Jolly Escapism: Travel Mysteries of Mary Stewart

I cannot for the life of me remember who it was on Twitter who a week or so ago raved about the page-turning qualities of Mary Stewart’s novels while she was on holiday, reviving her passion for reading. It wasn’t one of my regular blogging friends, but I thought the novels sounded like my cup of tea: a bit of mystery, a bit of romance and a LOT of travel and local atmosphere. So I checked if my local library had any of her books. Of course, they had her Merlin and Arthur books (which I’d read in my childhood), but there were only two available in that dreaded reserve stock section in the basement (where good books go to die).

Nine Coaches Waiting

Set in Haute Savoie, in a remote castle above Thonon, a short car ride from Geneva, this novel was published in 1958 and I think reflects the passion for exotic locations that was growing in 1950s Britain and also gave birth to the James Bond series. In many ways, this is the feminine way to travel the world as a woman of mystery, with some mortal danger but without the gadgets.

A French orphan who has grown up in England, Linda Martin, is hired as a governess and English conversation partner for a little boy, heir to a great estate in the Haute Savoie region. She soon strikes up a friendship with her ward Philippe, but has reason to suspect someone is planning to kill him. Of course I loved the familiar landscapes – and the French language, which is sprinkled liberally throughout the text without any translation. But what I liked above all is that the heroine is no milksop, this is no bodice-ripper (although there are some… hmmm, rather stalkerish moments, shall we say?), the characters are intelligent and witty, full of literary allusions. It’s like travelling with a good friend, but one who is also acutely aware (and resentful) of class differences.

Of course it all ends happily ever after (I’m sure that’s not a spoiler – although I still think she ends up with the wrong man), but I enjoyed the non-saccharine escapism.

Airs Above the Ground

This time we are in Austria, in a complicated story of espionage, missing husbands, travelling circuses and Lipizzaner horses (the title refers to the complicated acrobatic leaps that these fantastic creatures do in dressage). This was published a little later, in 1965, and this time the heroine Vanessa March has a proper job (she is a trained vet) although she is married and prepared to give her career up to have children. As in the previous novel, she establishes a good relationship with a young boy who becomes her travel companion and we get a lot of the local atmosphere (less of the language, because Vanessa does not speak German).

So you might say that these books are written to formula. Looking at the blurbs on some of the others, they all involve an intrepid young woman going somewhere abroad, stumbling across a puzzling situation, solving it after hair-raising adventures, often helped by a younger brother-type figure. It might become a little stale if I were to read 5-6 books like this in quick succession, but with two set in different but equally familiar and beloved locations, I really enjoyed them.

There is a mix of old-fashioned machismo that her heroines seem content to put up with, and views which must have been quite progressive for her time. Let me give just one example of each. In the first passage, Vanessa is talking to her husband.

‘I love you very much, Lewis.’

He made the kind of noise a husband considers sufficient answer to that remark – a sort of comforting grunt – then reached across the pocket of his jacket where it hung over the chair, for cigarette and lighter…

Yet the author also expresses concern about the poisoned environment in England (compared to the Alpine meadows teeming with insects and life), or feels a burden of guilt when she encounters a secondary character who has dwarfism and she tries a little too hard to react ‘normally’. She is also spot-on about the Viennese ‘that warm, easy Viennese charm, which – as Vienna’s friends and enemies both agree – “sings the song you want to hear”‘. Some of her best observations in fact are throwaway remarks about secondary bit players and she makes them sound like online trolls:

… was one of those angry natures that feeds on grievance; nothing would madden her more than to know that what she complained of had been put right. There are such people, unfortunates who have to be angry before they can feel alive…’

Hodder & Stoughton have reissued many of Mary Stewart’s ‘modern’ fiction over the past few years under the Beloved Modern Classics label. They are set in Corfu, Crete, Madeira, Lebanon, Provence, the Pyrenees and various Scottish and English locations. They look eminently collectible, as you can see from the two covers above, although I believe most of them are only available on Kindle. I read them on a rainy, stormy weekend in bed and they proved to be great escapism. But I think they’d also be the perfect books to take along with you on a lazy summer holiday, to read in your deckchair on the terrace in the shade, while sipping your iced coffee or pastis.

Bastide de la Paix in Luberon