I was quite young when I first tried my hand at writing, and I found that descriptions were my Waterloo; I had to draw inadequate pictures instead. Dialogue seemed easy – should I have gone into playwriting? However, any type of description stopped me cold immediately. I’m envious of anyone who can describe a place, a person, a house, a tree – or a dolphin – so clearly that I can visualize it perfectly.
Fortunately for her readers, author Mary Stewart had no such problem, and we are placed in settings that are vivid, colorful, and speak to all the senses. Another plus for a perennial romantic like me is that her heroines are usually young, attractive, brave and educated. They are the highly idealized “me” from decades ago. This sentence from her obituary in The Guardian on May 15, 2014, sums it up: “Stewart’s fans were above all attracted to her wonderful storytelling, which she saw as a skill she was born with – ‘I am first and foremost a teller of tales’– but also by the warmth and vivacity of her characters and the sharply drawn settings.”
Note the beautiful but economical description from This Rough Magic below:
“The bay was small and sheltered, a sickle of pure white sand holding back the aquamarine sea, and held in its turn by the towering backdrop of cliff and pine and golden-green trees. My path led me steeply down past a knot of young oaks, straight on to the sand… the sea deepened through peacock shades to a rich, dark blue, where the mountains of Epirus floated in the clear distance, less substantial than a bank of mist. The far snows of Albania seemed to drift like cloud.”
I first read Mary Stewart years ago. Now that I had a Kindle and could adjust the font size, I looked for my Stewart favorites in our library cooperative catalog. No luck. However, mystery writer Deborah Crombie recently had noted on her Facebook page that many of those books were newly released in Kindle format on Amazon.com for a very reasonable price. Problem solved, and I bought the ones I remembered best.
The most difficult part of this piece was to choose my favorite book. I had fallen in love with her romantic mysteries, which take place in locations like Skye, Provence, Northern England, Crete, Corfu, the French Pyrenees, and other beautiful settings. (It’s no wonder that at least two movies have been made from her books. You may remember a teenaged Hayley Mills dangling from the sail of an old windmill in The Moon-Spinners, or Airs Above the Ground, which is set in Austria and features the Spanish Riding School with their famous Lipizzaners.)
I decided to go with This Rough Magic, published in 1964, which takes place on the island of Corfu in Greece. Throughout the book, Stewart alludes to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Sir Julian Gale, an elderly actor and one of the characters in the book, has this to say about the possibility of Corfu having been Shakespeare’s island:
“‘There is no evidence of any kind,’ Sir Julian was saying,’To connect this island with the island of the play, any more than we can prove it was the Scheria of Odysseus and Nausicaa; but in both cases tradition is strong, and when traditions persist hard enough, it seems only sensible to conclude that there may be something in them worth investigating,… I’ve been looking for evidence to prove it… there are young limes growing all down the cliff beyond Manning’s villa, and the whole area is honeycombed with caves… it’s my guess that there was in fact some spectacular wreck here, and that became the basis of a legend.’”
And, of course, the book title itself comes from Prospero’s line in The Tempest: “This rough magic I do abjure.”
Lucy, the narrator, is young, attractive, and currently out of work as an actress. She is visiting her pregnant sister Phyllida (her two older children and her husband Leo are back in Rome) at one of her Italian husband’s two villas near a bay on Corfu, across from the coast of Albania. The other villa is rented by a writer/photographer. There is also the original building on the site, “the large and pretentious Castello dei Fiori,” which is run down but currently inhabited by a reclusive actor. Already we have many of the elements for romance and suspense: an attractive young woman, an exotic location, at least two mysterious men, various unknown personal and possibly conflicting ethical and political beliefs, some Greek and Albanian history, a trained dolphin who swims regularly in the bay, and several Greek characters.
In the first few pages of the book, someone shoots at a dolphin when Lucy goes down to swim at the beach near her sister’s villa. Spiro, a young Greek man, has been declared drowned after a boating accident by Godfrey Manning, the writer for whom Spiro worked who was living in the other nearby villa. Spiro is the twin brother and son of the two women who work at the villa, Maria and Miranda. Lucy also has met one of the two men who lives at the Castello, and she wrongly accuses him of shooting at the dolphin. She learns that he is the son of a famous British actor, Sir Julian Gale, who Lucy knows by reputation.
Later, when she first meets Sir Julian in person, she is lured by a white cat and unwittingly has begun gathering roses by the Castello:
“The white cat, posing in front of an elegant background of dark fern, watched benevolently as I hunted for them, my hands filling with plundered roses. The scent was heavy as a drug. The air zoomed with bees, The general effect was of having strayed out of the dark wood into some fairy tale. One almost expected the cat to speak.
When the voice did come suddenly, from somewhere above, it nearly startled me out of my wits. It was a beautiful voice, and it enhanced, rather than broke, the spell.”
The scene is set. We learn why Sir Julian has left London, at least temporarily, and why his composer son Max is living with him at the Castello. We also learn Sir Julian’s theory about Corfu being the setting for The Tempest. Lucy has charmed the older man (but probably not his son Max), and she is invited back any time for more conversation about the theater.
Shortly afterwards, Lucy and Phyllida go bathing, and later Phyllida decides to nap on the beach. Lucy thinks that someone is spying on her when she sees the flash of binoculars. After she swims closer to Godfrey Manning’s villa and boathouse to get further away, she finds a deep inlet running through rocks. Looking into the water, she sees:
“(A) body was lying half in, half out, of the largest patch of shadow. The sun, shining straight into my eyes, had hidden it till now, the hump of flesh and clothes not holding any human kind of shape, just a lump of rags rolled over and over by the sell and dumped there, jammed somehow under an overhand at the base of the pool.
Even now, with the sun directly in my eyes, I could hardly be sure. Sick and shaken, I hesitated: but of course I would have to look.”
The sighting of the body sends events into motion that lead to suspense, danger, a life- and-death escape, discovery of the villain, and, of course, a satisfying resolution at the end. For anyone looking for romance, good writing, suspense, and a delightful way to spend a few summer days, I can heartily recommend This Rough Magic.
P.S. In regard to whether male readers would be interested in any of Mary Stewart’s books, Anthony Boucher, late American author, critic, and editor, noted that “it would take a suspiciously over-male he-man to resist the charm and narrative vigor of Mary Stewart’s adventure stories.”
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.