The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

The Gabriel Hounds The Gabriel Hounds is set in the 1960s and narrated by twenty-two-year-old Christy Mansel who is on a tour of Syria and Lebanon. After unexpectedly meeting her cousin Charles in a street in Damascus, they decide to visit their eccentric Great-Aunt Harriet who has lived near Beirut for several years. ‘Lady Harriet’, as she now calls herself, became a local celebrity after moving into an old, decaying palace by the Adonis River, dressing as a male Arab and modelling herself on the legendary Lady Hester Stanhope. Now over eighty years old, Harriet lives in seclusion with only her servants and her young English companion, John Lethman.

The cousins travel to the palace separately and Christy is first to arrive. She is not made to feel welcome but after a bizarre conversation with the old woman, she is allowed to spend the night there. It quickly becomes obvious that something is not right and when Charles joins her the next day they find that, in typical Mary Stewart fashion, they have stumbled upon a mystery!

Although Christy is in many ways very similar to Mary Stewart’s other heroines – beautiful, confident, brave and intelligent – I never managed to warm to her, or to her cousin Charles either. As Christy herself tells us at the beginning of the story, she and Charles both have “the ‘spoiled’ quality that we were so quick to recognise in one another; a flippant cleverness that could become waspish; an arrogance that did not spring from any pride of achievement but was, I am afraid, the result of having too much too young.” Luckily, though, the fact that I didn’t like the characters very much didn’t stop me enjoying the story and The Gabriel Hounds has joined Nine Coaches Waiting and The Moonspinners as one of my top three Mary Stewart novels so far.

As well as being an exciting page turner, I also loved the atmosphere and the unusual setting. The novel is very dated, I suppose – it’s hard to imagine young tourists like Christy wandering happily through the streets of Damascus and Beirut on their own today – but remembering that the book was written in the 1960s, they sound like fascinating places to have visited and Mary Stewart’s usual beautiful descriptions abound: the beauty of red anemones, the herds of goats grazing on the riverbanks, the scent of jasmine and roses, the fields of sunflowers grown for their oil.

The descriptions of the palace of Dar Ibrahim – with its labyrinth of dusty tunnels and corridors, wall mosaics, cracked marble floors and quiet courtyards – are wonderfully detailed and vivid, especially the scenes set in the old Seraglio, where Christy is given a room for the night. Then, of course, there’s the sound of Harriet’s saluki hounds howling in the distance as Christy explores the palace. Some parts of the book are quite creepy and there are some surprising plot twists too that made me want to immediately turn back and read previous sections again. The story also has what I’m coming to consider one of Stewart’s trademark dramatic, action-packed endings.

The final aspect of this novel I want to mention is the factual element. Lady Hester Stanhope was a real person and if you don’t know anything about her, I can almost guarantee that after reading this book you’ll be completely intrigued and will want to find out more about her amazing life, as I did. Mary Stewart has attributed a lot of Lady Stanhope’s characteristics and habits to the fictional Lady Harriet, including shaving her head and wearing a turban, and only admitting visitors to her room after dark. I’ve discovered that there’s a recent biography by Kirsten Ellis called Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope. Has anyone read it or is there another one you would recommend?

15 thoughts on “The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I really liked The Gabriel Hounds — I love Mary Stewart’s scenery descriptions! — but I had no idea that Lady Harriet was inspired by a real person. How cool! I will have to find that biography of Lady Hester Stanhope.

    • Helen says:

      I only knew she was based on Lady Hester Stanhope because it was mentioned in the author’s note in the edition I read. I definitely want to read more about her now!

  2. Charlie says:

    I’m hoping to read some of her work for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Week, but hadn’t a clue where to start. I like the sound of this a lot, it does look outdated, but in a way that sounds more charming than irrelevant. Stanhope sounds a topic to study just from reading your review 🙂

  3. Lark says:

    I love Mary Stewart. I own The Gabriel hounds, but it’s probably my least favorite of her books. I think Nine Coaches Waiting is the best, but I also really like Thornyhold and Touch Not the Cat. Have you read those?

    • Helen says:

      Nine Coaches Waiting was the first one I read and still my favourite. I did enjoy Touch Not the Cat, though not as much as this one. I haven’t read Thornyhold yet but am looking forward to it!

  4. Lisa says:

    I’m also looking forward to the Mary Stewart week. I have The Ivy Tree on the TBR shelves, but I’m keeping an eye out for other titles. I have to admit, I want to buy these latest editons just for the covers!

    • Helen says:

      I love these beautiful editions, though I think maybe some of the older, more gothic covers are more appropriate. I hope you enjoy The Ivy Tree or whichever book you choose to read for Mary Stewart Week.

  5. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I haven’t heard much about The Gabriel Hounds so was saving it for later, but it sounds very unique! I love that there is a character based on Lady Stanhope – what a memorable aunt! I think Stewart writes really great action packed endings – well-plotted, planned and executed – I can see them clearly when I read them. I just finished My Brother Michael and it also has lots of action.

    • Helen says:

      No, this doesn’t seem to be one of her better known books but I still loved it. I haven’t heard much about My Brother Michael either – I hope you enjoyed it.

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