Mary Stewart and Gothic Romance

by Sarah on February 8, 2010 · 20 comments

Thanks to Mary Stewart’s wonderful Nine Coaches Waiting, I’ve gotten over my reading slump and seem to be on a Gothic romance kick. When I started reading Nine Coaches Waiting, it occurred to me that I’d read hardly any books which qualify as Gothic romances. I loved Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, which could be deemed a Gothic romance. One or two Georgette Heyer books could be considered Gothic Lite. Apart from that, this is a new genre for me.

So far, I’ve read the aforementioned Nine Coaches Waiting, plus Madam, Will You Talk? and Wildfire at Midnight, which are all by Mary Stewart. If you click on the links in the previous sentence, they’ll take you to the reviews of the books at All About Romance. Angie of Angieville also has a recent review of Nine Coaches Waiting at her blog.

This post is comprised of three mini reviews, plus my reflections on Gothic romances in general.

NINE COACHES WAITING (1958) BY MARY STEWART

The Premise: Linda Martin arrives in France to work as governess to nine-year-old Philippe, Comte de Valmy. Philippe was recently orphaned and now resides in the family Château with his paternal uncle, Léon de Valmy, and his wife, Héloise. Linda is excited to be back in France but uncomfortably aware that she got the job through lying by omission. Madame de Valmy was most insistent that Philippe’s new governess should be English and only speak that language with her charge. Linda concealed her half-French origins to secure employment, and now must butcher her perfect French in order to maintain the pretence.

Linda is wary of her new employers, particularly the charismatic wheelchair-bound Léon de Valmy. Even more disconcerting is Léon’s handsome son, Raoul. When a series of attempts are made on Philippe’s life, Linda realises she’s become embroiled in something sinister at the Château Valmy.

My Thoughts: This is a wonderful, old-fashioned story of suspense. While it is very much “of its time”, complete with melodrama and domineering alpha males, it was a fun read and one which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. A-

MADAM, WILL YOU TALK? (1955) BY MARY STEWART

The Premise: Charity Selborne is a wealthy widow. Her husband, Johnny, was a race car driver who died in WWII. Charity is newly arrived in Provence, where she intends to take a holiday with her old friend, Louise. Louise and Charity have a comfortable friendship and take care not to cramp each other’s style. While Charity loves to visit the tourist sites, Louise prefers to paint. They usually part ways in the mornings and meet up in the evenings for dinner.

The small hotel in which they are staying has an interesting assortment of guests. One of these is thirteen-year-old David Bristol with whom Charity strikes up a friendship. He’s a lonely boy staying with Loraine, his indifferent step-mother. Louise discovers that David’s father, Richard, and Loraine were at the centre of a notorious murder trial in which the father was accused of murdering Loraine’s lover. Although Richard was acquitted due to lack of evidence, Loraine retained custody of David.

When it becomes apparent that Loraine and David are on the run from Richard, Charity is determined to protect David. But is all as it seems?

My Thoughts: This is another winner from Mary Stewart. The mystery has a few nice twists and turns and the characterization is excellent. In order to accept the romance element, one has to believe in love at first sight. I found it a bit hard to swallow given the events directly preceding the declaration of undying love. Nevertheless, this book is a fun read and I adored the setting. B

WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT (1956) BY MARY STEWART

The Premise: Gianetta Drury is a renowned fashion model. Professionally, her life is a huge success. Personally, not so much. Gianetta married young and was devastated to discover her husband’s infidelity. She divorced Nicholas and has been single ever since. Worn out and over-worked, Gianetta’s boss suggests she take a holiday. When her parents recommend a small hotel on the Isle of Skye, Gianetta decides a spot of rustication is exactly what she needs.

When she arrives at scenic Camasunary, she is shocked to discover that one of her fellow hotel guests is none other than her ex-husband. To add to her consternation, it seems a murder was committed shortly before her arrival and one of the guests might be the culprit. In this tense situation, Gianetta nonetheless attempts to find rest and relaxation. The murderer, however, hasn’t finished their grisly work…

My Thoughts: As a suspense story, I adored this book. As a romance, I was unconvinced by the Happily Ever After. The mystery is tightly-woven and kept me guessing until the end. There were only a few scenes devoted to the development of Gianetta’s romance with Nicholas and I would have preferred more. That said, the story kept me up well past my usual bed time, and I finished the book in one sitting, and I look forward to re-reading it. A-

Some Reflections on Gothic Romance:

As I was writing my mini reviews, I noticed a common thread. I seem to object to the romantic set-ups in the novels. It occurred to me that my reaction was most likely predicated by my modern sensibilities. These days, readers rarely appreciate depictions of domineering alpha males, and I know Nicholas’ infidelity would generate a maelstrom of comments were it to be first published today. When I read an older book, I try to put my modern perspectives aside and appreciate the story as it would have been at the time it was written. This is, of course, easier said than done, and there are aspects which I find it difficult to swallow as a modern reader.

The books are written in the 1st Person and narrated by the respective heroines. We only see the heroes through their eyes. I realise some readers object to romances in the 1st Person, but this aspect doesn’t bother me. It fits the stories.

The characters in all of the novels mentioned above smoke incessantly. This reminds me how PC we’ve become with regards to smoking — and I say this as a non-smoker. I can’t recall a modern hero smoking in a romance novel. Occasional references to cigars are made in historical romances, but that is about it.

Given that I loved Daphne Du Maurier’s novels, I’m amazed I haven’t read Mary Stewart’s books before now. They are tremendous fun and I’ve ordered all of those which are still in print. I’ve also ordered a few by Victoria Holt and I intend to do a blog post devoted to mini reviews of her books.

Some Questions to Ponder:

  • Have you ready any books by Mary Stewart? If so, did you enjoy them?
  • How do you evaluate older books? Do you find it difficult to put aside modern beliefs/perspectives and judge a book according to the time in which it was written?

{ 20 comments }

Victoria Janssen February 8, 2010 at 15:26

I always feel a bit out of time when I’m reading Mary Stewart – they’re their own thing, if that makes sense. I feel like I’m in the book’s era, not mine. Which helps when unexamined British colonialist attitudes rear up in the stories. Which they do.

My favorites are THE MOON-SPINNERS and TOUCH NOT THE CAT. I also love THE GABRIEL HOUNDS and THIS ROUGH MAGIC.

Janet W February 8, 2010 at 15:44

I’m with Victoria Janssen — love The Moonspinners! Altho I read This Rough Magic way back when, I can’t remember it!

The relationship between the heroines and their friends/aunts, so lovely, easy-going, relaxed. And because I’m a Canadian/American, again like Victoria, I chalk some stuff up to it being a British sensibility. I hope Helen MacInnes comes back in vogue — some of her books are just terrific.

So, I gave away Stormy Petrel, it was not terribly interesting. But I bought The Ivy Tree & Airs Above the Ground. Which should I read first?

Also, perhaps the readers of this blog would be interested to know that All About Romance has been reviewing Stewart lately!

Lynn Spencer February 8, 2010 at 16:12

Oh, Mary Stewart – I love it! I read Nine Coaches Waiting recently as well, and have been scouring used bookstores for more of her books.

re:vintage romances – I have been thinking about these a fair amount lately. I go through phases where I find myself craving old category romances and gothics. Some of the rapist “hero” historicals bother me, but with these others, I find I don’t have the same problems setting aside my own modern views and vanishing into the book’s world. It’s rather like watching old movies for me.

BTW, if you like Mary Stewart, you might want to give Phyllis Whitney a try. Also, some of the old Candlelight Romances published by Dell in the 70s have a gothic feel to them. The quality varies, but I remember liking several of them. You can sometimes find these in UBS or on EBay.

Keishon February 8, 2010 at 16:18

So Victoria Holt didn’t work out? I haz a sad. Anyway, back on topic. Of course I’ve enjoyed Mary Stewart and can see why you continued to read her and enjoy her books. Well, for me, if the story is good and engaging I tend to just set aside modern sensibilities. I mean I tend to view Gothics with a different set of rules if you will. The romantic set-ups are usually pretty quick. The men are almost ways overshadowed by their past deeds and the women are almost always looking for love and adventure. For me, I tend to just fall into the story if it’s any good to begin with and I don’t recall having any issues with the romantic relationships in them. But as a reader one should try to be fair to the time period especially if the story still holds up well considering. That’s my take anyway. But I’m curious, are you planning to read any Victoria Holt at all?

Trish February 8, 2010 at 17:47

I forgot that she wrote ‘The Moonspinners’. I loved that book, and the movie version with Hayley Mills. Don’t know that I’ve read any other Mary Stewart books, but I may be borrowing them from you. ‘Nine Coaches Waiting’ sounds interesting.

Sarah February 8, 2010 at 20:00

@Victoria Janssen: “I feel like I’m in the book’s era, not mine. Which helps when unexamined British colonialist attitudes rear up in the stories. Which they do.”
Well said! I’ve ordered all the Mary Stewart books I could find which are still available in print. Sadly, The Moonspinners is not one of them, but given that almost all her other books are for sale, I’m sure it will be reprinted again. In the meantime, I have nine of her books to look forward to! Yeah, I went a little crazy. :D

@Janet W: Thanks for reminding me of the AAR reviews. I’ll add links to them. I think they are among the very few recent reviews of Stewart’s work which are available online.

@Lynn Spencer: Thanks, Lynn. I’ll be sure to look up Phyllis Whitney’s books.

@Keishon: Actually, I am planning a similar post featuring a couple of Victoria Holt’s books. So far, I’ve read Mistress of Mellyn and I have a couple of others on my TBR shelf. While I enjoyed Mistress of Mellyn, I read it directly after finishing Nine Coaches Waiting, another governess-in-peril story. It probably suffered from the comparison because Mary Stewart’s book is so good. However, Mistress of Mellyn was a compelling pageturner and I look forward to reading more of Victoria Holt’s novels.

@Trish: LOL! I’ll add it to the pile of books waiting for you in March. I’ve put both Ariana Franklin’s The Serpent’s Tale and the sixth Maisie Dobbs aside for you.

Angie February 8, 2010 at 22:07

Lol. Stewart seems to be in the air these days. I just posted a Retro Friday review of Nine Coaches Waiting. It is definitely one of my favorites. I own all of her books and would definitely recommend you give My Brother Michael a shot early on. As well as This Rough Magic. The Ivy Tree is lovely as well. And I agree with the others who loved The Moon-Spinners (and the Hayley Mills movie!) lol.

Like Victoria said, her books transport me to that other time in that other place and I’m swept away by it. Love that feeling. Always reluctant to come back…

Renee February 8, 2010 at 22:35

Oh, man, Mary Stewart was among my earliest romance reading in Jr High/High School. I think I first read one of hers in a Readers Digest Condensed Book my family had. Last year I did a Re-read Challenge review for one of my favorites by Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat, and it was so wonderful to find it just as enjoyable 30 years (ack!) later.

While dated attitudes/behavior might pull me out of an older book for a moment, I can usually shrug it off, and quickly move back into it pretty easily.

My other favorites in this genre include Phillis Whitney, Victoria Holt (Philippa Carr/Jean Plaidy), and Madeleine Brent (Peter O’Donnell).

Thanks for the re-visit, today!

Li February 8, 2010 at 22:44

Oh, I pretty much did the same as you and ordered her entire available backlist when I first stumbled upon her. Reminds me – I still haven’t managed to get Touch Not The Cat. I think I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I love The Ivy Tree best. I think. It’s a difficult thing to pick favourites…

And I really like reading “contemporaries” written in the past century. It just gives a really true flavour of the era, it’s fascinating to see what was acceptable back then, and how things have changed over the years.

Jill D. February 9, 2010 at 02:21

I didn’t find Mary Stewart until about 5 years ago and I read everything she had written, except her Merlin books. What got me to read her was my love of Barbara Michaels. Michaels predates Stewart in that her books were written after Stewart’s. They all had a very gothic feel to them with a possible paranormal element, like ghosts. You should check her out if you liked Stewart.

heidenkind February 9, 2010 at 05:29

When I first started read Mary Stewart I was in grade school, so dealing with “modern sensibilities” wasn’t really a problem for me. One thing I have noticed about her books is that it’s always a mystery who the love interest is–maybe not so much in the books you read, but definitely in Touch Not the Cat (which is good) and The Ivy Tree (which is my favorite). The Moonspinners is also really fun, and the movie with Hayley Mills is hi-laaaarious.

I agree with Jill D. that you should check out Elizabeth Peters if you like Mary Stewart, but you should probably go with her other nom de plume, Barbara Michaels. My faves there are Wait For What Will Come, Wings of the Falcon, The Sea King’s Daughter, Stitches in Time. Ammie Come Home is really gothic (and was made into a totally great cheesy movie) and Die for Love Makes fun of the RWA conference, so that’s entertaining.

Sarah February 9, 2010 at 09:55

@Angie: How did I miss your review?! Probably because I’m about two weeks behind in blog hopping. :( There must be something in the air at the moment re: Mary Stewart.

@Li: I bought my copy of Touch Not the Cat from The Book Depository. The only ones I haven’t been able to find are The Wind off the Small Isles, The Moonspinners and Rose Cottage. There is an edition of The Moonspinners on sale at The Book Depository but it appears to be an abridged version aimed at people learning English. I’m sure these books will be reprinted at some point, though. In the meantime, I still have nine to read of the twelve Mary Stewart books now on my shelves! :D

@Jill D.: Barbara Michaels is another author I haven’t read. Thanks, Jill!

@heidenkind: Woah…Barbara Michaels is Elizabeth Peters? Someone recommended her Amelia Peabody series to me recently. Come to think of it, it might have been you. It was recommended to me because I enjoyed another series but I can’t remember which one it was. Hmm…

Sarah February 9, 2010 at 09:57

@Renee: That’s the second mention of Phyllis Whitney! I’m off to look her up. Thanks.

Lynn Spencer February 9, 2010 at 16:21

@Sarah and @Keishon – Oh, I’ll be looking forward to the Victoria Holt post! I haven’t reread any of her books in a while, but I used to love Victoria Holt novels. Unlike Mary Stewart, the Holts kind of run together for me a little bit, but I do remember liking Menfreya in the Morning and Mistress of Mellyn as well as a few others.

And I totally second the recommendation for Barbara Michaels. I LOVE her books! She also writes as Elizabeth Peters(Amelia Peabody series), but I much prefer the Barbara Michaels books.

RfP February 9, 2010 at 17:54

my reaction was most likely predicated by my modern sensibilities

Actually I suspect that the seeming suddenness of the romance is a larger problem for many readers. E.g., as you say,

In order to accept the romance element, one has to believe in love at first sight.
and
There were only a few scenes devoted to the development of Gianetta’s romance with Nicholas” [though they had been married, so the relationship was developed before this story began]

That subtler style of romance is what I adore in this type of mid-century Gothic. Eric Selinger captures part of its charm for me in his discussion of Madam, Will You Talk? and “the sexual politics of the mid-1950s–what Charity, and Stewart, could and could not do openly in the text” and the sumptuous food scene in Marseilles.

Li February 9, 2010 at 22:02

@Sarah: Thanks for the heads up on The Book Depository and Touch Not The Cat! Book ordered now…

And oh, I have to add my vote to Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels recs – I *adore* the Amelia Peabody books. Mad irrational love, really.

Sarah February 9, 2010 at 22:59

@Lynn Spencer: Lynn (or anyone else), would you mind recommending a couple of Barbara Michaels titles? They are very reasonably priced at The Book Depository and I’d like to order a couple to try. There are just so many to choose from. Thanks in advance.

@RfP: Thank you so much for the link to Eric’s post. That was written before I started following Teach Me Tonight and I hadn’t seen it before.

@Li: Then I’ll put the same question to you as a put to Lynn: are there any of the Barbara Michaels books that you’d particularly recommend? Yay re: Touch Not the Cat!

heidenkind February 11, 2010 at 08:21

@Sarah: I think it was me. :) I actually don’t like Amelia Peabody that much, but it’s her most popular series. I’m more of a Vicky Bliss/Jacqueline Kirby fan. Peters is usually more light-hearted, contemporary (when they were written) mysteries, and Michaels is typically historical and Gothic.

Li February 11, 2010 at 23:26

I remember really liking Barbara Michaels’ “Shattered Silk”, which is loosely linked to “Ammie, Come Home” and “Stitches in Time”, IIRC. Contemporary (well, 60/70s) but with a Gothic feel.

Sarah February 12, 2010 at 11:16

@heidenkind: Yes, it was you, and I think the topic of Amelia Peabody came up when people were discussing the heroine in Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

@Li: Thanks, Li! The Barbara Michaels books are quite inexpensive at The Book Depository, so I’ll order a couple to try.

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