Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

Madam Will You Talk When I heard the sad news of Mary Stewart’s death recently I wanted to read one of her books as a tribute. There are still quite a few that I haven’t read and I decided on this one, her debut novel from 1955. It was a great choice because I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Charity Selborne, a young widow on holiday in the south of France with her best friend, Louise, an art teacher. Settling into their hotel, they get to know the other guests, including David, a thirteen-year-old boy from England, and his beautiful French stepmother. When Charity hears that David’s father, Richard Byron, has recently been acquitted of murder and could be in France at this moment searching for his son, she grows worried for the boy’s safety…but her efforts to protect David mean that she herself becomes Richard’s next target.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, but I really don’t want to say much more about it because this is one of Mary Stewart’s most exciting and suspenseful novels and I would like everyone to be as enthralled by the twists and turns of the plot as I was. All I will say is that this book contains one of my favourite sequences in all of the Stewart novels I’ve read – a thrilling car chase in which Charity is pursued across the French countryside (in a chapter appropriately titled Exit, pursued by a Bear – another thing I love about Mary Stewart is the way she works so many literary and mythological references into her writing).

This book is very dated now and definitely feels like one that was written in the 1950s, but I think that just adds to its charm. There are also lots of stunning descriptions of Avignon, Nîmes, Marseilles and all the other places Charity’s adventures take her to (I was pleased to see that her visit to Marseilles included a trip to the Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo). I particularly loved this description of Charity watching the sun rise above the remote village of Les Baux:

“How long I sat out there, in a coign of carved stone and rough rock, I do not know. Long enough, I suppose, for my vigil did at length bring in the dawn. I saw the first light, forerunning the sun, gather in a cup of the eastern cloud, gather and grow and brim, till at last it spilled like milk over the golden lip, to smear the dark face of heaven from end to end. From east to north, and back to south again, the clouds slackened, the stars, trembling on the verge of extinction, guttered in the dawn wind and the gates of day were ready to open at the trumpet…”

Since discovering Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels three years ago I have been hoping to find another one to match the brilliance of the first one I read, Nine Coaches Waiting. Now that I’ve read eight more of her books, I think Nine Coaches will always be my favourite, but Madam, Will You Talk? has come very close!

I think Anbolyn is hosting another Mary Stewart Reading Week in September, so whether you’re already a Stewart fan or whether you have yet to try any of her books, I hope you’ll consider joining in. I have Wildfire at Midnight, Thunder on the Right, My Brother Michael and Airs Above the Ground still to read, but maybe it’s time I tried her Merlin series which I’ve heard so much about. What do you think?

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!

Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart

Stormy Petrel It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years since I discovered Mary Stewart! I read the brilliant Nine Coaches Waiting in November 2011 and since then I’ve read seven of her other books and loved most of them. When I first started to think about what I wanted to read for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week, Stormy Petrel wasn’t a title that came to mind, but I decided to see what the library could offer and this was the only one they had that I hadn’t already read. Knowing that this was one of her later books (published in 1991) and not considered to be one of her best, I was careful not to go into it with my expectations too high.

Stormy Petrel is narrated by Rose Fenemore, a poet and writer of science fiction novels. Due to her busy schedule as a tutor of English at Cambridge, Rose doesn’t have as much time to write as she would like, so she decides to take a break and spend two weeks at a cottage on the Hebridean island of Moila. Her brother Crispin, a doctor, agrees to meet her there as he is a keen wildlife photographer and is looking forward to taking pictures of the rare birds that nest on the island.

Rose arrives several days before Crispin and begins to settle into the cottage, but on her first night the island is hit by a storm and she wakes up to find a strange man in the kitchen. His name is Ewen Mackay and he tells her that his foster parents used to live in the cottage and he has come to visit them unaware that they had moved away. As Rose listens to Ewen’s story, another man arrives at the door. Introducing himself as John Parsons, he explains that he was camping and his tent has blown away in the wind so he is looking for somewhere to shelter from the storm. Rose lets them both stay until morning but over the next few days she learns more about both men and discovers that neither of them has been completely honest with her. How can she decide who to trust?

This was not one of my favourite Mary Stewart books and slightly disappointing compared with some of her earlier ones, but I still liked it and rate it above Rose Cottage, which was her final book, published several years after this one (I didn’t dislike Rose Cottage either, but it was a bit too gentle for me). The problem with Stormy Petrel is that as a ‘romantic suspense’ novel the romance is only hinted at and there’s not much suspense either. After one or two surprises near the beginning of the book the rest of the story is predictable, the villain is not really all that villainous and I never felt that Rose was in any danger.

Something I did love about this book was the wonderful Scottish setting. Every time I read a Mary Stewart novel I find myself enthusing over her beautiful descriptions of the area in which the story is set, and Stormy Petrel is no exception:

The Isle of Moila is the first stop past Tobermory. It is not a large island, perhaps nine miles by five, with formidable cliffs to the north-west that face the weather like the prow of a ship. From the steep sheep-bitten turf at the head of these cliffs the land slopes gently down towards a glen where the island’s only sizeable river runs seawards out of a loch cupped in a shallow basin among low hills. Presumably the loch – lochan, rather, for it is not large – is fed by springs eternally replenished by the rain, for nothing flows into it except small burns seeping through rush and bog myrtle, which spread after storms into sodden quagmires of moss. But the outflow is perennially full, white water pouring down to where the moor cleaves open and lets it fall to the sea.

Moila doesn’t really exist but the descriptions are so vivid I’m sure it must be based on a real Hebridean island. Stewart’s love for the landscape and the wildlife are obvious and throughout the story she explores the importance of preserving the beauty of nature. If you don’t already know what the title ‘stormy petrel’ refers to, she explains that too.

At just over 200 pages, this is a quick read and perfect for those times when you just want to relax with a book that’s not too complex or demanding!

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

This Rough Magic Lucy Waring is a twenty-five-year-old actress who, frustrated with the way her career is going, has decided to visit her sister Phyllida in Corfu. Phyllida and her husband own a large estate which consists of the beautiful, crumbling Castello dei Fiori and two smaller villas. Lucy joins her sister at one of the villas while the other is occupied by the photographer Godfrey Manning, who is working on a new book about Corfu. The old Castello in the middle is being rented by a retired actor, Sir Julian Gale, and his son, Max. Lucy is intrigued to hear of the Gales’ presence as it gives her an opportunity to discover why Sir Julian has left the acting world under such mysterious circumstances.

It quickly becomes obvious that this is not going to be the relaxing break Lucy had planned. Soon after her arrival in Corfu she learns that a local boy, Spiro – who happens to be Julian Gale’s godchild – has fallen overboard and is presumed drowned during a boat trip with Godfrey Manning. When a second fisherman is found dead, Lucy is sure there must be a connection between both accidents…but what is it?

This Rough Magic has everything I’ve come to expect from a Mary Stewart novel – mystery, suspense, romance and a lovely, atmospheric setting. Whenever I start reading one of Stewart’s books I look forward to her beautiful, evocative descriptions of whichever location she is writing about, whether it’s an English country house, a chateau in the Haute-Savoie region of France or a palace in a valley in Damascus. With its Corfu setting, this book had a similar feel to The Moonspinners which is set on another Greek island, Crete. I haven’t been to Corfu but reading This Rough Magic made me want to book a flight there immediately, though maybe I would also need to book a trip in a time machine to be able to experience the island exactly as it was when Lucy was there in 1964.

There were some great characters in this novel and my favourite was Sir Julian Gale. He felt so believable I kept wondering if he was based on a real actor and if so which one. Our narrator, Lucy, is a typical Mary Stewart heroine – intelligent, quick-thinking, courageous and down-to-earth, but also very easy to like. She’s also an animal lover and there are some wonderful scenes involving a dolphin who becomes one of the most important characters in the book!

Stewart’s novels always include a lot of literary allusions and references and this book is no exception. It has been suggested that Shakespeare based the island in The Tempest on Corfu and this is a theme that runs right through the novel, with Tempest quotes at the beginning of each chapter. Even the title of the novel, This Rough Magic, is a line from the play (“this rough magic I here abjure”, spoken by Prospero before announcing that he intends to break his magic staff and drown his book of magic in the sea). Luckily I have read The Tempest otherwise none of this would have meant very much to me. I don’t think it’s really necessary to have read it but it definitely adds something to the story and I was fascinated by Julian Gale’s conversation with Lucy when he explains why he believes Corfu to be Prospero’s island.

Anbolyn is hosting a Mary Stewart Reading Week in September so whether you’re already a Mary Stewart fan or whether you have yet to try one of her novels, I hope you’ll consider joining in.

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?

The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart

The Moonspinners “Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and onto these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself…all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky.”

With spring still a few weeks away and the weather still cold, damp and miserable, The Moonspinners with its beautifully described Greek island setting was just what I needed!

The story is narrated by Nicola Ferris, who is taking a break from her job at the British Embassy in Athens to spend a few days visiting Crete. She has arranged to meet her cousin, Frances, there but Nicola arrives a day earlier than planned and decides to go exploring on her own. In the mountains above Agios Georgios, the village where they are going to be staying, Nicola stumbles into adventure when she meets a young Englishman, Mark Langley, who has been wounded after witnessing a crime.

Mark is being tended by his Greek friend, Lambis, but his younger brother, Colin, has been kidnapped by the criminal gang and Mark is worried that he might have been murdered. Nicola wants to help but it’s time to go down to the village and meet Frances, so she reluctantly leaves Mark and Lambis in their hiding place. After arriving at her hotel and speaking to the hotel owner and his assistant, Nicola thinks she has discovered who was responsible for Colin’s disappearance, but will she be able to find him before it’s too late?

I love Mary Stewart’s books because they’re fun and easy to read while still being well-written, intelligent novels with exciting plots and atmospheric settings. Her descriptive writing is so impressive in this book; whether she’s describing the colour of the sea, the warmth of the sun, the fishing boats in the bay, the unspoilt countryside or the picturesque sight of windmills with white sails, she always chooses the perfect words and makes everything sound beautiful and idyllic:

“A clump of tamarisk trees stood where the gravel gave way to the flat rock of the foreshore; this, smoothed and fissured by water, burned white in the sun. In every cranny of rock blazed the brilliant pink and crimson sunbursts of ice daisies, and just beside them, the sea moved lazily, silky and dark, its faint bars of light and shadow gently lifting and falling against the hot rock.”

I have never been to Crete but reading the wonderful, evocative way it is depicted in this book made me wish I was there, though as the book was written in the 1960s before the Greek islands became such popular tourist destinations (Nicola and Frances are the only guests at their tiny hotel in Agios Georgios) I’m sure the culture and landscape must have changed a lot since then!

Of the five Mary Stewart novels I have now read, this is one of my favourites so far and might be a good one to start with if you’ve never read any of her books. There’s also a 1964 Disney film version of The Moonspinners with Hayley Mills, though I haven’t seen it and have heard that it’s very different to the book. Has anyone seen it?

The Gabriel Hounds will be the next Mary Stewart book I read – I found it in the library last week and am looking forward to starting it in the next few days.

The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart was a new discovery for me last year and since then I’ve been enjoying slowly working my way through her novels. I was looking forward to reading this one, The Ivy Tree, as I’ve seen it described as one of her best.

The Ivy Tree begins on a warm, sunny day when Mary Grey, who has recently moved from Canada to the north east of England, is walking in the countryside near Hadrian’s Wall. Suddenly she is approached by an Irishman who has mistaken her for his cousin Annabel who had disappeared eight years earlier. The man’s name is Connor Winslow (known as Con), the great-nephew of Matthew Winslow, owner of the estate of Whitescar. With Annabel believed to be dead, Matthew Winslow is intending to leave his fortune to his other granddaughter Julie – but Con thinks that he should be the rightful heir and he wants Mary Grey to help him claim the inheritance.

Although Mary explains to Con that he has made a mistake and she is not his cousin, he persuades her to impersonate Annabel as part of a scheme to enable him to inherit his great-uncle’s estate. And so Mary comes to Whitescar and, with the help of Con and his half-sister Lisa, easily manages to convince everyone that she is Annabel. But who exactly is Mary Grey and does she have reasons of her own for agreeing to go along with Con’s plans?

The Ivy Tree was published in 1961 and was written as a contemporary novel, although it now has a lovely, old-fashioned feel. I loved Mary Stewart’s descriptions of the setting, especially as I only live a few miles away from Hadrian’s Wall (the wall built by the Romans almost two thousand years ago) and I know exactly what the scenery she’s describing looks like. Her descriptive passages aren’t too long or too detailed, but include just enough information about the landscape, flowers, animals and birds to build up a vivid and realistic picture of the part of the country she’s writing about.

Mary Stewart’s novels (apart from her historical Arthurian novels) are usually described as romantic suspense. The romantic thread in this book was very weak in my opinion, but there was certainly lots of suspense. There are also one or two interesting subplots including one revolving around Julie’s boyfriend Donald, an archaeologist who is spending the summer working at a Roman fort in the area. And I should also mention the animals: there are some horses that have an important role to play in the story, especially Rowan the colt, as well as some funny scenes involving Tommy, a black and white cat.

Mary Stewart’s heroines are usually such nice, pleasant, likeable people, but the narrator of this book, Mary Grey, is an exception because she’s not so instantly likeable and her willingness to take part in Con’s schemes made me doubt and distrust her from the beginning. I didn’t really like any of the other characters either but I enjoyed being kept wondering who was ‘good’ and who was ‘bad’. As for the mystery aspect of the novel, I guessed the truth long before it was revealed but it was still interesting looking out for clues that might confirm whether I was right or not. This is one of those cleverly plotted books that would benefit from being read twice, so you can appreciate all the subtle little hints that the author has dropped into the story. I didn’t love the book enough to want to read it all again immediately but I did take the time to re-read the first chapter and noticed a few clues that had meant nothing to me the first time.

Of the four Mary Stewart novels I’ve now read, I liked this one a lot more than Rose Cottage but not as much as Touch Not the Cat or my favourite, Nine Coaches Waiting. For a better novel about mistaken identities and impersonations I would recommend Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. You could also try Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, which I haven’t read yet, but which is referred to more than once by characters in The Ivy Tree when they’re discussing other famous cases of impersonations – yet another book to add to my list!

If you like Mary Stewart too, can you help me decide which of her books I should read next?