Romantic Elements: Mary Stewart

I just finished Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic; earlier in the summer I read Airs Above the Ground. I enjoyed both very much. (My favorite thing about This Rough Magic was the dolphin. One of my favorite books is Madeleine L’Engle’s Ring of Endless Light, so give me a dolphin and a bit of romance and I’m yours!)

I liked the romantic elements in both books (you could call Airs Above the Ground a marriage in trouble novel, or at least a marriage the heroine briefly fears is in trouble novel). And I know many romance readers love Stewart and cite her as one of the authors who led them to romance. But I’m wondering why that’s the case, because the romances in these books are very much romantic elements and fairly minor, under-developed elements at that. (There are certainly Stewart books where romance is a bigger focus). I’m not sure I found them romantic, but paradoxically, perhaps, I enjoyed the romance despite that.  Anyway, I have some random thoughts about why, and since I know a lot of my readers have read Stewart, I hope you’ll jump in with your perspective in the comments.

The romance in This Rough Magic happens really fast and appears pretty unmotivated. At the book’s start there are at least two possible romantic leads (this is one thing I enjoyed about it, and it contributes to the suspenseful effect that we remain uncertain which, if any, of these guys is going to be a love interest). But when Lucy eventually fell for the hero, I had no idea why, except that he was the hero–and by that I mean simply that hero is his role in the book; she made her choice before the action makes clear which is the good guy. So . . . she knew by instinct?

When I read genre romance, I’m often looking for an in-depth, psychologically realistic portrayal of falling in love. This is not that. The romance feels as much about genre as about character. Lots of classic mysteries (30s-60s) have a vestigial romantic subplot, and mostly they feel like just another way justice is done and everything made tidy at the end. Lucy’s romance felt similar.

Or not. Because maybe it is psychologically realistic after all. Lucy herself says that she doesn’t know how it happened. When the hero (I’m trying to be not-spoilery) asks her if she means something she said–something she didn’t mean him to hear, but that suggests how much she cares for him, she replies:

“If you’d asked me a thing like that three hours ago, I think I’d have said I didn’t even like you, and I . . . I think I’d have believed it . . . I think . . . And now there you sit looking at me, and all you do is look–like that–and my damned bones turn to water, and it isn’t fair, it’s never happened to me before, and I’d do anything in the world for you. . . .”

Those ellipses (except for the last) are Lucy’s, as she struggles to understand the feelings that she’s suddenly immersed in. And you know, I remember first realizing I was in love. It did happen suddenly, and it did seem unmotivated. Why this person, exactly? Now I can think of lots of reasons I love my husband, but I didn’t know the half of them when I first fell for him. I’ve also fallen for people who didn’t turn out to give me reasons to stay in love. Since this is fiction, well, I’ll trust Lucy got it right first shot.

The other thing about those ellipses–Stewart isn’t graphic. There’s some hot kissing going on, but it isn’t described in any detail. The ellipses and elisions in the text leave space for readers to fill in whatever they like, whatever actions and feelings and words make the romance plausible to them.

On the other hand, the text is also pretty frank about desire. It’s there in this passage: “you turn my damn bones to water, and it isn’t fair.” It’s there when Lucy suggests to the villain, who also kisses her, that maybe he isn’t getting any good sex because of his “caveman technique.” It’s there when Vanessa in Airs Above the Ground has a most satisfactory reunion with her husband (she too comments on “technique”).

I think the other thing I like is that Stewart doesn’t try to sell me on her heroes as “swooniest dude evah.” Her heroines are decidedly not placeholders, and I don’t think she cares whether I fall for her heroes or not. They’re kind of old school men (partly because of when the books are published) but the books are overt about that–in the post I linked above, I talked about Vanessa’s comments on how she finds her husband’s suddenly-revealed capacity for violence attractive. This Rough Magic’s hero is perfectly happy to torture the villain in order to save Lucy (though luckily he doesn’t have to). There are some gender-traditional things going on here (and some less so), but because they are often commented on, I don’t feel like they’re being sold to me as desirable or necessary, the way I sometimes do when I’m reading genre romance.

So that’s why Stewart’s romantic elements work for me, even though they’re full of elements I’d usually find unsatisfactory. How about you?


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9 Responses to Romantic Elements: Mary Stewart

  1. laurakcurtis says:

    Stewart was definitely one of the first authors I remember reading as a romance. I was a big fantasy fan (in great part because of the relationships I found in epic fantasy) and I loved everything having to do with the Arthurian legends, so when I was about 13 or 14 I read her Arthurian saga. The small town I lived in didn’t have a “romance” section in the bookstore–mystery & sci-fi/fantasy got their own shelves, but everything else was just put into “fiction.”

    Anyway, once I was done with the Merlin books, I picked up…Touch Not The Cat, I think was the first one I read…and I realized that there was a whole class of books I hadn’t known existed. Stewart’s exotic locations (which are tame compared to today’s Harlequin Presents line) were like visiting a fantasy land of a completely different kind. And where emotions in my own house were discouraged, emotions in these books were not only frankly discussed, but integral to the story.

    It’s been a number of years since I read This Rough Magic, but I wonder if part of the appeal for me at the time was also the idea that you could trust your own reactions to someone. As you say, “Why this person, exactly?” *Now,* I want a great deal more than that from a romance, but then, I suspect I found the idea that one could know hero from villain by your own reaction to him very appealing.

    Anyway, romance or romantic elements, Stewart was a huge influence on me. I suspect the way some people who love historical romances today cite Heyer as an early and memorable influence on their reading habits, people like me who read a great deal of romantic suspense would have begun with Stewart.

  2. Barb in Maryland says:

    My ‘romance’ reading began in 4th grade when my school library got a just published copy of ‘Witch of Blackbird Pond’. My classmates could go on and read all the horse books they wanted–I wanted a book with a romance!
    So it was no surprise to me that I gobbled up Victoria Holt’s ‘Mistress of Mellyn’ when it first came out (8th grade) and then Mary Stewart’s ‘Moonspinners’ (9th grade). Then all of Stewart’s backlist while waiting for the next new one–which was ‘This Rough Magic’. I loved the exotic, to me, locales (funny, as I was living in Hawaii at the time), the suspenseful plots, the language, the romance. I am glad I read her at the time I did, before it was expected that authors would take us beyond the closed bedroom door. She did a very good job at getting the idea across without going into all the details–just right for this rather sheltered 15 year-old!
    As Laura mentioned above, Mary Stewart set me on the reading path of romantic suspense–one of my favorite genres all these years later.
    BTW, I re-read Stewart’s books every few years and find they still hold up for me–dated in some ways, but still good.

  3. victoriajanssen says:

    Hmmm. I don’t think the romance in Stewart’s work was ever the main appeal for me. I liked the romance, but BECAUSE it was in the midst of an adventure; it was an added element to a mystery/suspense story I was already enjoying. I think I was in high school when I first read Stewart (I, also, started with the Merlin books), and collected old editions from the used bookstore on my college campus. In college it really sank in how much I was learning about the 1950s-1960s from her books written in those decades; I think I learned a lot about the history of feminism (or what it was fighting) from the attitudes on display in the Stewart characters.

  4. merriank says:

    I read Stewart’s books as a teenager, finding the romantic suspense stories before the Arthurian ones. I think they worked as romances by having romance be a part of life that is in balance and needs to be balanced with the rest of our living. As someone with a complicated history with love and relationships their emotional distance worked for me – they were more possible relationships that I could bring myself to believe in, than when reading the average Mills & Boon of the day. Even with the standard 1950’s middle-class male and female roles and relationships on display in the stories, there was an underlying respect between the hero and the heroine. I needed to read that respect and for me it is really romantic.

    I also think the ‘exotic’ locales were an appeal for small rural town me. I re-read ‘My Brother Michael’ recently and it is pretty orientalist and exotifying of Greece and the local people. The protagonists view the world through a classical education lens which makes their world view the most important one. Interestingly this erudite lens really works/isn’t as jarring in ‘Madam Will You Talk’.

  5. I love This Rough Magic. Love Corfu (reminds me of Gerald Durrell) and all the Shakespeare references. Yes, it’s insta-lust but I’m a big believer in insta-lust – it’s what happens next that matters. (Like you, I fell in love many times on very slender grounds. If any of these crushes had lasted I’d think of them as Great Love Stories.) I also believe (trying not to spoil) that Lucy is initially as much attracted to the hero’s living and family situation as she is to him. He comes with some pretty irresistible baggage. Not being a modern genre romance, the relationship is only sketched in but I find it very romantic and sexy.

  6. sonomalass says:

    Other than the Arthurian books, the only Stewart I’ve read is The Gabriel Hounds. The romance in that is very important, but the suspense plot is equally important, I’d say. And since the two main characters spend much of the book apart, and there are no sex scenes, it feels to me like the romance has less emphasis than in much contemporary romantic suspense. Right now that’s a plus for me; I don’t need sex in every book I read.

  7. Sunita says:

    I never read the Merlin books by Stewart even though I inhaled all the romantic suspense books as a pre-teen and teen. They hold up remarkably well, even when they’re not her best or the plots and characters clearly date themselves. In terms of the romance, I think that the books work for me because in many of them the characters know each other before the story begins on page or they spend time together before they fall in love, and they learn a lot of non-romance-related things about each other. That may be why This Rough Magic isn’t a favorite of mine.

    In genre romance today I feel as if I run across a lot of stories where even the things that the characters learn about each other are in service to the romance: traumatic backstory that explains reluctance to trust or the like. I recently read a slew of mysteries (some with romance and some without) and I really enjoyed them. I think part of the reason is that the characters had more dimensions than just Beloved Object. No that all romances do that, but the length and speed constraints of romance publishing these days seems to make rounded characters more difficult to produce and find.

  8. Liz Mc2 says:

    I was sick and then desperately catching up at work last week, but thanks for all these great comments, which I enjoyed even if I could not reply!

  9. helenajust says:

    I’m sorry I’m late commentating, but I’ve been sick too and so have only just read this post! I love Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books, and have done for years; I frequently re-read them and read This Rough Magic only recently.

    People often comment that her heroines and heroes fall in love too quickly. I saw an interview with Mary Stewart (I think it’s on Youtube) and she reveals that she and her husband fell in love the moment they met, married quickly, and stayed happily married for years until his death. So, I think that she thought that that was how it worked, and that everyone fell in love that way.

    Even if her books aren’t very “romantic”, there is often an interesting relationship between the lovers in that they have good conversations, or at least banter. I do like the suspense plots, but I also like the romantic aspect of her books and I think I’ve always read them for that aspect first and foremost. Nine Coaches Waiting and Madam, Will You Talk are my favourites, but they’re all good!

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