I grew up reading Stewart's suspense fiction, along with her inspiring Arthurian trilogy. When I became a writer, I thanked Stewart in my acknowledgements for being the primary influence in my decision to choose the mystery genre.
Now she has left us, but her body of work remains, and it is the work that deserves credit--and a renaissance.
Mary Stewart wrote her first suspense novel in 1953. Her immediate success (which never lessened in intensity) was due to the whims of fate. A classics professor at Durham University, Stewart intended to devote her life to teaching and the family she planned to start with her new husband--a family that never materialized. "I don't suppose I'd have written books if I'd had [children]," Stewart confessed in a rare interview. A writer for the Glasgow Herald identifies the kairos of Stewart's literary career: "Out of her personal heartbreak came our pleasure" (Herald 2). But Stewart's window of opportunity opened not only because of her altered life path; she lived at a time when her genre needed updating. With her first book, Madam, Will You Talk, Stewart created a new kind of romantic suspense novel that still paid homage to the Gothic style of her forbears, notably the Bronte sisters and, later, Daphne du Maurier. In fact, Stewart's fiction, initially sort of a bridge between old Gothic and the new suspense, ultimately formed its own genre.
Because of this background and because of her unique talent, Mary Stewart was arguably one of the most influential suspense novelists of the mid-twentieth century; the reasons for her success are many, and require a deconstruction of literature that some would call "dated," as well as an examination of Stewart's literary style, which creates a new sort of discourse for the suspense reader. First, though, one must look at Stewart's powerful depictions of setting. As in some other romantic suspense novels, Stewart's locations are generally far-flung and full of history; in this way she creates an important avenue for suspense: initially, the narrative removes the heroine from her "safe" existence; secondly, it provides the readers with an escape from their own realities and a pathway into the beauty--and danger--of the new locale; finally, they echo the literary style because they are imbued with the history of literature itself.
Innate to her discussions of setting are her literary allusions; in fact, she creates a new literary intertextual style which connects the Gothic suspense novel (and the Gothic woman) with a more modern sensibility; she sustains this with recurring literary and artistic intertextual references, with mimetic echoes of famous literary works (for example, the parallels to The Tempest in Stewart's This Rough Magic). She creates a world in which the literary being reigns, and in which characters might complete one another's Shakespearean quotations. The fact that this world is utterly believable is a part of what many critics call Stewart's "magic" as a writer.
It can be further argued that her heroines establish a new feminist ideal, evident in the first-person discourse of her characters while they navigate anti-traditional, anti-cultural settings that allow them to act against type, which suggests an ironic examination of gender roles.
All of the staples of romantic suspense can be found in Stewart's suspense novels: beautiful settings, adventurous heroines, and a brooding mystery. Stewart, however, takes those basic elements and embellishes them enough to create a new genre: the literary romantic suspense novel. By marrying history and setting, she allows her reader to feel both intelligent and invested in place.
Swanson and James suggest that "Many later writers in the field have been influenced by Stewart's style and popularity, including Caroline Llewellyn, D.F. Mills, Phyllis A. Whitney, Victoria Holt, Elizabeth Peters, and Dorothy Cannell" (Swanson and James 216-217).
Stewart herself contended that a good story "should be carried alive into the heart of the reader, and this is only done by the writer's passion disciplined by the writer's skill" (Setting and Background 9)
Both Stewart's passion and her skill have made her a household name for lovers of mystery and suspense for more than sixty years. In reflecting on her own ability as a storyteller, Stewart dismisses any special credit: "I couldn't help it," she writes, adding that her own reason for writing, even from early childhood, was "to open the door to my own wonderland" (Teller of Tales 10).
Stewart's readers can be ever grateful that, in publishing her successful books, she opened that door to us all.
© Julia Buckley 2014 (excerpted from a longer work by Julia Buckley).
“My Secret Best Friend: Mary Stewart.” The Herald 23 July 2004: n. pag. NewsBank Academic Library Edition. Web. 24 Sept. 2009.
Stewart, Mary. “Setting and Background in the Novel.” The Writer 1964: 7-9. Print.
Swanson, Jean, and Dean James. “Mary Stewart.” By A Woman’s Hand.
New York: Prime Crime, 1996.
216-217. Print Berkley
Thompson, Raymond H. “Interview with Mary Stewart.” Raymond H. Thompson’s Interviews with Arthurian Authors. The Camelot Project, 18 Sept. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2009.