The revival of Daphne du Maurier by Virago has apparently inspired a new respect for Gothic novels and romantic suspense. Virago has power: I even attempted to read Jacquelyn Susann’s ghastly Valley of the Dolls after they reissued it last year. (Well, that was a mistake.) But du Maurier’s Rebecca is a classic, and two other novels I’ve read by her, My Cousin Rachel and Frenchman’s Creek, are certainly worthy of a second look by fans - though have no illusion that they're in the same class. A Work in Progress has been reading various short stories by du Maurier, including the collection Don’t Look Now, recently reissued by NYBR - and her review along with the NYBR stamp of approval certainly entices me.
But I’m not quite the du Maurier fan many are, so I decided to turn back to my own favorite writer of Gothic novels, Mary Stewart. I couldn’t resist a cheap copy of The Spell of Mary Stewart, a 1968 book club collection of three of her novels, This Rough Magic (my all-time favorite), The Ivy Tree, and Wildfire at Midnight. Reading Mary Stewart’s elegant, witty novels, rich with Shakespearean allusions, was as much a rite of passage in turbulent, idealistic 1968 as protesting the Vietnam war, listening to the White Album, considering Andy Warhol’s famous sound-byte, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," and seeing The Graduate.
This Rough Magic is an incredibly literate, well-written Gothic novel that departs from the romantic formula in many respects. The epigraphs in each chapter refer to The Tempest - and the scenes and action reflect a close knowledge of Shakespeare's romance. The heroine is extremely self-reliant, unlike the passive narrator of Rebecca. Stewart also characteristically introduces elements of travel literature.
The narrator, Lucy, a resourceful out-of-work actress, is cheerfully taking a break after the folding of a play and visiting Corfu, the idyllic vacation home of her pregnant sister, Phyllida, who happens to be married to a rich banker.
Lucy is both extraordinarily level-headed and impulsive. She jumps into the sea in front a dolphin when someone in the woods shoots at it; rescues it when it is beached; meets the retired actor, Julian Gale (who has had a nervous breakdown and spins elegant theories about Corfu being the site of The Tempest); his son, Max, a reserved, unfriendly musician; and the charming Godfrey, a handsome photographer. Two men are murdered in a week, a young Greek, Spiro, who is the photographer's assitant, and Yanni, a smuggler: well, in shipwrecks, as in The Tempest (boating accidents). And ANY of the men could be involved.
Of course they’re all attractive. Who's the good guy, who's the bad guy: that's always the problem.
But it is Lucy’s wit, creativity, and ingenuity that keep us going. She is really a terrific heroine - a kind of Emma Thompson character.
The novel begins with witty dialogue.
“And if it’s a boy,” said Phyllida cheerfully, “we’ll call him Prospero.”
I laughed. “Poor little chap, why on earth? Oh, of course...Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now. Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.”
The title, This Rough Magic, is from Prospero's speech, "But this rough magic I here abjure..."
Her descriptions of Corfu include a religious festival that involves a procession of villagers with the body of Saint Spiridian, the town's own saint.
I'm really enjoying this. I feel a Mary Stewart binge coming on. Next: Airs Above the Ground.
And, by the way, The Moon-Spinners was made into a Disney movie with Hayley Mills. (Hayley Mills' first screen kiss - 1964!)
All are in print!