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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Thornyhold

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, finishing up with Thornyhold. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

thornyholdThornyhold is one of Stewart’s late books, published in 1988. Interestingly, she sets it earlier, with Gilly writing down the story of her youth as a grandmother. I think this is a wise choice, as it lets her write the kind of old fashioned story she seems more comfortable with. I’m quite fond of this book–it’s actually the only Stewart I own, though that’s mostly by accident. It’s not exactly memorable in the sense of Things Happening. It’s a quiet, gentle story about a young girl and her cousin and their possibly magical house.

Actually, as I was reading this, I said on Twitter that this was a strong case of “do I like this book, or do I just want to live in this house.” I do like the book, quite genuinely, but I DEFINITELY want to live in that house. I am convinced that if I lived in Thornyhold I would do the dishes every single day and never leave all my stuff everywhere and magically do all the preserving I dream about and in short how do I make this happen?

I should also mention right away that as with Nine Coaches Waiting, this book is VERY BAD as far as disability representation goes. Really, truly bad. 0/10, Mary Stewart! I am able to enjoy the book regardless, but I completely understand if others aren’t able to.

The main character of Thornyhold is a young woman named Gilly Ramsey, whose major love in early life is her cousin Geillis. Her mother is disappointed in life and fairly cruel, Gilly herself is shy and wants more than anything to have animals and a place of her own. Neither of these seem at all possible until Cousin Geillis dies and leaves Gilly her house, Thornyhold. It’s with the entrance of Thornyhold that the plot, such as it is, kicks in, but I do like the beginning and its sense of wonder and childhood.

I’m aware that Mary Stewart wrote some fantasy books as well as romantic suspense, and I may have even tried one of them. But I haven’t searched them out because I suspect they wouldn’t be at all my cup of tea. Rather than straight fantasy, here there’s a quiet story with a little bit of magic underlying everything. (The first line, after all, is “I suppose my mother could have been a witch if she had wanted to.”) It’s the small magic of hearth and home, beautifully depicted.

Here there’s also a lovely sense of continuity and the past history of the house. In my opinion, Stewart is more successful here at weaving in the past than in Touch Not the Cat. I love the idea of the continuity of women who are the guardians of this domain, and I also love the sense of warmth and the (odd but real) relationship that Gilly has with them. The house and land are imbued with a sense of quiet history. Thornyhold is small, but it’s not unimportant; in its own way, it’s a kind of torch against the dark.

I wish, really, that Stewart had felt able to just leave a romance out of the story altogether. While Christopher John is nowhere near as annoying as Raoul (or even Adam), he also just doesn’t add much. I do like William (his son) but the whole falling into each other’s arms thing just seems forced here. I do think Stewart was trying to write a romance that fits Gilly, that’s about someone quiet, someone who’s a “late bloomer” (blech). But I also don’t think it’s really quite successful, although I appreciate that we see Cousin Geillis live a happy and full life without any need for romance at all.

In the end, this isn’t one of Stewart’s most memorable books, but it is perhaps her most comforting. And in its own quiet way, it’s trying to show–however flawed–a different kind of strength.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1988, adult fantasy/romance

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?

Nine Coaches Waiting

The Ivy Tree

Stormy Petrel

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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Stormy Petrel

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, continuing with Stormy Petrel. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

stormy-petrelStormy Petrel, published in 1991, is the latest book (chronologically) that I’m looking at in this series. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I liked revisiting it quite a bit–there’s some interesting stuff about gender and genre that I think Stewart couldn’t have written earlier–but I also found that it doesn’t necessarily have the staying power of some of her earlier books (for all of their problems).

Rose Fenemore is an English tutor at a fictional Cambridge college, Haworth. There’s no other real Jane Eyre connection, just the name, but it just shows that Mary Stewart couldn’t resist an allusion. But she isn’t just an English tutor. She also, secretly, writes science fiction under the penname HUGH TEMPLAR (I cannot make this up).

So, I am having a couple of different reactions to the whole sci-fi thing. When I was reading Stormy Petrel, I was also reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr. And so the whole question of women writing SF and what name they write it under and male pseudonyms was and is pretty alive for me. Stewart doesn’t get into the gender part, merely says that Rose writes SF “Under another name, of course” and then goes on to give the (male) name. I think it’s maybe the “of course” that gets me.

But also, now that I’m thinking about it later, why on earth is the fact that Rose writes SF such a big deal? I mean–maybe I’m being naive, but this book is set contemporary to its publishing date. Does she really have to hide her writing to the degree she does? Would Cambridge care that much if one of their tutors turned out to have a sideline in spaceships? I don’t know, maybe they would. I am hardly an expert on the subject! It’s just an attitude I associate with an earlier era.

Regardless, the whole question of pseudonyms and hiding the SF writing does combine with Stewart’s general sensibility to give Stormy Petrel a very old-fashioned feeling. Assuming the action takes place in the late 80s or early 90s, you’d hardly know it, except for the fact that Ewen Mackay gets mixed up with drugs. There’s also a very tacked-on romance–tacked-on even by late Stewart standards. We barely get a sense of who Neil is, aside from some vague niceness.

As is standard with Stewart’s books, there’s an element of mystery here. Rose’s rented cottage is invaded by two unknown men (she reacts MUCH more calmly than I would), one of whom turns out to be Ewan Mackay, and the other Neil (under an assumed name). There’s a question of who inherits the estate on the island, with Ewan believing he’s an illegitimate child and therefore entitled to something. However, he’s a more pitiable character than a scary one. Rose and Neil have to try to foil his plans and recover the things he’s stolen from the house; there’s not a huge sense of urgency here, somehow.

What I’ve said so far probably makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book. In fact, I did like reading it quite a lot! Stewart has that great sense of place and gift for homey description. And Rose herself is a nice addition to Stewart’s heroines, even if she’s not as vivid as some of the others. It’s just that the strengths are a little diminished somehow, pastel versions of themselves, and so in the end the book isn’t very memorable either on the strength of the mystery or the romantic elements.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1991; adult mystery/romance

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?

Thornyhold

Nine Coaches Waiting

The Ivy Tree

 

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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: The Ivy Tree

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, continuing with The Ivy Tree. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

the ivy treeThe Ivy Tree was published seven years into Mary Stewart’s career, in 1961, and in some ways it’s one of her strongest books. (Also one of my favorites.) It’s set in Northumberland, and weaves together some of the strands that Stewart returned to frequently. It’s an interesting one to reread, because the clues to the mystery are RIGHT THERE, I mean they are NOT HARD TO SPOT. And yet, the characters and their tangled relationships, and the vivid descriptions of the land and the farm are compelling enough that I didn’t even really mind. (Although I did notice.)

One of Stewart’s hallmarks is a well-read heroine, and she often opens with some sort of literary allusion. The Ivy Tree is no different–we start off with an old folk song for an epigraph and each chapter is headed with another bit of a folk song. There’s also a Shakespeare reference right on the first page.

But as I mentioned before, Stewart seems particularly fascinated by Jane Eyre and prone to include references in different ways. In Nine Coaches Waiting, it was the governess motif, but here it’s coming home to a burnt house (Thornfield/Forrest Hall) and an absent and scarred former lover. (Adam was even trying to save his wife, who had set a fire. I am not reading too much into this.)

She also includes hidden Roman ruins at least twice–here and in Touch Not the Cat. There seems to be a thread, at least in the English-set books, of the history of the landscape. The past is never that far from the present, whether it’s ancient, or more recent. In The Ivy Tree, family history is also important–it’s why Annabel left home, why Con makes the choices he does, and to a certain extent it’s why Annabel returns.

That’s the spoiler: Mary is totally Annabel. Now, it may be just because I read Brat Farrar again for last month’s series, but I kept wondering if Stewart was influenced by Tey at all. This story and Brat Farrar are kind of inverses of each other. Both main characters pretend to be someone they’re not. Brat pretends to be Patrick coming home; Annabel pretends that she is Mary Grey, but also that she is herself coming home. (This makes more sense in context.) I can’t say for sure, obviously, but regardless of Stewart’s intent, the echoes between the two are really interesting.

Now, to be fair, any mention of the Pennines is going to get me right away (thanks to both Code Name Verity and The Winter Prince). But also the opening of this book is just lovely: vivid descriptions of the landscape that somehow also give an instant sense of Mary/Annabel. There are other clues later in the book–her knowledge of Forrest Hall, of horse cant, of Adam–that give her away if you know what you’re looking for. I think, though, that the opening is where it starts. No stranger, however interested, could give such a detail and loving sense of the land.

And I do think that Stewart handles the emotional side of Annabel’s relationship to Whitescar and her family well. She’s playing a tricky game and we get to see just enough of it for the whole thing to work. I also liked the way Stewart uses Annabel’s cousin Julie as a foil, but also as someone that Annabel has an uncomplicated and warm relationship to. This can’t be said of any of the men in the picture, from Matthew right down to Con and Adam.

Stewart’s heroines have an unfortunate tendency to lose their backbone as soon as the romantic interest arrives. Annabel is really the least woolly of them all, in my opinion. She remains pretty self-reliant, although there are a few lapses into nonsense from time to time. And Adam, while not at all my cup of tea, is at least less annoying that Raoul. (Actually the man I like most in this one is Donald!) I did get a sense that there was a possibility of Adam and Annabel working through their past to a happy future together.

Still, for me the strengths of this one are much less the romance and much more Annabel’s common sense and strength. Combined with the texture of the family and landscape, it’s a story that I find quite compelling and enjoyable.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1961, adult romance/mystery

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?

Thornyhold

Nine Coaches Waiting

Stormy Petrel

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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Nine Coaches Waiting

nine coachesIn September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, beginning with Nine Coaches Waiting. Spoilers will be everywhere! Also I do some yelling in this post. Consider yourself warned.

Nine Coaches Waiting is Stewart’s fourth book, published in 1958 and which is set contemporary to its publication date. I’ve read it a couple of times already and have always had mixed feelings about parts of the plot and characterization. SURPRISE, I still feel that way! I also want to say right away that there is a disabled character in this book and the representation is TERRIBLE (evil, manipulative, villain of the whole thing). I do not recommend it on that score at all.

One of the things I like to do in these Reading Notes series is trace out images or themes the author keeps returning to. With Stewart, there are a couple that I noticed which are certain present in Nine Coaches Waiting. First, she tends to weave in allusions to literature throughout her books–her heroines are usually educated in the classics, and Stewart also includes epigraphs and framings. In this case, each chapter is headed with a quote from an earlier book, whether it’s Dickens or The Revenger’s Tragedy. They all have some connection to the following chapter, and generally from books with some sort of mystery/revenge/suspense element.

Because Stewart is very consciously in conversation with the Gothic tradition, we see her playing with the themes of the possibly dangerous charmer/seducer. Leon and Raoul both fall into this pattern, with Leon coming down on the side of dangerous and Raoul on the side of charmer (sort of, more on that later). There’s also the grand but crumbling house, the ominous servants, and etc. But Stewart is also consciously and deliberately referencing Jane Eyre, which she does in some form or another in almost every book she wrote. We see it in Linda’s position as a governess, in her initial meeting with Raoul which echoes Jane’s meeting with Rochester down to the fog and the almost-accident, in her care for her young charge when no one else seems to care for them.

However much I do like Nine Coaches, I can’t say it exactly measures up to Jane Eyre.

I do like Linda, however. I think she’s one of Stewart’s more successful narrators, which is a little different than saying she’s one of Stewart’s more successful main characters. Her voice is clear and sharp from the first page, and I found myself interested in the way she both keeps secrets and tries to uncover them. Right from the beginning we see that she dislikes being manipulated, that she’s impetuous, fond of beautiful and romantic things. She’s has a moral backbone which drives a lot of the book, and I appreciated seeing that without her being goody-goody.

However, there’s generally a tension in Stewart’s books between the strength of the heroines and the inevitable romantic entanglement, and it’s here that I found myself frustrated with Linda and with the book generally. Both Raoul and Leon have a kind of wobbling effect on her, which is part of the danger that both promise but which is never entirely dealt with.

In fact, let me say here and now that this is a good old case of some great gaslighting! Leon tells Linda that she’s being “a little hysterical” (My note at this point, verbatim: “DAGGERS, LEON”) and generally tries to convince her that everything she’s worried about is in her head. When Raoul kisses Linda and she doesn’t react positively he writes “It was only a kiss after all” (SHUT UP, RAOUL!). And we’re supposed to believe that Linda is going to live happily ever after with him.

This kind of comes to a head for me when Linda believes that Raoul is part of the plot to kill Philippe. Eventually she discovers that this is not the case, thanks to some handwavey explanations from Stewart. Raoul was completely innocent and is hurt that she suspected him. And it doesn’t bother me that he was innocent the whole time, or even that Linda’s suspicious were wrong. It does bother me that she then apologizes. She had what she believed was good evidence for his involvement and she APOLOGIZES FOR EVER BELIEVING IT.

PARDON ME WHILE I PUNCH SOME THINGS.

So, yeah, the romance angle is by far the weakest part of the book for me. I MEAN, WHY. However, I do genuinely enjoy the mystery aspect and Stewart’s prose is lovely. She has a gift for descriptions that shows up in all of her books, and here she combines it with a sense of atmosphere and doom that is really effective. I just wish that Linda’s story didn’t end in a marriage that seems destined for misery.

Book source: public library
Book information: 1958, adult romance/mystery

Looking for my other Mary Stewart posts?

Thornyhold

The Ivy Tree

Stormy Petrel

Save