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.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

When I saw that the 100th anniversary of Mary Stewart’s birth fell last weekend I knew that it was time for me to read another of her books.

I had always liked the look of  ‘Airs Above the Ground’, and so off the shelf it came.

The story is set up beautifully.

Vanessa March is shocked to see her husband on a newsreel item about a circus fire in Austria, because she had believed him to be in Sweden on business. An old family friend saw the same newsreel and called Vanessa, asking her to escort her young relation – Timothy Lacey – to Vienna to visit his father. Vanessa hadn’t quite decided what to do, she was a little annoyed by the lady’s assumptions, but she seized the opportunity; because she really did want to find her husband and understand what  was going on.


In Austria, seventeen year-old Tim admitted that his father wasn’t expecting him – that was only a story for his grandmother – and that what he really wanted was to see the country and to visit The Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And so he and Vanessa formed a plan to find the circus, to reunite Vanessa and her husband, and then to have a wonderful holiday.

Things don’t go entirely to plan.

They are caught in a web of intrigue that has been spun around the circus. And – in particular – around an old piebald horse.

This is a classic Mary Stewart story of romance and suspense; with all of the elements you might expect and with enough to make it feel a little different to her other books.

Vanessa was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. I was sorry though that she had put her career as a vet (which was integral to the story) to one side to be a housewife, and that when her husband appeared she was rather too ready to put all of her trust in him. It was a nice change, having a married leading lady, and I liked her relationship with her husband, but I didn’t see enough of him to understand why she had married him.

Her relationship with Tim was much more interesting; an initial wariness grew into friendship, and they became a wonderful team. I suspected that they were only children who were discovering that it would be rather nice to have a sibling.

The settings were beautifully evoked and described: I loved visiting the countryside, the circus, the mountains, the villages and a wonderful gothic castle.

stewart-mary_airsabovetheground_hcThere were some wonderful moments. My favourites were the time in a meadow when Vanessa made a wonderful discovery about that old piebald house; and a dramatic chase around the battlements of the castle.

But I have to say that I don’t think this is Mary Stewart’s best book, and that this story didn’t hold me as it should have.

Some of that was down to me.

This might not have been the right book at the right time, and I might have enjoyed this book more when I was younger.

But some of it was down to the book.

Having a married heroine was a lovely variation on a theme, but it diminished the romance and the suspense, and there wasn’t enough in the rest of the story to make up for that.

The pacing was uneven, with the story slow to start and over-filled with action in the later stages; there was one sequence in particular where Vanessa and Tim did not belong. I can’t say more than that without revealing too much of the plot.

And, though the story of the old piebald house was very well done, there was much less of horses and of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that I had expected.

None of these flaws were fatal though. I found much to enjoy, and I was always going to follow the story to the end.

Mary Stewart is still a favourite author; and I’m hoping that this was a wobble rather that a sign that I’ve outgrown her books.

Do you like her writing? Do you have favourites among her books?