Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
MARY STEWART – The Ivy Tree. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1961. M. S. Mill/William Morrow, US, hardcover, 1961. Fawcett Crest R590, US, paperback, January 1963. Reprinted many times.
The landing was full of sunlight. A bee was trapped, and blundering with a deep hum, against the window. The sound was soporific, dreamy, drowning time. It belonged to a thousand summer afternoons, all the same, long, sun-drenched, lazily full of sleep …
Time ran down to nothing; stood still; ran back …
The moment snapped.
Before beginning properly I need to make a statement: Mary Stewart is one of my favorite writers. She is not one of my favorite women writers, one of my favorite suspense novelists, one of my favorite British writers, or one of any other sub-division. She is Mary Stewart and one my favorite writers and storytellers bar none.
Don’t expect an even-handed or unbiased review.
Aside from her brilliant Merlin trilogy her novels — The Moonspinners, My Brother Michael, Airs Above The Ground, The Gabriel Hounds, This Rough Magic, Nine Coaches Waiting, Wild Fire at Midnight — are some of my favorite works of the period she wrote in. She was a superb storyteller in the Buchan and Stevenson tradition as much as that of Daphne duMaurier.
Ironically I am not a great fan of the woman in danger genre that dates back the the Gothic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Beyond the classics like the Bronte’s, Collins, LeFanu, and duMaurier, this is a gray area for me. I’m not a fan of Mary Roberts Rinehart but I like Ethel Lina White; I admire some of Mignon G. Eberhart’s books but don’t want a steady diet of them. I seldom dipped into the lesser Gothic era of the sixties and all those superbly gowned damsels in danger and stormy backgrounds haunting the paperback kiosks. In fact, only if the names Elizabeth Peters are Mary Stewart were among them.
For that reason The Ivy Tree is an odd one for me to admire so much, because save for Nine Coaches Waiting, it is closest to a standard Gothic of any of her thrillers.
Taking a note from Daphne DuMaurier (consiously) it opens with one of those lines that will be repeated at the end.
I might have been alone in a painted landscape. The sky was sky was still and blue, and the high cauliflower clouds over towards the south seem to hang without movement.
That quality of writing is another reason I love Stewart.
Mary Grey is the narrator, she is a Canadian girl, an orphan, living and working in England in a dreary room with an uncertain future, and she is seated on a bit of the old Roman wall, Hadrian’s Wall, running the length of Northumberland, waiting for her lover Adam who lives nearby. It is someone else who shows up though. A wild angry young man who approaches her threateningly: “You’ve got a nerve … haven’t you? After all these years walking in as calm as you please, and in broad daylight!”
His name is Con Winslow and he soon learns his mistake, she isn’t his hated cousin Annabel Winslow, but she is almost her double. A remarkable resemblance.
Mary Grey returns to London after her disappointing rendezvous, returns to her dull life, but a knock on her door turns out to be Lisa Dermott, Con’s sister, come to see for herself, and once she has seen with a proposal that seems suited to Mary Grey with no prospects of a future: Become Annabel Winslow. It’s not really fraud, she would only be assuring the right people inherited what they were entitled to.
There is an estate called Whitescar and it isn’t far from the once fabulous House of Forrest, as in Adam Forrest, the Adam Mary was waiting at on that piece of Roman Wall. There is a prospect of comfort, wealth, even romance. Of course its an absurd idea, but the more Lisa talks the more it seems as if it might work.
The plot isn’t new. Tey used it in Brat Farrar and du Maurier in The Scapegoat. There are actual incidents like the Anastasia impersonation and the infamous Tichborne Claimant, but Stewart’s skill are such you needn’t worry how she will handle things. Anthony Boucher considered her to be as good as anyone writing thrillers and suspense in her era, and I agree.
There is the dying old man who has waited for Annabel to return, a stallion called Rowan only Annabel/Mary can ride, and of course Adam will come back at the worst possible moment to provide the catalyst for the tragedy to follow.
Mary marries Con and together they will be wealthy, but nothing is quite what it seems, and though Mary was waiting for Adam it turns out Mary Grey never met him, he was Annabel’s lover… And the old ivy tree where he once left a note she never saw when she left, a misunderstanding that may be corrected too late. If Adam ever learns her secret, her real secret.
The ivy tree is the center for much of the novels action and its heart.
Tension and mystery swirl about her with fate and danger equally at play. Con is insanely jealous and if she isn’t Mary Grey she threatens all his plans for Whitescar and her death would be all too simple. Just a horseshoe in Rowan’s stall. Everyone would assume the wild stallion killed her. After all the animal is unstable dangerous, he could easily turn on his mistress.
What set Mary Stewart apart from the usual women in danger writers was more than just the quality of her writing, it was her voice, because she wasn’t just a good suspense novelist. Mary Stewart’s voice was that of a female Buchan or Household and when it came to describing the wild places, rough country, and the story of chase and pursuit she was just as sure a hand.
I sat in the sun and thought. Nothing definite, but if I had been asked to define my thoughts they would have all come to one word. England. This turf, this sky, the heartsease in the grass; the old lines of ridge and furrow, and the still older ghost of Roman road and Wall; the ordered spare beauty of the northern fells; this, in front of me now, was England. This other Eden, demi-paradise, this dear dear land.
I suppose it sounds sexist, but as female as her heroines are, there is a practical masculine side to a Mary Stewart heroine. They aren’t prone to hysterics or unfounded fears. They are less likely to jump at a sudden movement in the dark than hit it with something heavy. They think even when they are frightened, and they don’t wait around for anyone on a white horse to rescue them.
The Mary Stewart heroine isn’t fainting, dainty, or the last one in on what’s happening. That quality separates Stewart from the pack as much as her at time lyric voice. Though different in style, like Helen MacInnes, Stewart was not really part of the woman in danger or romantic suspense sub-genre. She was a first class thriller writer and because there is a timeless quality to her books woven around the past intermingled with the present that means they still read well and hold up today.
I might have been alone in a painted landscape.
If you have ever read Mary Stewart you’ll want to know what follows.