A Book for Mary Stewart Day: This Rough Magic (1964)

Since I discovered what a wonderful writer Mary Stewart was – not so many years ago, though my mother had recommended her books many years earlier – I have come to love her writing and I have traveled to many wonderful places by book, in the company of a captivating band of heroines.

I have been to the Pyrenees, to a Scottish island, to a French Chateau, to Delphi, to the heart of the English countryside, to Vienna, to a palace in the Lebanon ….

So many grand adventures.

My latest adventure, that I undertook to celebrate Mary Stewart’s date in the Birthday Book of Neglected Lady Authors, took me to the isle of Corfu, which is said by many to be the setting of ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare.

Young actress Lucy Waring comes to Corfu at the invitation of her elder sister Phyllidia, who has retired to her husband’s family’s holiday home to escape the heat of summer in the city while she awaits the birth of a child. The invitation is timely, because Lucy’s play has closed after just two weeks, she has no other work in the offing, and it seems politic for her to be unavailable.

Lucy was thrilled to discover that the property nearest to their villa had been rented to Sir Julian Gale, one of the brilliant lights of England’s theatrical world. Her hopes of meeting him were quickly dashed by her sister, who told her that all was well with the great man and that his composer son, Max, would not welcome visitors

Lucy would soon meet Max Gale, and the circumstances were unfortunate. She had made friends with a captivating dolphin that swan very close to the shore, and when she heard shots and realised that somebody was shooting at the dolphin from the rocks above the cove she was appalled. The only person she saw up there was Max, and she told him exactly what she thought ….

That was the first sign that something was terrible wrong, and there would be others.

Mary Stewart uses the early chapters of this novel to establish her setting, her characters, and the different elements of her story. She does it well. The cast was interesting, the setting was beautifully evoked, and there were many different aspects to the story. I’ve read enough of her romantic suspense stories to correctly identify the romantic hero and the dastardly villain, but I wasn’t at all sure how all the pieces of the story would fit together.

As I read on the drama accelerated, on land and at sea, and I found that all of the pieces fitted together perfectly in a very tightly constructed plot.

Lucy was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. She was headstrong, she was inclined to act first and think later, so I can’t say that I always approved or her action or that I would have done the same thing in her position, but I could always appreciate why she spoke and acted was she did, and that she was motivated by her concern for the people and places that she loved.

The setting is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it this story was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved. It is a story that could only have been told in this particular place and at this particular point in its history.

There were some wonderful moments. My favourite came just before that story really took off, when Lucy stumbled into the most beautiful, wild, rambling garden of roses, leading into her first meeting with Sir Julian Gale, who was not at all as she had expected ….

The action was wonderful, it used the setting wonderfully well, I was always held in the moment with Lucy, and so I was able to forgive the unlikeliness of it all.

I find the swift progress of the central romance less easy to forgive; and, not for the first time, I found myself wishing that Mary Stewart would allow her heroine and her hero to work together, to become friends, with a promise or a suggestion of romance to come.

Those were the disappointments, but there was much more that I loved.

The prose was gorgeous – I was never too far from a lovely description or an interesting plot development – The allusions to ‘The Tempest’ were beautifully done and cleverly woven into the story – The details of character and setting were tended to very well.

‘This Rough Magic’ was a fine piece of storytelling, and a marvellous entertainment.

It is a book that many people who wouldn’t pick up an old book would love. Some might find it a little old-fashioned, a little contrived even, but I can’t think of anyone who came after Mary Stewart has crafted tales of romantic suspense with such literacy, such care for the characters and the settings, such wonderfully told stories ….

I could happily turn back to the beginning of this book and be caught up in the story all over again. I won’t, because so many other books are calling, but I will pick up another of Mary Stewart’s books – to read or to re-read – very soon.

23 thoughts on “A Book for Mary Stewart Day: This Rough Magic (1964)

  1. I don’t know that I’ve read anything by this author but this certainly sounds most tempting! I’m sorry I’ve not been able to do any of your Days, they have been such a good idea and lovely to read about here and on other blogs.

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    1. I think that you would like this, Liz. There’s no need to worry about not doing any of the days, because I never meant them to be something anyone had to sign up for or feel any sort of obligation to do something. I just wanted to draw a little more attention to deserving authors.

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  2. She sounds marvellous, Jane. In your (and her) honour, I have picked up from the library The Moonspinners, also set on Crete I think, and The Crystal Cave, because who doesn’t love a good bit of Merlin. I’ll aim to report back when I get through them….! 🙂

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  3. This is one of my favourites, so I’m glad you liked it too. I loved the setting and the dolphin! I just finished reading Thunder on the Right yesterday and will try to post my review later today.

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  4. I’m not able to post at the moment but I have been reading along where I can, Jane. I read Thornyhold for Mary Stewart day. It’s my first book by her and I was floored by how many there are to choose from. I settled on Thornyhold because of the witch connection, which ties the heroine’s aunt, Geillis, with Geillis Duncane who was tried as a witch in the 16th Century and also appears as a character in Gabaldon’s Outlander books. I was interested to see how she was portrayed in both books.

    I really enjoyed Thornyhold, with its lyrical descriptions, and felt immediately that Mary Stewart was a born storyteller. Your penultimate paragraph about This Rough Magic sums up just what I would want to say about Thornyhold. I’d like to try her Merlin books eventually.

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  5. This posting brings back such wonderful memories for me Jane! My mother had this novel on her bookshelf in the ’60’s when I was growing up in southern New Mexico. I distinctly remember her recommending the author.

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    1. I can remember my mother recommending Mary Stewart too, when I moved up from the junior to the senior library. I didn’t pick up her books then but when I did I realised what a wonderful recommendation I’d been given.


  6. I don’t think I have ever read anything by Mary Stewart. This does sound rather delightful, though I find romances do happen a bit too quickly in books. So I understand your frustration over that aspect. I of course enjoy an old fashioned novel.

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  7. The Mary Stewart novel that might fit the romance bill for you, Jane, is The Gabriel Hounds. The hero and heroine are cousins and childhood friends. It’s one of my favourites, together with Nine Coaches Waiting, which any fan of Jane Eyre should enjoy.

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