The Great Mary Stewart

I’ve decided to start off with a tribute to Mary Stewart (Lady Frederick Stewart), who died on May 9, 2014, at the age of 97.  Click here to read her obituary, which goes into some detail about her life.

When the news broke a couple of weeks ago about her death, many of my writer friends on Facebook all expressed how much they owed to her. She was the first great women’s fiction writer that many of us read growing up, and she stood as an advocate of strong, independent heroines in a time where most women’s books featured brainless Gothic heroines running around cliffs in their nightgowns. Take, for example, the narrator of her first book, ** Madam, Will You Talk? Charity Selborne is a young war widow still mourning the death of her husband over Pas de Calais, who organizes a trip through Provence, drives a sports car like a bat out of hell, faces down a man she believes to be a murderer to keep him from getting his hands on his son, and ultimately breaks the will of the real murderer in a great car chase along the cliffs of the Mediterranean.

** Ridiculously, this wonderful book is out of print! Get a clue, publishers!

As women, we learned much from Lady Stewart’s narrators. As writers, we learned about the power of setting from her lyrical descriptions of the landscapes of her novels. She wrote once that she always started with the land, and she never wrote about a location that she hadn’t personally investigated. She was astonishingly accurate; I used Google Earth to look up the locations mentioned in the ever-shifting background of Madam (written in the early 1950s), and you can pick them out to this day!

She made mistakes, of course. In Madam, she spent a paragraph describing a walk-0n character that we never heard of again, yet we had no idea what Charity looked like. All her heroes seemed to have grey eyes — perhaps her husband’s eyes were grey? She left out Charity’s background, but if you read Rose Cottage and Thornyhold, you get a good idea of what she intended for the backstories she left out of Madam. By her second book, Wildfire at Midnight, we knew a great deal more about her characters. I skip over Thunder on the Right, the novel she herself said she wanted to drown, because it seemed like a third-person experiment without much energy. By the time she wrote Nine Coaches Waiting, one of the great romantic suspense novels of all time, and The Ivy Tree, a story of two forbidden lovers who spend years paying for their folly, she was fully in command of her art.

Years ago, I wrote up notes for a Mary Stewart group on Yahoo Groups. If I can find those, I will post them. I did an in-depth analysis of Madam, and I can’t express how much I learned about structure just from that analysis.

Rest in peace, Lady Stewart, and thank you for the years of entertainment you gave us all.