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.
Stewart 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.
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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