10 Reasons to Love: Mary Stewart

19th May 2014

10 Reasons to Love: Mary Stewart
Following her death last week, at the ripe old age of 97, we look back over Mary Stewart's life and celebrate the reasons why we love her so.

1.  Her Career Pre-Writing

Mary Stewart studied English at Durham University, graduating in 1938 and then becoming the President of the Women’s Union whilst studying for her teaching certificate.  When war broke out and schools in Middlesbrough closed, she went from house to house, teaching groups of children in their kitchens.  In 1941 she returned to Durham as a don, lecturing there from 1941 to 1956.

2.  Opening Her Chapters

Stewart was known for opening each chapter of her romantic-suspense novels with a quote; whether that be from Shakespeare, Browning or Marvell.  Each quote was beautifully married to the narrative and added a depth that often had been accused as lacking in the genre.

3.  Her Heroines

Perhaps most remarkable about her earlier novels are her heroines.  She wrote at a time when romance heroines were getting a makeover and it has often been argued that Stewart led this revolution; her characters were intelligent and educated, travelling round the world and rarely flinching in the face of danger.  Romance happened along the way, but was generally a by-product of the narrative and not at its centre.

4.  Sympathising with Arthurian Women

Her different approach to women wasn’t limited to her romantic-suspense novels.  She often argued in defense of the Arthurian women, saying: “Don’t forget what a dreadful life these medieval women must have led; shut up in those ghastly castles while the men were away having fun. Nothing to do but your embroidery and play at ball in the garden.”

5.  Her Merlin  Novels

The Crystal Cave was remarkable in its retelling of Arthurian legends.  Unlike most adaptations that had come before it, Stewart placed Merlin at the centre of the story, as opposed to Arthur.  In addition to this, and perhaps more daring, was her decision to set them in the 5th century as opposed to the 12th.  Meticulously researched, she drew on the earliest versions of the legend, replacing Lancelot with Bedwyr.

7.  Her Refusal to Categorize Her Novels

She was continually frustrated by people’s efforts to pigeonhole her writing, her publishers even being reluctant to publish her Merlin series after the success of her romantic-suspense novels. “I’d rather just say that I write novels, fast-moving stories that entertain. To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written. Beyond that, you cannot categorize… ‘Storyteller’ is an old and honorable title and I’d like to lay claim to it.”

7.  Her Impact on the Romantic-Suspense Novel

Pamela Regis, in  A Natural History of the Romance Novel expresses it best:  “Stewart’s influence extends to every writer of romantic suspense, for Stewart understood and perfected this hybrid of romance and mystery and used it as a structure for books so beautifully written that they have endured to become part of the canon of the twentieth-century romance novel.”

8.  Settings

In some ways, the settings of Mary Stewart’s romantic-suspense novels are more key than the plots.  Set in exotic locations in the Mediterranean or as far afield as Lebanon, the lush descriptions conjure up a sense of place that is impossible to shake.

9.  Children’s Writing

Despite being best known for her novels for adults, she wrote three novels for children, including the wonderfully imaginative Ludo and the Star Horse.  The Ludo of the title accidentally stumbles into star country – the world of the zodiac – with his horse Renti, and the two have to travel through the entire zodiac in order for Renti to fulfil his destiny as a star horse.

10.  Frost on the Window and Other Poems

In 1990, Mary Stewart released a volume of poetry that was hauntingly beautiful.  In some ways this best sums up her writing career.  A writer who was known for publishing novels from all genres, she turned once more and published the last thing anyone expected.

Here’s to diverse and challenging women writers of undeniable merit.