25 April 2020

How Mary Stewart rocked the Literary World and the Lives of Women like Me

When I say rocked, I don't mean 'rock on'!  Nope, I mean rocked to the core.

Since mid-March, we've been in close to lockdown here in the True North.  That has given me time to revisit old favourties and be utterly shocked by the revelations therein.

When I was a young girl in the seventies, I graduated from Nancy Drew, to Agatha Christie, and then to the masters of romantic suspense, Victoria Holt, Daphne DuMaurier and my particular favourite, Mary Stewart.

Of course I did.  The hormones were running high, and the choice of males in my classroom left a lot to be desired.  I yearned for big romance.  But I wasn't happy with romance genre books and found them boring.  This gal wanted high adventure rather than sweet attraction.  So suspense, it was.

At that young age, I didn't even know what type of man I would want in my life.  Surely not Heathcliff.  Not Mr. Darcy.  Those heroes did not reach me.  Far too brooding and sulky.

Then I read My Brother Michael.  Holy Heartbeat, Batman!  There, I found the man of my dreams and the heroine I wished to become.

Most men of my age know Mary Stewart from her brilliant King Arthur and Merlin novels, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills.  Wonderful books.  But I'm speaking of her romantic suspense novels in this column today.

Simply put, they were revolutionary.

Readers, did you know this?  A quiet revolution was happening in fiction, and Mary Stewart was at the epicentre of it.

In the 70s, I couldn't have put my finger on it.  Now, with decades and experience later, it's absolutely clear to me why she was my favourite.

Why?  Her heroines.  These women were educated and had careers.  They were veterinarians, Latin teachers, Shakespearean actors.  They traveled solo to foreign places!

But with adventure comes mishap.  For years, I had read books and seen movies where women waited to be rescued.  Even The Princess Bride, a movie loved by so many, had a princess who relied on others to rescue her.

I wanted a princess who would pick up the sword herself.  (Even more, ditch the princess.  I wanted her to be Queen.)

Mary Stewart's protagonists had courage and resourcefulness.  They fought back when threatened.  They risked their lives rescuing large animals (This Rough Magic) and even men (The Moonspinners.)  This was not only unusual for the time - it was absolutely groundbreaking.

Second reason I fell in love with the stories of Mary Stewart:  her heroes.

These were the men I wanted in my life.  Some may find this hard to believe (stop laughing) but I have been told I am a strong woman.  I was the sort of gal who was told by profs at university that I "didn't know my place."

In Stewart's books, I found the ideal man for a strong woman.  Her heroes were my kinda guys.  Well-educated, but when things go bad, they don't walk away from a fight.  There was a primitive edge there, a peel back of civilization when the chips are down.

In Airs Above the Ground, the male lead forces the hand of the villain down on a red hot stove burner while saying, "It was this hand, I believe?"  (The hand that had previously hit the hero's wife.)

I cannot begin to tell you how sexy that is.

In My Brother Michael, the heroine is fighting hard but losing.  Her lover arrives just in time to kill a
powerful Greek criminal with his own hands in a to-the-death fight; he breaks the fiend's neck.  Of course, said male lead also happens to be a classics scholar...but hey, in the UK, classics scholars can have commando training.  An unbeatable combination of brains and brawn.

Stewart was magic for a young miss trying to be more than society expected her to.  She was magic to an aspiring writer yearning for adventures.  But more than that, she was revolutionary.

My good friend Jeannette Harrison said it best:

"I think all female crime-fighters of today owe a huge debt to Stewart.  She was one of the first writers of popular fiction to portray women who were not helpless and hysterical in a crisis."

Think about that, you superhero and comic book heroines who kick butt!  All you female private investigators in fiction today!  And give a bow to Mary Stewart, who bravely gave us those role models over fifty years ago.

Vos saluto.

How about you?  Any other authors you would also salute?

Melodie Campbell was hardly ever a mob goddaughter, at least not recently, but she writes about one.  THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS has been shortlisted for the 2020 Arthur Ellis Award 

for Excellence in Crime Writing (Crime Writers of Canada.)  You can find The Goddaughter series at all the usual suspects.

Melodie Campbell
Winner of the Derringer and Arthur Ellis Awards
"Impossible not to laugh." Library Journal review of THE GODDAUGHTER


  1. Oh, yes, yes, yes!
    Another great author was Andre Norton, whose sci-fi had strong female characters before that was cool. And Pearl Buck's characters - believe it or not - were no wimps, waiting to be rescued, either. Read "Pavilion of Women" sometime, where Madame Wu runs the entire house, financially and otherwise.
    BTW - In grad school, in history, every class was expected to be a long debate, and I was the only woman who joined in, fought hard, and often won. The result was that the profs asked, "Why are you so angry?" Ef 'em all.

  2. I totally agree, and I'm about to embark on another binge of rereading Mary Stewart's suspense. Even though I've nearly memorized them all, I find them utterly compelling. It's the characters mostly, but also the suspense and the description. Daphne DuMaurier's REBECCA was the first book to totally enthrall me. I also enjoy Madeleine Brent, who, to my amazement, was actually a man--Peter O'Donnell, author of the Modesty Blaise series.

  3. Good point about authors who inspired other female writers to develop strong women characters, Melodie. I loved Alison Gordon's books for a few reasons: she was Canadian; the author was a reporter (which I always aspired to be); and her heroine, Kate Henry, was a baseball reporter. Kate entered a male-dominated world and kicked butt. As a bonus, she solved murder mysteries. What a heady combination for me!

  4. Eve, you named another few that made a mark on me. And I am laughing at the 'angry'. I got told that I wasn't 'natural', by business profs. It's a whole lot better now, even if it isn't perfect.

  5. Yes, Ginger, about Madeleine Brent! I also read Modesty Blaise, but looking back, it does read like a man's fantasy of what a kick-ass woman would be. It lacked humour, I thought.

  6. Cathy, I don't know that woman. Will have to look her up. Was she in the 80s?

  7. I wish I could remember books as you do. And I assume that the woman you and the heroine swooned for in My Brother Michael was not the main character's actual brother? :)

  8. Laff! Barb, good one. No, brother Michael was the brother of Simon Lester, the hero, who goes back to Crete to find his brother's grave from WW11. He was a commando (the brother, but also little brother Simon, as they had national service then.) I loved the book, also because the history of WW11 in that part of the world was unknown to me.

  9. Time to go back and read my Mary Stewart collection. No wonder I loved her as a teen.

    Georgette Heyer did the same thing in a more low key way. Some rescuing was done, but only because the heroine was willing to put herself in danger for a good cause in the first place.

    And of course, The Grand Sophy did all the rescuing in that book.

  10. Melodie--I was a Mary Stewart superfan too! I couldn't have told you at the time why I loved her books so much, but of course it was because her heroines were people I wanted to be. They became role models for me. I saw her books have been reissued recently. I agree they were groundbreaking. I hated romance novels, but loved Mary Stewart, because her books were about adventure, not about a happy ever after of domestic servitude.

  11. Deadly, you are so right about The Grand Sophy! We needed more books like that. Heyer was on my list too. Wish I still had them all.

  12. Anne, that is it exactly! The last thing I wanted to read was a gal getting the reward of becoming a 'little wifey' at the end of the book. Okay, maybe a wife, if it meant you could still live a life of adventure with the man! But so few books pointed to that in the 70s. You really are my big sister :)

  13. I also love Georgette Heyer! The Grand Sophy is one of my favorites - that and The Nonesuch.

  14. I also recommend Frederica, by Heyer, Eve. I like her mysteries as well.

  15. I'm a huge Mary Stewart fan, too, since I was about thirteen! I love her so much that I wrote my Writer's Apprentice series in homage to her. The character of Camilla Graham is loosely based on Mary Stewart.

  16. Very nice to hear that, Julia! I'm just noticing we have no males commenting. Hmmm...interesting, that.

  17. Melodie, I'm a guy without sisters and don't know nuthin' about birthin' no babies, but I found your article and the comments interesting and educational. The women where I grew up weren't fainting fillies and I always thought smarts were sexy. So yeah, I think I see the mirror. Thanks!

  18. Leigh, I thought of you when I was writing the bit about heroes, and how you gave me the male point of view on writing males. It seems these men of Stewart's were your sort of men!

  19. The women in my family were likewise independent, smart "doers." Oh, and I loved Mary Stewart's Arthurian novels! Read 'em in High School. (Sometimes in class!)


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>