The Cultural Gutter

hey, there's something shiny down there...

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Mary, Queen Of Hearts

Chris Szego
Posted August 2, 2007

Mary StewartDespite being a rapacious reader of just about everything, during my formative years I managed to miss any number of writers who are the bedrock of their particular genres. For instance, I read Terry Brooks long before Tolkien (and yes, I’m aware of the gravity of that mistake). I didn’t discover Diana Wynne Jones until my mid-twenties, around about the same time I found Georgette Heyer. Another standard bearer I missed during my younger years, one who had a huge impact on many Romance writers who followed her, is Mary Stewart.

Born in 1916, Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a trendsetter in many ways. In a time when higher education was possible, though not terribly popular, for women, she received her BA in 1938, and her MA in 1941. She was an Observer during WWII, and for many years taught at the high school and university level. She married Frederick Stewart in 1945, and shortly after that, began to pursue writing as a serious career.

She wrote more than twenty novels, more than two-thirds of which were huge international best-sellers. Not all were Romance — or ‘Romantic Suspense’, as they would be called today (ie: romances that are also mysteries). In fact, Stewart is almost more famous for her Arthurian saga, which consists of The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day. She followed those four up much later with The Prince And The Pilgrim. Oddly enough, though I love Stewart’s work, I’ve never read any of these. It’s not personal: I run an F & SF specialty bookstore, and had to bar all things Arthur for the sake of my sanity. But if I ever come out from behind that barricade, Stewart’s take on the Matter of Britain will be what I turn to first.

Mmm, gothic goodnessThe books I love best are the ones Stewart wrote in the 50s and 60s. They tend to be about young(ish) educated women, who are out making their ways in the world. Her heroines all have real lives: they have bills to pay; they’re interested in travel, education and opportunity. But one of the things Stewart’s strongest skill is her ability to capture atmosphere. She was one of those women, and it’s evident. A thorough understanding and acceptance of the daily privations of life in post-war England runs through her early works, and with it, that sense of gleeful joy when those privations are eased.

Several of Stewart’s books are set in the UK, but others are set across the wider European stage. A few take place on the Greek islands, and though some of her ruminations on the nature of the immutable Greek ‘character’ would cause fits in students of post-colonial post-modernism, she has a near-perfect touch with description. When I discovered Stewart, I was not long returned from an extended stay in the Greek Islands, and reading This Rough Magic, My Brother Michael, and Moonspinners instantly transported me back. Moonspinners, by the way, was made into a movie. Sadly, the studio was Disney, and the film stars Haley Mills, so I haven’t quite worked up the nerve to watch it.

I find it very difficult to choose a favourite among Stewart’s novels, but Airs Above The Ground is a perennial front-runner. Drugs, spies, a circus and the fabulous Lipizzan horses of the famed Spanish Riding School all come together in a delightful road-trip of a tale through rural Austria. It’s also unusual in that the heroine has sex. Okay, yes, with her husband, and it happens off the page, but still! It marks a distinct departure from the strictures of the times. Stewart certainly wasn’t the first person to put sex in her books, but she normalized it. Even more importantly, without graphic or explicit language, she made sex mutally enjoyable.

Mary Stewart epitomizes the voice of her generation: educated, thoughtful and forthright, with the sense of being both forward-looking and aware of the past that is particular to those who lived through WWII. The fantastically pulp nature of her cover art is a brilliant contrast to the deliciously crisp nature of her prose. For millions of readers, many of whom went on to become writers, she opened up the world.

~~~

Chris Szego’s degree was more heavily flavoured with post-colonial post-modernism that she would have liked, which is why she now runs a bookstore.

Comments

3 Responses to “Mary, Queen Of Hearts”

  1. James Schellenberg
    August 2nd, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

    Mary Stewart’s Arthur books were the first Arthurian novels I ever read – I quickly came to realize the same thing as you, Chris, about the crazy stacks of Arthur-related stuff out there, so Stewart, plus T.H. White were probably my main Round Table encounters when I was a kid. A not bad representation I think.
    Her other books sound fascinating – thanks for letting me know they existed!

  2. Chris Szego
    August 2nd, 2007 @ 2:46 pm

    Sadly, because of my late acquaintance with Stewart, my Arthurian ban was firmly in place by the time I encountered Hollow Hills. Every once in a while, when I’m longing for something new from her, I think ‘Maybe I should read these…’, but I always back away.
    Sad, really. And it’s not because I hate Arthur. Quite the opposite, really.

  3. RfP
    September 11th, 2007 @ 4:48 pm

    It’s interesting how iconic Stewart is–so many of us have had similar experiences with her.
    I adore Stewart’s intelligent young women traveling in interesting regions, e.g. The Gabriel Hounds and This Rough Magic.
    When I first heard of Harry Potter I said, “It sounds just like The Little Broomstick.”
    Like you, I hit the wall with Arthurian books before I discovered Stewart. I doubt I’ll ever read her Arthur trilogy.

Leave a Reply





  • Support Gutterthon 2015!

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    Gentleman’s Gazette has a piece on the sartorial splendor of Hercule Poirot and of Captain Hastings in the BBC television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries.

    ~

    At Pitchfork, Barry Walters writes about Grace Jones. “One night in 1993, I finally got my chance to see Jones perform at a local gay nightclub and took my friend Brian, whose partner Mark was too sick to join us….She didn’t back away from the elephant in the room: She dedicated one song to artist and AIDS casualty Keith Haring, who had used her body for a canvas on the occasion of her legendary 1985 Paradise Garage performance. That night’s show was remarkable for the simple fact that Jones just kept on going, granting one encore request after another, waiting patiently while the sound man scoured backing tapes to find the fans’ offbeat choices. When Jones got to such minor numbers as ‘Crush,’ it became clear that she didn’t want to leave. She was giving as much of herself as she could to the beleaguered troops, knowing full well that many wouldn’t live long enough to see her again.”

    ~

    At Pornokitsch, The Gutter’s own dame with a shady past Carol writes about five films noir.  “Do you want to watch some film noir? I hope so, because I have five films to suggest. Films about dames gone wrong, poor doomed saps, murders, sex and modern knights errant.”

    ~

    At The Alcohol Professor, The Gutter’s own Keith writes about Billie Holiday in a fantastic two-part piece. Part one traces “the history of Billie Holiday and NYC nightlife through the Harlem Renaissance to Café Society.” Part two covers “Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and the jazz scene in New York City clubs of a bygone era.”

    ~

    The New Yorker has a profile of author Gene Wolfe. “His narrators may be prophets, or liars, or merely crazy, but somewhere in their stories they help to reveal what Wolfe most wants his readers to know: that compassion can withstand the most brutal of futures and exist on the most distant planets, and it has been part of us since ages long past.”

    ~

    Remezcla has a gallery of Lourdes Grobet’s portraits of luchadores with their families and a bit of an interview with her. (Yes, the luchadores are in their masks and often wearing suits or casual wear, which is the best thing). (Thanks, Matt!) “Father and warrior, the masked wrestler is the perfect metaphor for the duality that Grobet’s photography wants to depict. Her work is resonant because she doesn’t try to demolish the myths that envelop lucha libre – she simply nurtures and expands them in an offbeat way.”

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: