Mary Stewart obituary: Author whose storytelling gift and mastery of the romantic thriller made her a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic

She loved car chases (Bentleys, Mercedes, the bigger and more brutal the better)

Mary Stewart was one of the great British storytellers of the 20th century. Her career encompassed many genres, from Mills and Boon, via Baroness Orczy and Georgette Heyer to Philip Pullman, JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien to TH White.

Her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk? (1955), published when she was 38, was an immediate success throughout what was then called “the British traditional market” (Britain and the white Commonwealth). Through the sales achieved by her US publishers, William Morrow, for this and subsequent volumes she became one of the highest-earning novelists of her generation, making her husband – Frederick Stewart, a geologist who became Regius Professor at Edinburgh University – the most heavily taxed British academic bar none.

She was the daughter of a clergyman in the Durham diocese, Frederick Rainbow. Educated at Eden Hall, Penrith, and at Ripon, she went to Durham University, where she matriculated in 1941, staying on as a don (English Literature, mostly Anglo-Saxon) until 1956. Her knowledge of English literature, especially from Malory to Shakespeare, gave an intellectual dimension to her stories.

In 1945 she married Fred Stewart and settled in Morningside comfort in Edinburgh. The security this provided allowed her rampant imagination full scope as novel followed novel – melodramatic, romantic, wildly implausible, compellingly readable. Her biography became her bibliography, and this contained few surprises as Hodder and Stoughton accepted her first novel, a direct submission (she never used a literary agent), and published all her writings – latterly including some fine children’s books, especially Ludo and the Star Horse (1974), and a volume of beautifully wrought verse, Frost on the Window and Other Poems (1990).

Trips to London to see Hodders were occasions on which the family firm turned out in force to keep her happy and assure her it was not just her astonishing sales that mattered to them but the quality of her heart, her mind, her pen. Some Hodder people from the 1950s to the 1990s owe their pension to the power of this pen. But they loved and cherished her for what she was, as well as what she did. They were quite frightened of her, too: she could be a handful when in the mood.

Her working holidays provided the vital ingredient of location which aroused and fuelled her imagination and out of which plot and narrative developed. She was an eloquent, almost mystical, portraitist of the places she visited – Provence, Greece, Skye, the Pyrenees, the Pennines. The plots, usually, not always Cinderella-based, were fleshed out not only by powerful evocations of strange places, often in the small hours, when our heroines walked uneasily but might encounter handsome dark men with whom to fall in love by page 26.

Her heroines are her in all the earlier stories – attractive but mousy girls in their mid-20s, often encumbered by a sad past, an orphanage, absent parents, a husband who died in the war, a hopeless love affair – but ready and willing to take on the present with its menace and foreboding, its life-or-death struggles between aristocratic families about inheritance, dark Nazi secrets, or just simple smuggling.

And here we approach the reason for the adoration of Stewart’s millions of readers, mostly female: she could produce climaxes often involving car chases (Bentleys and Mercedes, the bigger and more brutal the better) or scaling precipices in the nick of time, hairbreadth escapes from evil-minded foreigners, outrageous coincidence, endless overheard explanatory conversations, wonderful meals (she loved food) especially in France (Nine Coaches Waiting, 1958). And suddenly, out of a hat, a clinch when heroine tells hero (however well-concealed hitherto) that she has loved him all her life, as Agnes told David Copperfield at an advanced stage of Dickens’ great novel.

In mid-career her source of inspiration moved to Malory and the Arthurian legends which she recounted in The Crystal Cave (1970), her masterpiece, which one critic found “vivid, enthralling, absolutely first-class”, The Hollow Hills (1973), The Last Enchantment (1979) and The Wicked Day (1983). Heroines were replaced by young teenage heroes straight from myth, usually related to King Arthur. She and Hodders and Morrow might have feared that the loss of identity between writer, narrator and heroine might spoil the magic, but such now was her assurance and skill that her readers in America and elsewhere enthusiastically endorsed the new direction, with major book-club sales, especially to the Literary Guild, and constant best-seller earnings. It was only when this inspiration in turn ran out that she (and we) endured a dry season. No more Mary Stewarts.

But all was well: “I am with book again,” she wrote to a friend as she went on to a third career, which included the poems, the children’s books and further stories echoing the power of her earlier efforts – but, due to increasing age, without the vigour which triumphed over the sometimes incredible twists of plot and fabrications of motive. She was a friend of mine from 1963 till 1973 when I left Hodders, and was glad to discuss new ideas before they had taken form.

Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow, writer: born Sunderland 17 September 1916; married 1945 Frederick Stewart (died 2001); died 9 May 2014.

**

Robin Denniston died in 2012.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
News
i100
Sport
footballSporting Lisbon take on Chelsea as Manchester City host Roma
News
people
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films
News
businessForbes 400 list released
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
News
peopleSwimmer also charged with crossing double land lines and excessive speeding
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy