Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mary Stewart: A Fashion of Romantic Suspense

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!


Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

I have been indulging in a bit of re-reading Stewart myself. Wanted to see if they held up since I read them in my late teens and 20s. Her books led me on to many other places because of all those allusions to history, art, natural history etc. Fun to see what someone else thinks of them.

Mad Housewife said...

She does stand up surprisingly well. I love her heroines. They're so competent and witty.

And, yes, the books do lead us all over