Born: 12 September, 1916, in Sunderland, County Durham. Died: 9 May, 2014, in Dalmally, Argyll, aged 97
Mary Stewart was a best-selling romantic thriller writer who enjoyed huge success both in Britain and America. Blessed with a vivid imagination, she also had a style that involved the reader instantly. Many of her plots were concerned with bright and articulate women who had a mind of their own. Stewart concentrated on subjects she well knew: Scottish life and Grecian and Roman history. She was known for such novels as Touch Not the Cat, This Rough Magic and Nine Coaches Waiting.
Her hugely successful Merlin series (the Crystal Cave etc) was initially published in 1970. Her publishers did not at first share her enthusiasm but the books sold well and introduced Stewart to an entirely new readership. She once commented wryly: “If one horse is doing well, publishers never want you to change horses.”
She began writing when aged five but it was not until a personal setback – the discovery that she was unable to have children – that her first novel was published. Stewart had a magnificent flair for storytelling and critics welcomed all her books, describing her as the First Lady of the Romantic Thriller.
Stewart remained an intensely private person – seldom giving interviews and preferring to live a quiet life between her house in Edinburgh and her picturesque home, the House of Letterawe in Argyll. Her fame as an author brought her many awards (including the Scottish Arts Council Award of 1974) but she took much pleasure in being the wife of a don at Edinburgh University.
Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was the daughter of a Durham clergyman and from her earliest days at school showed considerable powers for learning. She read at three and was writing plots for short stories at five. Her intelligence made her the object of some bullying – winning at ten a scholarship to another school. But she never forgot the misery inflicted on her by school bullies. “It does stay with you all your life,” she said.
Her father’s limited stipend prevented her from taking up scholarships from both Oxford and Cambridge. Instead she read English at Durham University and was awarded a first in 1938. During the war she taught in Middlesbrough but bombing raids disrupted classes and Stewart often had to give group lessons at the pupils’ homes. On VE Day, Stewart attended a fancy-dress ball in Durham Castle and amidst all the chaotic celebrations she spotted a man wearing a girl’s gymslip with a red ribbon in his hair. “The moment he asked me to dance, I thought ‘You’re the one’,” she later recalled.
It later transpired the man was Fred Stewart, to become Sir Frederick Stewart, a distinguished Regius Professor of geology at Edinburgh University. Three weeks after the Durham Ball they got engaged.
Stewart’s marriage, however, was not to bring her children, She was diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy. “I was rushed to a specialist,” she recalled “and underwent three operations. I very nearly died.”
She returned to Durham University as a lecturer but to recover from losing her baby, and any chance of having another, she decided she needed another interest – as she put it, “writing was the thing. I think writing chose me”.
In 1953 and after much encouragement from her husband she submitted Madam, Will You Talk? to the publisher Hodder and Stoughton. It was a sort of John Buchan yarn and was a runaway best-seller. Stewart published subsequently a book a year from 1955 until 1980.
Her style was immediate and dramatic. She was a wonderful wordsmith and subtly painted her characters with personalities that were instantly recognisable. Stewart was among the first authors to seamlessly integrate a mystery and a romance thus allowing the two to come alive and complement each other.
Her Arthurian novels – the Merlin series – had a stark originality in the writing that drew readers of all ages to marvel in them. Stewart made Merlin the narrator, not King Arthur, and set the stories in the 5th century not the 12th. Her research was meticulous and her ingenuity as a storyteller made the legend fresh and filled with vitality.
The setting was always important to Stewart, no more so than in one of her last books, the Stormy Petrel. It drew on her deep love of the west coast of Scotland and the islands, and dealt with the Argyll midge, which, Stewart gaily admitted, “rules your life in the Highlands from June onwards”.
The novel was based on Mull – an island the Stewarts often visited – and she captured the birds, flowers and animals of the area with endearing accuracy. But it was the midge that Stewart wrote about with a determined enthusiasm.
Stewart’s love of the west coast and her exceptional garden at the House of Letterawe was evident in an STV interview she gave to Jenny Brown. Her gracious manner, radiant smile and sheer modesty shone through as she spoke about her books and walked her beloved dogs round her much loved garden.
It was a garden she had done much to create and maintain.
“Writing is not easy” Stewart once admitted. “I can sometimes take a fortnight on a paragraph.”
Her books sold by the millions and, as she modestly wrote, “My books are light, fast-moving stories, which are meant to give pleasure.” They certainly did that.
Stewart was predeceased by Sir Frederick, who died in 2001.