On Books and Reading… And Writing: Mary Stewart

A good book is hard to find. So hard, in fact, I have taken to re-reading all the good books I have read once before. I find this to be comforting in the same way watching an old movie is comforting or looking at old photo albums is comforting. And while re-reading might sound like going backwards or even just plain blah, it is anything but, it is almost revelatory.

As a person who also likes to write, I am finding that stepping back and taking the time to re-read some of those novels which moved me, inspired me and made me want to write  stories myself, is also an act of discovery. I realize that what I remember about each book is the feeling it left me with. I may or may not remember the character’s names and my memory of the settings and even the plots are fuzzy, like a Monet painting. In re-reading, I am rediscovering the language and the technique of some of the twentieth century’s master story tellers.

Right now, I am re-reading Thornyhold and My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart. I suppose Mary Stewart was considered to be a  middle brow novelist, yesterday’s version of chick lit, but as I re-read these books, I am discovering she was much, much more.

Here is a passage from Thornyhold:

“Now empty your mind as best you can, and look. Without hope, without fear, without memory, and without guile. Just look”

I looked.

My own face, small and distorted. The running light of the river. A flash or blue, the kingfisher. A shoal of black streaks, like tadpoles, but I knew from the screaming in the sky that they were swifts, skimming the tree-tops. Another shoal, white, sailing, tilting, silent as a snow-storm; a flight of doves or pigeons, wheeling and dipping, like a cloud of snow in an old fashioned paperweight. Then crystal, grey as mist, reflecting my eyes and the crimson of my school blazer and the tiny trees behind me.

Isn’t that lovely? When I read some of the contemporary popular fiction written today (and I don’t mean literary fiction or Booker Prize winning fiction) I do not seem to find very much of this sort of careful description. It is hard to pin point exactly, hard to describe without giving multiple examples, but there seems to be almost too much clever dialogue in contemporary offerings. Witty this, witty that. Conversations carefully crafted like a romantic comedy screen play. Fun, but highly unlikely. Description is what seems to be missing in newer fiction. We have become so fast paced, we can’t stop for even a moment to observe the minute details or to simply be quiet and let an author write without having the characters talk so much.

Every critic seems to scream these days what seems to me to be an over interpretation of Henry James’ admonition to “SHOW! Don’t tell!” And yet, the first thirty-eight pages of Thornyhold are just that, telling, she is telling a story. One long flashback, a brief, yet effective summary of the main character’s life, how she arrived at the central location of the novel, which she does not even get to until chapter five. As I read along, I find myself thinking, “I wonder what a writer’s workshop would say about this? Would they criticize for lack of dialogue? Would they say, “this is a flashback, it is good information for the author to know, but the reader  does not need to know any of this…it is important to get right to the story…”

Maybe, just maybe, the past is important to the present.  Maybe it is permissible to spend thirty-eight pages on what happened before. After all, it is what got us here in the first place.

4 thoughts on “On Books and Reading… And Writing: Mary Stewart

  1. Good morning Dody Jane and thank you so much for this post, for many reasons including the lovely illustrations. It is wonderful to wake up here looking out my window in my rural garden in England, after a night of heavy rain and now clear blue skies, and to read your own writing and then the beautiful writing of Mary Stewart who I will attempt to read again (the images are like an amazing Yoga Nidra meditation). I agree with you about the memories of books one read years ago and how they linger and percolate deep in the psyche. I also agree about today’s focus on wit, speed, repartee and perhaps a rejection of or discomfort with reflection which seems to permeate our current society, and which I am finding is even a theme in a strand of the comments on my own blog. I so agree with you on the importance of grounding in the past. More on these themes please!
    Also I wanted to say that due to your reminder of Rumer Godden, I have recently read her autobiography, A time to dance, no time to weep. There is a quotation from there which for me relates to what you say about writing and perhaps the relationship of the present growing out of the past:
    ‘All imaginative writing starts the same way, from some note of sight or sound, heard, read or seen – once, for me, it was a painting – that does not pass away, leaving only a memory but which lodges in the mind like a seed. Why one thing more than another I do not know, nobody knows but, like a seed, it germinates, occasionally at once but, usually, years later. When it does quicken, it begins, like a grit in an oyster, to use another metaphor, to secrete things round it – ‘secretes’ because this should be an intensely secretive time. This – can it be called a process? – goes on until the grit grows into a whole. The result, of course, is seldom a pearl but it is a whole book, novel, short story, children’s book or poem.’

    1. Rumor Godden is my very next project. She is, to my way of thinking, a very important writer, in a class above Mary Stewart. I have been exposed to her writing throughout my life, beginning with her children’s books. Miss Happiness and Miss Flower was and still is my favorite book from the time I was 6-7. I have often thought her writing was deserving of a doctoral thesis and I even tried to convince my daughter of this fact. Just the other day, I downloaded a sample of just such a book, a series of essays on Rumor Godden’s impact and influence on twentieth century women’s literature.

      In the introduction to this book, the editors ask “Is her widespread popularity a problem?” However, it seems that scholars are finding that Rumor Godden did indeed “allow new radicalisms concerning sex, gender and class to creep into a literature that simultaneously prided itself on it ineffable respectability.” I contend that she did this gently, without bashing us over the head. She also did not write with a superior tone that felt somewhat like a scolding. This is what I feel is missing from today’s offering. A sort of intellectual gentleness. A certain deference for the reader.

      That biography is very expensive over here and it drives me nuts! I found it at a book store when it first came out several years ago and did not buy it immediately. I will need to explore my library to see if they have it. Thank you, Karin for reading and for bringing Chris with you!

      (I would suggest you read Thornyhold – it is quick and lovely and satisfying.)

  2. Hi Dody Jane,

    I’ve followed Karin on to your blog. I hope that’s ok? I’ve only read this latest one so far and it so chimes with all my thoughts about books and reading. I increasingly read things I’ve read before – sometimes because I know a particular book or even a particular section of a book will suit my mood but also because when you know what’s going to happen you can relax and fully enjoy the writing and the craftsmanship.

    Every year I dutifully read some of the books on the prestigious prize lists and most years I’m disappointed. So many of them seem unreal or are so in-your-face and so few of them leave you to use your imagination and inner sight to enjoy them to the full. For the same reason I now never go to see ‘the film of the book’ because I know I shall object to the changes introduced into the plot and that the film will smash to smithereens my idea of what the people and the places looked like.

    For me a book is a co-operative exercise between the author and the reader and it’s the bit that the reader adds that makes it such a special pleasure.

    1. Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. Karin is my favorite blog reader, isn’t her blog wonderful? I need to catch up this week.

      So often, I hear others complain about exactly what you have written and it causes me to wonder, with all the gnashing of teeth that is going on in the publishing industry about the fate of books, who is running the store? If I were to add my voice to the prognosticators, I would say in many ways, they are their own worst enemy because of many of the books they choose to publish. I have had my own experiences pitching fiction to agents, the gatekeepers, so to speak, and they seem to be very hip and very young. One told me my writing is too old fashioned. The trouble is, they are over looking a vast audience of readers; readers who would inhale stories with solid plots, exposition and character development. Stories that are agnostic about politically correct themes.

      What they seem to be missing is what you have described about the cooperative effort. They are ignoring millions of readers at their peril, I believe. Unfortunately, like Hollywood, the publishing world is also enamored of youth. Older writers who are not established can give it up. And that is a shame. I belong to a writing group and the stories that come from the other members in the group are amazing. It is a shame they will never see the light of published day.

      Thank you so much for commenting, Chris!

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