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« Of book launches, creativity, life choices, Elizabeth Gilbert and me | Main | Wounded and blessed »

Guilty pleasures

As far as I can remember, I’ve never read an actual Mills & Boon or equivalent. But when I was a much younger woman, my mother introduced me to something close enough – romantic thrillers by English author Mary Stewart, best known for her brilliant trilogy on Merlin and Arthur. As a side line, however, she wrote ten books featuring feisty, clever and gutsy English twenty-something women in exotic locations. The general formula, with some exceptions, was that the devastatingly attractive bad guy turned out to be the good guy in the end, and together our protagonist and the bloke saved the day against baddies plotting dastardly deeds against everything from small countries to small children.

I adored these books and read them over and over, falling in love, through the printed page, not with the handsome love interest, but with places I had never been – Vienna, Crete, Corfu, the Isle of Skye, Lebanon and Syria, the south of France. As Mum (who had had her fair share of smart-and-feisty-woman-in exotic-locations experiences) used to say, ‘the local colour is marvellous’.

Because Stewart was writing in the 50s and 60s, the sexual action is limited. There are coy lines such as, ‘neither of us said anything for a very long time’. The books are dated in other ways too, of course, but there are fewer wincey moments than I expected. The heroines were physically attractive, sure, but that featured a long way behind their pluck and brain. They run rings around the men. In Stewart’s first foray into this genre Madam will you talk? written in 1955, our girl is a gun driver of fast cars; what’s more, she can disable the bad guy’s vehicle in a jiffy.

I’m not sure how my Mary Stewarts escaped my recent decluttering purges, which included a substantial number of books, but when I was struck down with the flu recently, I was so glad they had survived. Once I was over the worst, all I wanted to do was to curl up in bed with a Mary Stewart. I read five in a row, and when I ran out, as I was away from home for a couple of days, headed to the local op shop is desperation.

Home again, and with vastly improved health, I am still working my steady way through my Stewarts. And – further confession time – I have ordered all the ones I didn’t already own, on book depository.

This was published on 7 October in The Melbourne Age

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Reader Comments (3)

I can't bring myself to give away my collection of Mary Stewart either (nor Mary Renault nor Joanna Trollope nor Mary Wesley!).

October 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterStefanie Pearce

Ohh, thank you for this reminder Clare. I remember reading 'Merlin' by Mary Stewart in my later years at high school. Totally immersed myself in that book yet haven't read it since. I think I will be checking these old favorites at the library next week☺

October 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermaree

G'day Clare. Read wit amusement your piece in the Age re the purveyor of instant youth and your reaction.
I have always wondered at the gullibility of women to such blandishments and the expectations of men on the subject of womens appearance. Of course it's product marketing and that moral free industry that has much of the blame Regarding your laughing at him, I find that a very effective way to dismiss much nonsense, works with political door knockers and religious ones as well. It throws them outside their rehearsed spiel and leaves them no where to go.
Keep up the good work and I will folow your blog more closely now.

November 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjeff cole

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