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Women in History Month – Influential Female Authors

Mary Stewart

MARCH 19, 2021—I was introduced to Mary Stewart through my mother. One summer, during high school, she gave me her tattered copy of Nine Coaches Waiting, and I was hooked. Stewart’s Wikipedia page describes her as, “a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations.” I could not have written a better description of her writing style, and, as a reader who dislikes wall flower characters, Stewart’s strong female leads were right up my alley.

Stewart was born Mary Florence Rainbow, in Sunderland, England in 1916. She graduated from Durham University in 1938 with a Teaching Diploma in English and attained a graduate degree in 1941. During WWII she was a lecturer at her alma mater and met her husband Frederick Stewart, a professor of geology, at a costume party. They were married a few months later in 1945. They enjoyed traveling abroad, and the locales often made it into her novels. Her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk, was published in 1955, and became a bestseller. She went on to write 15 stand-alone, romantic mystery novels, a series of Arthurian legend stories, four children’s books, and a book of poetry. She passed away in 2014, a few months before her 98th birthday.

I remember the first time I read Nine Coaches Waiting (yes, I’ve read it many times since.) It reminded me of the dark suspense created by Daphne du Maurier’s, Rebecca. However, whereas du Maurier’s purposely unnamed protagonist spends much of her time wringing her hands and behaving foolishly, Stewart’s Linda Martin takes an active hand in mitigating the unknown threat that lurks in the shadows. While I enjoy both authors’ abilities to create suspense, it is Stewart who takes me on an escapade filled with action. It is one of the reasons, my character, Karina Cardinal, goes down the rabbit hole of adventure, even when friends warn her not to do so. It is a rarity that Stewart’s ladies come out of their escapades uninjured, unfortunately for Karina she also rarely comes out of her exploits unscathed, either physically or mentally.

Both Stewart and I write in the first person which gives the reader insight into our characters’ psyche. It can also amp up the suspense because the protagonist and the reader don’t know what their adversaries are doing behind the scenes. This style of writing plays out well in Stewart’s novel This Rough Magic, where the reader spends the first half of the novel questioning which man is the suspect. One of my favorite aspects about Stewart’s early novels is, even though they were written in her modern day, some of them are now over sixty years old. Because I enjoy that historical fiction facet, I’ve decided to write a short story mystery that takes place in the 50s or 60s—when ladies always wore dresses, and conservative conformity was at odds with the younger generation’s liberal rebellions.

For those who’ve never had the pleasure of reading Mary Stewart, I’ll end with my top 5 favorite picks so you can get started. Enjoy!

Top 5 Mary Stewart Novels

  • This Rough Magic
  • Nine Coaches Waiting
  • The Moonspinners
  • Airs Above the Ground
  • Wildfire at Midnight