Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Thornyhold After reading all the reviews and posts during Anbolyn’s recent Mary Stewart Reading Week, I had almost decided that the next Stewart books I read would be her Merlin series, but instead I found myself picking up this one from the library shelf.

Thornyhold starts off differently from the other Mary Stewart books I’ve read. Instead of getting straight into the action, our narrator, Geillis (Gilly) Ramsey, spends the first few chapters looking back on her childhood. As the daughter of a vicar and his cold, distant wife, bullied at school and feeling lonely and isolated, it was not a very happy childhood for Gilly and the one bright spot in her life was her relationship with her mother’s cousin, another Geillis.

Several years go by and both of Gilly’s parents die, leaving her an orphan in her early twenties. Just as she’s wondering what to do with her life, she hears that Geillis has also died, leaving her cottage in the countryside to Gilly. The name of the cottage is Thornyhold and it comes complete with an overgrown garden, a black cat called Hodge and a collection of dusty books of magic spells and herbal remedies. Could Gilly’s cousin Geillis have been a witch? With the help of William, a ten-year-old boy who shares her love of nature, Gilly begins to uncover some of the secrets of Thornyhold.

Thornyhold is one of Mary Stewart’s most recent books, published in 1988 (only Stormy Petrel and Rose Cottage came after that) and I’ve found that these final three books have a different feel from her earlier ones, being a lot gentler with less of the suspense and adventure that are usually associated with her work. In this book, although there are a few mysteries for Gilly to solve and one or two people who try to cause trouble for her (including the housekeeper Agnes Trapp, who seems desperate to get her hands on one of cousin Geillis’ herbology books), I never felt that I needed to worry about Gilly or that there was any danger of there not being a happy ending. But while I do prefer the more exciting, suspenseful books such as Nine Coaches Waiting and The Moonspinners, I enjoyed this one too, for different reasons.

This book may not have the exotic setting that many of her others have, but that doesn’t mean the descriptions aren’t still beautiful. It was a pleasure to watch Gilly exploring her new home, settling into the cottage and discovering the natural beauty of her surroundings. The story is set in the 1940s and has a lovely nostalgic feel with references to rationing and other details of post-war life. I also liked the characters, especially Gilly herself, who blossoms from a lonely child into a confident young woman with a lot to offer in terms of friendship and love (yes, there’s a love story too). Although this hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it was a nice, relaxing read with a magical atmosphere and just what I was in the mood for!

25 thoughts on “Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

  1. Jo says:

    This was the first Mary Stewart I read thanks to reading about her on your blog. I really enjoyed Thornyhold, it had a lovely magical feel to it.

    Not sure whether the Merlin books would be my thing, but do want to read some more of her work.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure if they’ll really be my thing either, but everyone who has read them seems to have good things to say about them, so I would like to at least try the first one!

  2. Lark says:

    I love the characters in Thornyhold…especially Gilly and William, and of course, his dad, Christopher John. To me it’s one of those warming, comforting books…like homemade bread or chocolate chip cookies.

  3. Kris Holtan says:

    I rememeber reading Thornyhold right after I was seduced by Touch not the Cat. My first taste of Mary Stewart’s writing. I did not read her Merlin Trilogy until after I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon.

    • Helen says:

      Touch Not the Cat was one of the first Mary Stewart novels I read and I really enjoyed it. Her earlier ones from the 1950s and 60s are my favourites, though. Thanks for reminding me I still need to read Mists of Avalon!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I remember reading Thornyhold in my early twenties and it is still one of my favorite books and I often read it on a rainy day. I haven’t read any of Stewart’s other work but I plan on remedying that soon.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, ‘nice’ is the perfect way to describe it, though I prefer the books that are slightly less nice! This one, Rose Cottage and Stormy Petrel are all a bit too gentle for me, I think.

  5. Alex says:

    The only Stewart books I’ve read are the Merlin novels and I don’t think I was aware that she had written anything that was outside that genre. If I get round to reading her other work where would you suggest that I start?

    • Helen says:

      I think she’s written about fifteen other novels in addition to the Merlin/Arthurian series and some children’s books. My favourite so far is her gothic suspense novel, Nine Coaches Waiting, but if that one doesn’t appeal I also enjoyed two of her books set in Greece – The Moonspinners and This Rough Magic.

  6. Charlie says:

    I didn’t love Stormy Petrel, but I liked the cottage getaway aspect enough that this book appeals to me a lot. That said I’m very aware that in reading her new books first I wouldn’t get a good idea of what people love about her. Still, though, the setting sounds too idyllic to miss.

    • Helen says:

      The newer books are different from the older ones, but they do have an appeal of their own. I would still recommend this one, but as you didn’t love Stormy Petrel it might be a good idea to try one of her others first.

  7. Lisa says:

    I thought I had a copy of this one, but I don’t, and now I’m resisting the urge to go find it! I did collect several in preparation for the reading week, which I still have to read.

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