Mary Stewart, that wonderful author of romantic suspense novels with exotic settings and a literary flavour, would have been a hundred years old on 17th September.
Media coverage when she died on 9th May 2014, aged 97, offered a fascinating picture of a woman whose chart-topping novels gave us a new kind of heroine: a so-called ordinary girl suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation and who finds the courage and intelligence to deal with it. As Rachel Hore wrote in The Guardian, ‘Stewart’s stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly-educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner …. tender-hearted and with a strong moral sense.’
But at a time when authors apparently have to be super-confident and go about endlessly promoting their work, it’s especially endearing to read that when she saw her first novel Madam, Will You Talk? in proof form in 1954 she asked her publishers not to go ahead. ‘It felt like walking naked down the street,’ she said. Thankfully her publishers refused to pulp it. She never had an agent – her first novel was a direct submission – and she stayed with Hodder & Stoughton all her life.
It’s more than 40 years since Nine Coaches Waiting, the story of a girl hired to be governess to a small boy heir to a chateau in France for sinister reasons, was read aloud to me at boarding school. It might have been chosen because of the educational value of the quotes from poets and playwrights adorning the start of each chapter, but we were all enthralled by the enigmatic hero Raoul. For Mary Stewart didn’t just give us heroines we long to be like; she gave us heroes with whom we will always remain in love.