Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Mary Stewart 1916-2014

Mary StewartWhen I told the Foxes I wanted to write about Mary Stewart, there was a chorus of ‘oh no, she’s died? Oh, yes please, we want to read about her’. She’s very popular in the Den, possibly because many of us are women readers (Mary Stewart really did speak to women in her novels), but also because she was one of the great historical novelists of our time, and we all like historical fiction. Her writing could be epic without being pompous, she was a poet without being pretentious, and she wrote perfect romance without sentimental gloop. Her male protagonists in the Merlin stories are utterly accessible. When I read them I am Merlin in my head, which shows that this superb novelist transcended gender botherations.

Hollow HillsOf course, this is a partial assessment because I haven’t yet read everything that Mary Stewart wrote. I first discovered her with Ludo and the Star Horse in 1974, and I still recall episodes from that fine children’s novel, because it is so wise and clever, and successfully scares the willies out of me with giant scorpions and the star signs’ godlike indifference. I devoured the first four Merlin novels – The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day –  one very wet and cold holiday in a tent in Wales. I think I must have bought the first one at the train station, and then had to buy the others during the week, because they gave me perfect escapist solace in a week of freezing cold trudges up hills to look at spring lambs in the snow.

crystal caveI still can’t read Merlin’s journey to Brittany in The Crystal Cave without shivering. Her five Merlin novels (she published The Prince and the Pilgrim a few years later) are retellings of the Arthur myth, and her version is been my favourite of all the Arthurian novels I’ve read. Her style suits the way I like the story to be told – as if these were real people we could meet, with no melodrama, no anachronistic language, no pointless mysticism –  and I am intrigued by what and how much of Gildas and Malory she used. And, of course, she created a new interpretation of Arthur’s story by telling Merlin’s story instead, the first time this had been done in modern literary reconstructions. They are timelessly modern.

Touch NotHer unobtrusive and matter-of-fact use of the supernatural, was handled delicately and so perfectly in line with the plots, even those set in the present day.  Her protagonists in the non-historical novels are pleasingly intelligent young women with minds of their own, and are still refreshing. These novels also drip with contemporary charm from the 1950s and 1960s, immersing the reader in the mood of the times. In that her novels are very like those of Helen McInnes, and even Ann Bridge outside ambassadorial circles: period thrillers with women at their heart. When I first tried Stewart’s modern novels, I gave The Gabriel Hounds a go, but didn’t care for its mix of 1960s hipsterspeak and freakish mystery. But I can still recall large chunks of description of Greek driving and houses, so it was obviously well and memorably written. I did enjoy Touch Not The Cat very much: great use of telepathy in an excellent historical detective novel set in the past and present. I have just – now – ordered Nine Coaches Waiting, because my Stewart instructor has told me that that is THE one to read.

Mary Stewart 2When I read that Mary Stewart had died (the news only came out 5 days after her death), I started looking her up online, and was rather surprised to find so little professional coverage. The Wikipedia pages for her biography and novels sorely need updating and filling in with more summaries and cover images (get out there, people, and add your plot summaries). But there is a detailed unofficial fansite created by (apparently) two North Carolina sisters and Stewart fans, with a blog last updated in 2011, and a thorough bibliography page. There should be more, and maybe there will be.

Kate has podcasted enthusiastically on Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels here, in


About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

8 comments on “Mary Stewart 1916-2014

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    May 17, 2014

    Lovely piece Kate. I read many Stewarts in my teens, while finding my way to adult novels through my mother’s books! I bought a set recently to revisit her, which will be even more poignant.

  2. Lisa
    May 17, 2014

    I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the Merlin novels – well, the first two. I haven’t read the later ones, and in fact I didn’t even learn of the last two until last year, but they’re now on my reading list. I didn’t care for her suspense novels when I first tried them, but when I was re-introduced to them I became a little obsessed with them. Nine Coaches is wonderful – I’d also recommend The Ivy Tree.

  3. ABB
    May 17, 2014

    Thank you for this essay, Lisa, drawing attention to Mary Stewart’s life and achievements. Among her novels, I particularly remember enjoying “This Rough Magic”, as well as the Merlin cycle. On the subject of Arthurian novels, I recommend “Sword at Sunset” by Rosemary Sutcliff, another writer who seems to have fallen off the literary radar screen. Her view of Arthur provides an interesting contrast to Stewart’s.

  4. Hilary
    May 18, 2014

    Decades have passed since I read Mary Stewart’s novels – this definitely reminds me of my young self. Thanks for this lovely tribute, Kate, and for the inspiration to get hold of a couple of her books to read on holiday.

  5. Alison
    May 18, 2014

    I loved ‘Nine Coaches Waiting’ as a teenager but tried reading ‘Thunder on the Right’ recently and gave up as it was so dated.

  6. Clarissa Aykroyd
    May 30, 2014

    I haven’t read many of her other books, but Mary Stewart’s Arthurian novels really were life-altering for me. It’s some years since I read them, but as a teenager I read them probably dozens of times and they led me on to many wonderful experiences (including a trip to North Wales where I visited some of the locations described.) It was strange and sad news to hear that she’d died, even at an advanced age.

    Also, I agree with ABB’s comment – Sword at Sunset by the amazing Rosemary Sutcliff is magnificent.

  7. Pingback: May 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  8. Pingback: Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave | Kate Macdonald

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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