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Nine Coaches WaitingNow I am not, in the general run of things, a reader of the Romance genre. Not unless there is a lot more going on than just the simple story of boy/girl meets boy/girl, there is some sort of problem, there may also be some sort of rival boy/girl and the main couple will/will not surmount the obstacle and live happily ever after/die a horrible death.

In fact, it has to be said I infinitely (in literature!) prefer the tragic end/star crossed lovers scenario than the Hollywood, sunset, hearts, flowers, wedding bells wrap. Unless skilfully done, with lots more going on (yes, that’s you, Jane Austen, incomparable writer of fine romance and much more) the genre leads to a sugar overload which might predispose regular readers to diabetes.

So, it is no wonder that I never encountered Mary Stewart, as she does belong firmly on the Romance shelf – and, but, and, but I would therefore never have ventured there – till my interest was piqued by fellow blogger Fleur In Her World who likes the same sort of lit-ficcy stuff I do, and for very similar reasons. She was praising Stewart to the skies. So I asked her to recommend one. And this is it.

Now, for sure this sits firmly within the genre, in that there is a man and a woman who will meet, there are problems ahead, there is indeed some possible rival and there will be/or not some resolution of satisfaction or dissatisfaction for our central characters (and no, I shan’t tell, you’ll have to read the book if you really want to know) Suffice it to be said though that Mary Stewart, now having some of her work re-issued in the `Modern Classic’ category, was a prolific writer of Gothic romance-thrillers. Oh, and ‘Gothic’ is not used in the twenty first century sense to mean that you are going to be unpleasantly surprised to find a job lot of vampires werewolves zombies and ghosts have somehow got trapped within the pages. Think, more, the idea of dark secrets, high drama, possibly an isolated setting, or the idea of all this in the mind of our doughty probably female protagonist. She writes with a history which happily acknowledges `Gothic’ in the sense of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, or, even more pertinently for THIS book, Jane Eyre, rather than Hammer Horror Central Casting. The Gothic is very real and very human.

Jane Eyre still

Still from Robert Stevenson’s 1944 film of Jane Eyre

I was hooked from page one to page-the-end. There is indeed a dark thriller, we have men tall, dark, handsome, charismatic and probably not to be trusted. It is the 1950s. Our central character , Linda Martin. (shades of Jane Eyre, which even she acknowledges, as she is a well-read young woman) is an orphan, whose parents died when she was young. She spent the second half of her childhood in an orphanage, and then, as a young assistant in a dreary school. Chance comes Linda’s way to become a governess (hello Jane!) to a little boy, scion of a family with a dark past and a probably darker future, deep in the French countryside. The family have a slightly different version of Mr Rochester on board. For reasons which are perfectly intelligent Linda, who is half-French (French mother, English father) and who lived in France until her parents’ death pretends that she speaks very little French and understands even less – the employer was strict in their requirement for an ENGLISH governess as they wanted the boy spoken to only in English – though there may be other reasons for this. Linda’s hiding of her perfect French and her French ancestry gives rise to a lot of intentional humour for the reader.

if filet mignon can be translated as darling steak this was the very sweetheart of its kind

Linda is a most attractive heroine, given to self-mockery, and is someone who rather enjoys winding up the bad-tempered people she meets with deliberate mangling of `Franglais’ to annoy. And her incisive thoughts about certain people are a joy:

She radiated all the charm and grace of a bad-tempered skunk

Thonon-les-Bains, Haute Savoie, where the book is set. Wiki Commons

Thonon-les-Bains, Haute Savoie, where the book is set. Wiki Commons

There are apposite little quotes, often from Shakespeare, as sub-chapter headings – our heroine/narrator, as stated earlier, is a reader.

Stewart is a wonderful writer – and particularly, a wonderful evoker of landscape. As I did some exploration into her life and works, I was utterly unsurprised to find she was a passionate gardener. Anyone who can so beautifully and evocatively describe plants, trees, skies, light and the scents, sights and sounds of the natural world is someone who has spent loving time within that world.

….the little dell…was sheltered and sun-drenched, a green shelf in the middle of the wood. Behind us the trees and bushes of the wild forest crowded up the hill, dark holly and the bone-pale boughs of ash gleaming sharp through a mlst of birch as purple as bloom on a grape

And, just like Miss Austen and Miss Bronte, Miss Stewart comes from a time when what is undoubtedly sex and desire is rendered much more potent for the fact it is not laid out for us. She is much more interested in exploring the subtle workings of the human psyche, than the rather more prosaic exploration of removed garments and anatomical diagram!

Haute Savoie region, Wiki Commons

Haute Savoie region, Wiki Commons

And, suffice it to say I have now downloaded Stewart’s My Brother Michael, also highlyMary Stewart praised by Fleur, and will be skulking the Romance shelves of my local library to find more by this fine author.

Nine Coaches Waiting Amazon UK
Nine Coaches Waiting Amazon USA

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