In Praise of Mary Stewart

Aug 9, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Fantasy & Fangs, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

May 9, 2014 marked the passing of novelist Mary Stewart at the age of 97. I hadn’t read her in quite a few years, but her death saddened me because somehow I felt as if I were saying goodbye to my youth again.

I read most of Stewart’s early novels at such an impressionable age–when I was in middle and high school–and was utterly enchanted by the world of her books. Inspired, I determined to travel abroad myself and be open to falling into adventures much as her heroines had. These women were intelligent and independent with firm ideas about what was right for them and acted rather than merely re-acting or waiting to be rescued when everything went pear-shaped. This is not to say that her protagonists were fearless, since Stewart’s plots also revolve around facing up to fear, discovering the truth and protecting the defenseless. These women were in a refreshingly different mold from traditional romantic leads I had read.

mary stewartStewart had an especially strong sense of place and a knack for setting the reader down in the midst of whatever regions she described. Her novels took place in locations not only throughout the British Isles, but also in France and Greece. As her characters traveled, we readers were treated to a smattering of the French and Greek languages. As a reader, I still love this device and she was the first writer I remember reading who shared the experience.

I’ll never forget her descriptions of the wildness of the mountains on Skye in Wildfire at Midnight or the isolated beaches and coves of Corfu in This Rough Magic. I still remember the lemon trees and the dry heat of Crete in The Moonspinners and the “painted landscape” of the northern fells in Northumberland, her setting for The Ivy Tree. I went with her to Vienna and learned about the Lipizzans of the Spanish Riding School located there and sojourned in the Syrian Desert with her in The Gabriel Hounds.

Stewart published her first novel, Madam Will You Talk, in 1954. She wrote fourteen more novels classified in the genre she is often credited with creating, that of romantic suspense. In the midst of writing these popular novels, Stewart branched out, choosing to write an historical novel about Merlin the magician, placing him in Roman Britain, and calling her first in the series, The Crystal Cave. Three more novels about Merlin followed between 1973 and 1983, culminating in a 1995 stand-alone, set in the same period, but telling the story of other contemporary characters. She published three children’s books and a volume of poetry as well.mary stewart

I’m grateful for the writing career of Mary Stewart, storyteller. I still find her interesting to read and am delighted that even though I haven’t read her since The Gabriel Hounds, there are five more of her lovely novels ahead of me that I had lost track of, and then there are her Merlin books yet ahead of me as well. She opened up the world of travel and romance to me in my youth, so I’m excited to be on the brink of her tales of Roman Britain and legendary Merlin in my maturity. I’m in good hands.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.


  1. Mary Stewart, one my favorite mystery authors since I was first recommended to her by a librarian in Burbank, CA when I was about 12-13. MADAM WILL YOU TALK? was the first, and I have read every one since. THIS ROUGH MAGIC is my favorite. There is just something about Corfu and The Tempest…. I have collected all her romantic-suspense books and re-read them over and over. Think I’ll begin again, since this article. Maybe I’ll start with NINE COACHES WAITING, or MY BROTHER MICHAEL, or MOONSPINNERS, or your WILDFIRES AT MIDNIGHT……
    Thanks to that long ago librarian for giving me a love for mystery. And thanks to you, Sharon, for the reminder!!

    • My pleasure, Jackie. Mary Stewart meant a lot to me years ago and now I have re discovered her again too. —Much happy reading ahead. . .

  2. I LOVED Mary Stewart! I didn’t know she had passed and totally agree with the comment, “I hadn’t read her in quite a few years, but her death saddened me because somehow I felt as if I were saying goodbye to my youth again.” RIP, Mary.

    • Patricia—her books have been re-issued fairly recently and I think that bodes well for many others discovering her. I have TOUCH NOT THE CAT at the top of my tbr pile and am looking forward to the weekend.


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