A Reading Hour
When I look back into the past I cannot locate the moment at which I first discovered the novelist Mary Stewart. In the days when, as teenagers, we would make weekly family trips to the library I was always happy to discover one of her novels unfamiliar and unread. In later years the delight came from rediscovering one to read again. I must have read all of her novels ten times over or more.
Born in 1916 in County Durham, England, Mary Stewart released her first novel Madam, Will You Talk in 1956. She had submitted the manuscript at the insistence of her husband the geologist Sir Frederick Stewart. It was an instant success and she went on to write over twenty novels, ranging from romantic suspense to a reworking of the Merlin legend and encompassing poetry and children’s literature. She was given an honorary D.Litt. in 2009 by the University of Durham and died at the age of 97 in 2014.
Her novels are most often told in the first person by a strong minded heroine who comes to encounter a challenging and deeply dangerous situation. During her navigation of this, a hero, sometimes not always who he seems to be at first, will emerge. One of Stewart’s most remarkable skills as a novelist is her ability to sustain the intensity of all of the strands of her story. We can revel in her elegant and breathtaking descriptions of often exotic locations, be swept up in the exciting pace of the unfolding narrative and simutaenously be given pause by the poignancy and depth of characterization and developing relationship between the two protagonists.
Nine Coaches Waiting is my favorite of all of her novels. It tells the story of a young woman, Linda Martin, orphaned when a young girl, who returns to France, the country of her childhood, to take up a position as governess to the young Comte Philippe de Valmy in Haute-Savoie. That all is not as it seems is revealed swiftly; we learn that our heroine has, of necessity, concealed her perfect knowledge of French from Madame de Valmy, her prospective employer and Philippe’s aunt. ‘It was another thing I must remember. I was English. Madame de Valmy had made it very clear that she wanted an English girl…She had made rather a lot of it..’ Very soon our self-reliant heroine is caught up in the intrigue of this aristocratic French family unsure of who is friend and who foe. Fascinated and yet repelled by Philippe’s uncle the wheel chair bound Leon de Valmy, ‘Just because the man looked like Milton’s ruined archangel…didn’t necessarily mean that I had to smell sulphur’ and unsure of where she stands with his enigmatic wife Heloise ‘There was that curious remoteness about her which made her difficult to approach’ Linda becomes increasingly entangled with the arrival of Leon’s estranged son Raoul, ‘Tall, dark and handsome… the romantic cliche repeated itself in my head-so automatically and irresistibly that I braced myself to dislike him on sight.’
Each character in this haunting novel is drawn with consummate skill and as a reader we are allowed time to come to our own conclusions about their true nature and intentions. Linda and Raoul are my favorite of all Mary Stewart’s heroines and heroes and I think they are the reason that I am pulled back time and again to this work. Linda because she engages our sympathy, admiration and interest from the beginning- there is such sadness in her background ‘I’d lived with loneliness a long time. That was something which was always there..’ and yet she faces her future with such strength and cares for Philippe, her charge, with such true warmth, ‘Another burst of whistling and a messy-sounding splash came from the bathroom and presently Philippe emerged…Something absurd and tender took me by the throat...’ And then there is Raoul who explodes into the narrative by moonlight ‘tough, arrogant and… furious’ In true Stewart fashion we are in time given a fully formed portrait of a man who has shouldered enormous responsibility and pain alone and we care deeply about the outcome of their relationship in this story where imminent tragedy and destruction seem to hover in the air above the chateau.
Stewart plays with perception in various ways in Nine Coaches Waiting. Although narrated in the first person we are often given glimpses of how our humble heroine appears in the eyes of others. We see, for example, a long time after we have bonded with her, just how very beautiful Linda is ‘“Perhaps” she said disconcertingly, “he just can’t help it. You’re awfully pretty aren’t you..’ Later in the novel, Linda’s own perception of Raoul shifts and she sees through to the essence of her beloved ‘I began to see him as he really was-not any more as a projection of my young romantic longings..’ Stewart also plays specifically with our perception of the heroine in connection with the locations she appears in. She moves from the gothic locale of the chateau brooding with darkness and malevolence, ‘The hall seemed immense, but this was mainly because it was very high and full of shadows’ to the bright lights of Geneva, ‘By the time we reached Geneva-a city of fabulous glitter and strung lights’ to the beauty of a late and rainy afternoon, ‘There had been showers earlier, but now a belated gleam from the west glissaded over the housetops and etched the budding chestnuts of the square in pale gold against a slaty sky.’ Variety such as this ensures that Linda’s personal story stands somewhat apart from the menacing presence of the chateau, she sparkles like gossamer web- as indeed does the dress which she creates artfully for an Easter Ball, ‘An enormous Venetian mirror flanked the bathroom door..I stood in front of this…As I moved I saw the gleam of the cobwebbed silver thread shift and glimmer through the white cloud of the skirt the way sunlight flies along blown gossamer.’
Stewart is a master of capturing the essence of people, places and situations. Her use of language is enchanting whether it be transporting us to the very heart of Paris, ‘But still through the open window Paris met me, assailed me, bombarded me. The smell of coffee, cats, drains, wine and wet air…’ or conjuring the magical details of Easter Ball decorations at the Chateau ‘Then came the final touches…In one of the galleries there was even a miniature grove of willows over a shallow basin where goldfish glided, with cyclamens clustering like butterflies at the water’s edge..’ or conveying the simple delight of a carefree evening shared by two people ‘Why had I thought him difficult to know? We talked as if we had known each other all our lives.’ Her reader is inevitably pulled into the emotional orbit of her characters in a way that lingers, long after the reading is completed. I can still feel Linda’s desolation as she realizes that, contrary to what Jay Gatsby might have believed, the past cannot be repeated ‘How stupid to have come! How unutterably stupid to have come! It was like finding the glass empty when you lifted it to drink. I turned away.’
This was one of Mary Stewart’s earliest novels. Written in 1958, at the time that it was released it would have been a work of contemporary fiction rather than a period piece as it would now be categorised. Mary Stewart herself detested labels for writers of fiction. It seems fitting to close with the words of this master craftswoman herself ‘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 categorise… ‘Storyteller’ is an old and honorable title and I’d like to lay claim to it.’