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.
When 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.
Of 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.
I 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.
Her 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.
When 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.