I’ve just learned that Mary Stewart died a few days ago. I cut my eye-teeth on her novels. At a time when, as a teenager, I turned my nose up at the idea of pure romances – in my defence, my only brush with them had been encountering some Barbara Cartland – they gave me the romance hit I was craving, but in an acceptable way because they were stylishly written, wrapped up in adventure and excitement and the wonderful skill with which she transported me to a wholly different world. Crete, Avignon or Austria didn’t matter – I was there. I came away from each of her books having learned something, whether it be about roses, Gilbert White, or the Spanish Riding School.
The first book of hers I read was Airs Above The Ground. For a teenager just learning the rudiments of dressage and whose riding teacher owned a Lipizzaner-cross whom I was sometimes allowed to ride, it seemed to me to be perfection. I haven’t read it for many years now so don’t know how I would see it through older eyes, but I do remember one scene where the old, stiff stallion is grazing at dusk when he hears the strains of music from afar and for a few moments remembers his glory days and moves accordingly. It always brought tears to my eyes. A little like the way I can see the memories of his gun dog training return in my dear old Lab’s eyes when he goes for hydrotherapy because the therapist, knowing his background, uses those commands. And for a while, he thinks he’s a puppy again.
The Moon-Spinners was next. It keyed in perfectly to my guilty love of a hurt hero, and the trope of one character confessing their feelings without being aware they’re being overheard by the object of their affection. But again, the nail-biting adventure, the beautifully drawn secondary characters, and above all the setting make it so much more than a guilty pleasure.
After that, I was hooked. I don’t like all of her books as much as those – though This Rough Magic (I love all The Tempest references), Madam, Will You Talk?, and Nine Coaches Waiting come close – but she had such a talent for weaving romance and adventure and setting into one whole that left me completely satisfied at the end of each book. Her heroines, through whose eyes we see, could so easily seem to be a Mary-Sue, but – to my younger eyes, at least – never fell into that trap. They were plucky, of course, and independent, but also flawed, and not in that annoying way that is really done just to show how perfect they are.
Thank you, Mary Stewart, for transporting me into so many different, magical worlds with your talent.