Despite being a rapacious reader of just about everything, during my formative years I managed to miss any number of writers who are the bedrock of their particular genres. For instance, I read Terry Brooks long before Tolkien (and yes, I’m aware of the gravity of that mistake). I didn’t discover Diana Wynne Jones until my mid-twenties, around about the same time I found Georgette Heyer. Another standard bearer I missed during my younger years, one who had a huge impact on many Romance writers who followed her, is Mary Stewart.
Born in 1916, Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a trendsetter in many ways. In a time when higher education was possible, though not terribly popular, for women, she received her BA in 1938, and her MA in 1941. She was an Observer during WWII, and for many years taught at the high school and university level. She married Frederick Stewart in 1945, and shortly after that, began to pursue writing as a serious career.
She wrote more than twenty novels, more than two-thirds of which were huge international best-sellers. Not all were Romance — or ‘Romantic Suspense’, as they would be called today (ie: romances that are also mysteries). In fact, Stewart is almost more famous for her Arthurian saga, which consists of The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day. She followed those four up much later with The Prince And The Pilgrim. Oddly enough, though I love Stewart’s work, I’ve never read any of these. It’s not personal: I run an F & SF specialty bookstore, and had to bar all things Arthur for the sake of my sanity. But if I ever come out from behind that barricade, Stewart’s take on the Matter of Britain will be what I turn to first.
The books I love best are the ones Stewart wrote in the 50s and 60s. They tend to be about young(ish) educated women, who are out making their ways in the world. Her heroines all have real lives: they have bills to pay; they’re interested in travel, education and opportunity. But one of the things Stewart’s strongest skill is her ability to capture atmosphere. She was one of those women, and it’s evident. A thorough understanding and acceptance of the daily privations of life in post-war England runs through her early works, and with it, that sense of gleeful joy when those privations are eased.
Several of Stewart’s books are set in the UK, but others are set across the wider European stage. A few take place on the Greek islands, and though some of her ruminations on the nature of the immutable Greek ‘character’ would cause fits in students of post-colonial post-modernism, she has a near-perfect touch with description. When I discovered Stewart, I was not long returned from an extended stay in the Greek Islands, and reading This Rough Magic, My Brother Michael, and Moonspinners instantly transported me back. Moonspinners, by the way, was made into a movie. Sadly, the studio was Disney, and the film stars Haley Mills, so I haven’t quite worked up the nerve to watch it.
I find it very difficult to choose a favourite among Stewart’s novels, but Airs Above The Ground is a perennial front-runner. Drugs, spies, a circus and the fabulous Lipizzan horses of the famed Spanish Riding School all come together in a delightful road-trip of a tale through rural Austria. It’s also unusual in that the heroine has sex. Okay, yes, with her husband, and it happens off the page, but still! It marks a distinct departure from the strictures of the times. Stewart certainly wasn’t the first person to put sex in her books, but she normalized it. Even more importantly, without graphic or explicit language, she made sex mutally enjoyable.
Mary Stewart epitomizes the voice of her generation: educated, thoughtful and forthright, with the sense of being both forward-looking and aware of the past that is particular to those who lived through WWII. The fantastically pulp nature of her cover art is a brilliant contrast to the deliciously crisp nature of her prose. For millions of readers, many of whom went on to become writers, she opened up the world.
Chris Szego’s degree was more heavily flavoured with post-colonial post-modernism that she would have liked, which is why she now runs a bookstore.
Mary Stewart’s Arthur books were the first Arthurian novels I ever read – I quickly came to realize the same thing as you, Chris, about the crazy stacks of Arthur-related stuff out there, so Stewart, plus T.H. White were probably my main Round Table encounters when I was a kid. A not bad representation I think.
Her other books sound fascinating – thanks for letting me know they existed!
Sadly, because of my late acquaintance with Stewart, my Arthurian ban was firmly in place by the time I encountered Hollow Hills. Every once in a while, when I’m longing for something new from her, I think ‘Maybe I should read these…’, but I always back away.
Sad, really. And it’s not because I hate Arthur. Quite the opposite, really.
It’s interesting how iconic Stewart is–so many of us have had similar experiences with her.
I adore Stewart’s intelligent young women traveling in interesting regions, e.g. The Gabriel Hounds and This Rough Magic.
When I first heard of Harry Potter I said, “It sounds just like The Little Broomstick.”
Like you, I hit the wall with Arthurian books before I discovered Stewart. I doubt I’ll ever read her Arthur trilogy.