Jan Jones has published poetry, short stories, contemporary romantic comedy and Regency romance. She won the RNA Joan Hessayon Award for a debut novel with Stage by Stage in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Love Story of the Year in 2010 with Fair Deception. Jan describes her Regencies as 'in the spirit of Georgette Heyer with a dash of Mary Stewart' and here explains why Mary Stewart - especially the 'Greek' novels - made such an impact on her.
Jan Jones on Mary Stewart
It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove that started it.
This single sentence, the opening line from The Moonspinners, sums up what Mary Stewart means to me. The to-die-for sense of place expressed in just a few skilful words. The delicious hint of adventure and romance. The promise of a glorious few hours, curled up with one of my favourite authors, oblivious to the outside world. I read Mary Stewart's books over and over again, and every time, I'm transported to that precious state where nothing else matters except what I am reading.
Mary Stewart wrote romantic suspense before the genre had a name. To me as a teenager her books were adventure mixed with love and sprinkled with humour and I didn't see how the combination could possibly be bettered. (This also held true for Georgette Heyer whom I discovered at roughly the same time.) Even now, I have only to think of any Mary Stewart book and I am there. The novels come as a whole package: sights, sounds, smells. To add to the immediacy, all but one are written in the first person, so when I experience the narrative, I do so from within the heroine's skin.
My first Mary Stewart novel was Airs Above the Ground. I read it at age 12 or 13 and was hooked by her style and her voice. My all-time favourite is Touch Not The Cat, an unashamed love story with a paranormal thread. But it is her Hellenic books - This Rough Magic (1964), The Moonspinners (1962) and My Brother Michael (1959) - that captured my heart all those years ago and caused me to fall in love both with her and with Greece.
Nowadays, of course, everyone has been on holiday abroad, but at that time affordable foreign travel was in its infancy so the authors writing about Provence or Morocco or the many regions of Greece were opening their readers' eyes to a whole new world. Certainly that was how it worked for me. This Rough Magic is set on Corfu, The Moonspinners is based in Crete and My Brother Michael - perhaps the most starkly beautiful of her books - takes place near Delphi in mainland Greece. In it the hero says, 'Everyone has two countries: his own - and Greece', and such is Mary Stewart's skill that that is exactly how I felt on reading the books, despite never having been there. A lot later I went to Greece myself and felt at home from the moment of getting off the plane; the warm air, the bright curiosity of strangers, the terrain, the voices - it was all so much as I expected that I ached with the joy of being there.
The majority of Mary Stewart's novels can be loosely described as the story of a young woman stumbling on adventure and finding romance along the way. The landscape, whether at home or abroad, is always part of the story. I love the way she arranges darkness and humour, description and dialogue, passion and the commonplace, into a perfect whole. Light reading these books may be, but she isn't afraid of strong emotion: Nine Coaches Waiting, for example, contains some heartbreaking moments of self-sacrifice.
It is My Brother Michael that moved me the most, however. Pure chance causes Camilla Haven to deliver a hire car to Simon Lester, who is in Delphi to discover the truth about his brother Michael's death towards the end of World War II. Mary Stewart described the book as her love affair with Greece. Her affection and respect for the country and its people shines through and imprints itself indelibly on the consciousness. That was the first point. The second was that My Brother Michael introduced me to John Donne. What a thing to do to an impressionable teenager besotted with words and their rhythms! In particular Mary Stewart quotes Donne's 'No man is an island' passage and uses it to describe the hero. And he is the final reason that I fell in love with this book. Simon Lester. He is tough, fanciable, understated - and cares deeply. He is 'involved in mankind' as a matter of course. The sort of man a girl yearns to know is out there. The sort who spoils her for all others. Aragorn for the modern world.
Whether I would feel the same way now on finding Mary Stewart for the first time I don't know. I always think we are shaped by our reading, so I am the person I am because of discovering her in my teens. The fact remains that for me she has that rare gift - page-turning quality by the bagful. The best bit about being so familiar with her books is that now I can take my time enjoying each page without the what-happens-next need to rush on.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]