Monday, November 24, 2014

Hell's Teeth! The Magic of Mary Stewart

I discovered my first Mary Stewart book, Touch Not the Cat, in a 1976 Reader’s Digest Condensed Book of my dad’s. It was, I found, not Mrs. Stewart’s best work, but how I loved that mysterious tale of twins and telepathy, and I’ve been a passionate fan of hers ever since. After that, I saved up my babysitting money each month to buy her older novels, which all transported me to a world where well-read heroines quote Shakespeare, Milton and Tennyson, and the handsome devils who fall in love them all know exactly what they mean.

These women, though, do more than sit around and read the classics. Charity Selborne, the protagonist of Mrs. Stewart’s first novel, Madam, Will You Talk? not only throws herself into saving a young boy from his menacing father, but knows how to drive her car fast enough along the winding roads of Provence to elude the monstrous man. Lucy Waring, in This Rough Magic, crosses paths with a cold-blooded smuggler then escapes by swimming from a bay in Corfu to the Albanian coast. Created mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, these heroines are Every Women who generally hold low-status jobs, but there’s no doubt that they’re at least as clever as (if not more clever than) their counterparts in contemporary fiction.

Besides the thrill of seeing an ordinary woman outwit a host of dangerous foes (from a former Nazi to a madman obsessed with making human sacrifices to a mountain), Mrs. Stewart gives us the pleasure of travelling to such disparate places as Damascus, Corfu and Scotland’s Isle of Skye. I can still remember how she made me love these locales with her lengthy descriptions that seemed to caress every tree, every leaf, every bird’s wing. Here she is, in The Moon-Spinners, describing some scenery in Crete:

 “The track to Agios Georgios wound its way between high banks of maquis, the scented maquis of Greece. I could smell verbena, and lavender, and a kind of sage. Over the hot white rock and the deep green of the maquis, the Judas trees lifted their clouds of scented flowers the color of purple daphne, their branches reaching landwards, away from the African winds.”*

I confess that as a 13-year-old, I often skimmed over such passages, eager to plunge on through the plot and get to the good parts, where the heroine vexes the villain and kisses a handsome but oh-so-honorable man who just happens to fiercely return her affection. “My dear girl,” Nicholas Drury tells the heroine of Wildfire at Midnight, “my instincts work overtime where you’re concerned.” Sigh.

As much as I loved these romances, I was – and am – equally thrilled by Mrs. Stewart’s vocabulary. Besides beginning her chapters with lines from old ballads or plays or poems (“Nine coaches waiting—hurry, hurry, hurry—/Ay, to the devil….”), she has her characters all speak in classy sentences that are peppered with bursts of well-mannered British slang such as “hell’s teeth,” “damnable” and “beastly.” Her heroines are all unequivocally decent (at least four of them put themselves in danger to protect a child and one even goes all out to save a beached dolphin in the middle of the night), but their speech reveals a bit of an edge and more than a spark of humor. Charity Selborne hardly bats an eyelash when her friend dryly refers to an exciting man as “The Wolf of Orange” and Gianetta Brooke tells us after her brush with death in Wildfire at Midnight that “I had been fortified with whisky and a cigarette and was content, for a moment to rest there in the sun before attempting the tramp back to the hotel.”

If you go to a used bookstore, you’ll see that the women on the covers of Mrs. Stewart’s novels all have different looks, depending on the decade in which a particular volume was published. Today, the latest editions feature bright, retro-hip art that could be mistaken for 1950’s Dior fashion drawings. My favorites are the dark covers from the 60's, each depicting a heroine in lipstick, high heels and polished hairdo. I also own several crumbling 70’s editions that show full-hipped women in bell-bottom pants, their long, loose hair blowing in the breeze. Clearly, the publishers were trying to appeal to more modern audiences with those covers. But they had it all wrong. A Mary Stewart heroine is always as well-coifed as she is well-read.

Even in the midst of deadly encounters, Charity and company carry combs and mirrors in their hand bags and wear petticoats beneath their frocks. Mrs. Stewart may have been a serious, hard-working woman, but she also understood the importance of clothes, as we see in this exchange between Charity and her friend Louise in Madam, Will You Talk?:

“My dear,” I said gratefully, “don’t tell me you’ve brought my clothes! I knew you were the most wonderful woman in the world!”

She laughed. “No one can face a crisis unless they’re suitably clad.”

Sadly, Mary Stewart died this year. But the good news is she lived to be 97, and new generations of women are still being delighted by her books. Or maybe I should say new generations of women and men, because I’ve read a few of her novels aloud to my family, and my husband and my son are as captivated by them as my mother, my daughter and I have been. My husband likes Wildfire at Midnight and my son has a thing for The Ivy Tree. I couldn't possibly pick a favorite, but if you’ve never read a Mary Stewart book before, you can safely start with any of them. Hell’s teeth, I believe you’ll be damnably glad you did.

*Mary Stewart’s novels were originally published by Hodder & Stoughton in London. The Moon-Spinners came out in 1962, Wildfire at Midnight was published in 1956, and Madam, Will You Talk? was published in 1955.