I was a fan of Mary Stewart's books long before I discovered that she, like me, was born in Sunderland, in the days when it belonged to County Durham. Born Mary Rainbow, her father was a vicar, and she went on to study at Durham University, where she gained a First in English Literature and taught there for several years, and in later years they awarded her an honorary Doctorate. At the end of the Second World War, she met and married her husband, Frederick Stewart, who became Regius Professor of Geology at Edinburgh University. She lived in Scotland for the rest of her life, a country which featured often in her books. Her first novel was published in 1955, and from then on she published nineteen further books. She was one of the first novelists to combine suspense with romance, which attracted many readers who enjoyed a pulse-racing mystery with a satisfying romantic conclusion. Her use of words in description brought the frequently exotic locations to life. Her novels were scattered with literary references which gave them depth without detracting from their dramatic escapism. Later she turned to myth and magic with her Arthurian novels, beginning with The Crystal Cave, and some of this magic rubbed off on to one or two of her later suspense novels. She also wrote some children's books.
Unaware of our mutual birthplace, I came upon a battered paperback of Nine Coaches Waiting on a bookshelf at home when I was aged about fourteen. The first page was missing, but it didn't stop me becoming totally engrossed. I began to borrow more of her novels from the library, and I bought my own copy of The Ivy Tree when I was fifteen. This particularly appealed to me, as it was set in my part of the country, near Hadrian's Wall, which I had visited more than once. We would drive along the Military Road on our way to Scotland several times a year and see the ruins of this ancient monument in patches among the rough terrain of the Northumberland countryside. This is still a treasured book, and its cover is my picture for today's post.
Then I discovered The Crystal Cave, and looking back, I believe it was reading this that inspired me to start writing my first novel. That was a fantasy novel which I began aged eighteen and completed three years later. It was set in an imaginary time and place very much like Mary Stewart's Arthurian times, exploring second sight, slavery and oppression, as well as romance.
After my Edwardian music hall novel, Melody for Lizzie, was published, I decided to turn my pen to the romantic suspense genre, and from that grew Dance of Danger. This went through many incarnations before it was finally published in 2013 (coming out in large print later this year). Secrets and Shadows also owes much to the inspirational work of Mary Stewart.
I bought a set of her paperback novels a couple of years ago, and have begun to work my way through them again, reliving the pleasure that they gave as a more youthful reader. Of course, I look at them through different eyes now. They may have dated, but the sense of place, and the pace and suspense of the novels are still impressive. It's a delight to experience them now, when I have visited many of their settings, including Austria (Airs Above the Ground) Skye (Wildfire at Midnight) and Crete (The Moonspinners).
In my years as a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, I have met many other writers who have also been inspired by the writing of Mary Stewart. She lived a long life, reaching the age of 97. In 2006 she was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the RNA in recognition of her work. She will long be remembered, and her books treasured by many, including myself.