There are only a handful of novelists whose books earn an immediate spot on Bas Bleu’s “must read, must carry” shelf, and Mary Stewart is one of them. Longtime readers of our catalog know her books well, and though the publicity-shy author was always content to let her work speak for itself, we thought you might like to know a little bit more about the woman “whose stylish, educated novels…charmed two generations of postwar readers and launched a whole new strand of modern popular writing: romantic suspense.”
Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was born in northeast England on September 17, 1916, the first child of a Protestant vicar and his New Zealand-born wife. When recalling her childhood in the port town of Sunderland, young Mary’s career path seemed destined from an early age: “Nobody bothered to entertain us; we entertained ourselves. So I wrote.” Like many middle-class English children, Mary was sent to boarding school, where bullying led to a lifelong struggle with self-confidence: “It does stay with you all your life.” A bright student, Mary was accepted to Oxford and Cambridge, but ultimately chose to attend Durham University, where she studied English and graduated with first-class honors in 1938. After earning her teaching certificate, Mary eked out a meager living during World War II by teaching first children, then soldiers.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Mary “experienced the very stuff of romantic fiction” in 1945, when she met Scottish scientist Frederick Stewart at a costume party. “‘He was wearing a girl’s gym tunic, lilac socks, dance pumps…a red ribbon round his head,’ she recalled. ‘He said ‘May I have this dance, Miss Rainbow?’ and I thought ‘You’re the one!’” The couple married three months later and remained devoted to one another until Fred’s death in 2001.
While working part-time as a university lecturer, Mary devoted her creative efforts to poetry, but to no avail. When Fred suggested she try her hand at a novel, she agreed to give it a go. The result was 1954’s Madam, Will You Talk?, a tightly plotted tale about a young widow on holiday in France who becomes embroiled in a murder. With that novel—for which she was paid £50 by her publisher—Mary Rainbow Stewart launched a new career, a new genre, and a new literary model for modern womanhood, reports the Guardian:
Stewart introduced a different kind of heroine for a newly emerging womanhood. It was her “anti-namby-pamby” reaction, as she called it, to the “silly heroine” of the conventional contemporary thriller who “is told not to open the door to anybody and immediately opens it to the first person who comes along”. Instead, Stewart’s stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner.
Over the next fifteen years, Mary would pen ten more popular novels, including The Ivy Tree, Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, and Wildfire at Midnight, all intelligent thrillers reflecting the author’s broad interests: art, travel, Greek and Roman history, music, nature, and more. Often set in exotic locales—Crete, the Isle of Skye, Syria—the novels are rich in detail and utterly captivating. She shrugged off praise in a 1989 interview with scholar Raymond H. Thompson:
I’ve written stories since I was three and a half, and I think you’re either born with the storyteller’s flair or you’re not. You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the storyteller’s flair or you don’t. It’s no virtue of mine. It’s just there. In a story, however, each point of rest is also a point of departure; you can’t help it.
In 1965, the Stewarts relocated to Edinburgh for Fred to take up a new teaching position. He was knighted in 1974 for his contribution to science and Mary became Lady Stewart, though she didn’t like using the title. “I am first and foremost a teller of tales,” she once said of herself. Two years later, the bestselling author was in her fifties when she did the unexpected, jumping genres to write her first historical novel, The Crystal Cave, a coming-of-age story about the magical Merlin of Camelot fame. “One of my main interests, as you will notice in my modern thrillers, was Roman history,” she told Thompson. “When I finally decided to write a historical novel, Roman Britain seemed the obvious place to start.” After she read about Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, she knew “I had found my hero.”
Despite her publisher’s anxiety over the topical shift—“publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses”—The Crystal Cave proved a champion right out of the gate. It would go on to become her “most enduring” work, spawning a series of follow-up novels that earned her a new and devoted fanbase and “favourable comparisons with another Arthurian, T. H. White.”
And still the woman who once told the New York Times that “storytelling came as naturally as leaves to a tree” continued to spread her wings, penning a trio of children’s novels, four more romantic thrillers, and a collection of poetry before her death in 2014. She saw her novel The Moon-Spinners adapted into a Disney film, was elected to the Royal Society of Arts in 1968, and earned a lifetime achievement award from the Scottish Parliament in 2006. “Mary Stewart sprinkled intelligence around like stardust,” raved journalist Melanie Reid, in a 2004 newspaper article for Scotland’s Herald. Reid, who knew the novelist personally, praised her as
a great woman; an author of class and verve whose elegant, educated suspense stories founded the whole genre of romantic thrillers. Her work, descended from the mannered prose and suppressed eroticism of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, was arguably what gave birth to the vast world of late 20th- and 21st-century romantic fiction. She built the bridge between classic literature and modern popular fiction. She did it first, and she did it best.
On May 9, 2014, Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow Stewart, whose books have sold more than five million copies, died in Scotland at the age of 97. Her passing was marked by readers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic, all mourning the loss of the woman “described as kindly, impeccably charming, rather daunting, allergic to self-revelation.”
Today the “new” Mary Stewart novels you find in our catalog’s pages aren’t actually new; they’re simply new editions of the beloved classics, republished for a new generation of readers to experience for the first time, as well as for lifelong Stewart devotees to revisit. Says Reid,
Her gift shaped the inner lives of millions of adolescents, their elder sisters, mothers and grandmothers. She was a secret friend to more than she will ever know; her books linger in the memory like old fragrances barely remembered. It is not hyperbole to say she helped make the world an unquantifiably happier place.