own broad and deep knowledge of her setting, her history and her literature, and I'm very glad I went back to them for a visit.

The Gabriel Hounds is set in the Lebanon and Syria (in significantly more peaceful times for those beautiful countries) and takes as its inspiration the story of Lady Hester Stanhope, an eccentric Englishwoman who around 1810 headed off as an independent traveller, dressed as a man and set up a palace for herself in that neighbourhood, attended by a personal physician and a few choice young men, and a staff she subdued with whips and rods. She was a real character, the niece of Pitt, I think, and Mary Stewart has made one of her characters do her best to imitate her in the 1950s. Two young relatives go to visit her and find that not all is as it should be - death and drug-running are involved. I whizzed through this in a couple of days around other things and thoroughly enjoyed it. Some might find her attitudes to the locals a little dated, but this is the 1950s and I think on the whole she's not the worst of her generation by a long shot.

Many of her books feature complex, sometimes tricky families, closely bound for good or bad through generations or across a generation, and Touch Not the Cat (part of the Clan Chattan motto) is a good example. Bryony has always had close links with her cousins and when her father dies in a hit-and-run in Bavaria, the eldest cousin inherits the family home in England. But there is no fortune to go with it, and the family story is more complicated than Bryony has known: her father's last words told her she was in danger, and it is all too true. As always the writing makes the place come alive, and the pacing is perfect.

Don't be put off by the very peculiar covers on the reprints of these - they are very well worth a read!

And to finish: No.2 Cat attempts indoor cultivation.

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