Empowered Women and Great Scenery

My relationship with Gothic Romance novels is complicated. For one thing, I'm talking about mid-20th century modern Gothics, not The Mysteries of Udolfo. For another, these were the books my older sister devoured when I was a child. My sister used to tell me about the books she read - not that I asked, but that's just one of my sister's charms. She tells, you listen. Anyway, the stories fascinated me and so did the covers. Young women in flowing dresses or gowns, or better still, night gowns, fleeing a large house, preferably a castle of some sort. The women were allegedly fleeing for their lives but they didn't sprint, they sort of scampered and looked great doing it. Oh, and their hair was fabulous. What's not to love? My sister even wrote an English term paper comparing Phyllis A. Whitney to Mary Stewart.

What is a modern Gothic Romance, aka a Gothic Novel of Suspense? Someone once described a Gothic as a story about "a girl and a house." That's a little simple but my definition isn't all that much deeper. A Gothic is a story about a woman who either has to confront her own past or help a trouble man confront his past. Blame it on Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre.

As with any genre, in Gothic Romance there are masters, practitioners, standbys and disasters. Among the masters are Phyllis A. Whitney, Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. To me they were the Big Three and as a teenager I read every one of their books. Rereading their books now, however, is making me reassess all three.

Mary Stewart was always the odd one out. She wrote 13 Gothic Romances in modern settings, 4 children's books and a 5 book series on the Merlin legend. Two of her Gothics contain strong supernatural elements. Recently I've reread Madam, Will You Talk, Airs Above the Ground, and just finished My Brother Michael. While all 3 involved women caught in mysteries I doubt anyone who picked one up today would class these as the current incarnation of Gothics - the Romantic Thriller. They're pure mysteries. At the time they were written having a female heroine and no detective in sight made it unlikely they'd be placed in the same category as the works of Agatha Christie. Still they've aged remarkably well.

My Brother Michael was published in 1959 yet the only thing that makes it feel nearly 50 years old is the fact that the plot revolves around the death of a man's brother in World War II. The heroine, Camilla Havens, like all Stewart heroines is strong, resourceful, smart and doesn't wait for a man to save her. Camilla does start out as a tentative creature, in fact it's her desire to stop being tentative that leads her to the mystery. She's questioning how she could have turned her life and all its decisions over to a man that in retrospect she didn't like all that much. That's a truer insight into the female mind that anything in the recent spate of chicklit.

This isn't my favorite of Stewart's books. The story telling is solid and the main characters are rootable but Stewart's love for describing the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of her locales takes over the story on occasion. I'm glad to know what ouzo tastes like without having to actually drink it but three detailed descriptions and a lecture on how it's made? The hero and heroine are classicists so it's understandable that the sites of Delphi would remind them of all they've read and studied but my guess is that when you're being chased by a murderer, these details slip from your mind. Finally, the mystery requires too much backstory, not just World War II but a few wars of Ancient Greece need to be related for it all to make sense.

I'm forgiving of Stewart's lapses into 2 paragraph descriptions of meals because she's good at it and she wrote most of these books in 1950s England when wartime rationing was still on. Back then the descriptions of fresh eggs and veal were probably as good as porn. Stewart has a better handle on the right balance of travelogue and plot in her first book, Madam Will You Talk, and Airs Above the Ground, my two favorites. Both feature resourceful heroines - one knows how to drive cars like James Bond and the other is a large animal vet who pulls a man out of the way of a train - dark, brooding heroes and evil female nemeses who hold the keys to mysteries that reach back years. Fifty years later and nobody does it better than Mary Stewart.

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