Mary Stewart (novelist)

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Mary Stewart
Mary Stewart (novelist).jpg
BornMary Florence Elinor Rainbow
(1916-09-17)17 September 1916
Sunderland, County Durham, England
Died9 May 2014(2014-05-09) (aged 97)
Lochawe, Scotland
Pen nameMary Stewart
Alma materDurham University
GenreRomantic mystery
(m. 1945; died 2001)

Mary, Lady Stewart (born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow; 17 September 1916 – 9 May 2014) was a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations. She also wrote children's books and poetry, but may be best known for her Merlin series, which straddles the boundary between the historical novel and fantasy.

Early life and education[edit]

Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was born on 17 September 1916 in Sunderland, County Durham, England, UK, daughter of Mary Edith Matthews, a primary school teacher from New Zealand, and Frederick Albert Rainbow, a vicar.[1][2]

She was a bright child and attended Eden Hall boarding school in Penrith, Cumbria, age eight. She was bullied there and stated that this had a lasting effect on her. At ten, she won a scholarship to Skellfield School, Ripon, Yorkshire, where she excelled at sport. Offered places by Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham universities, she chose Durham as it offered the largest bursary and least travel.[3]

She graduated from Durham University in 1938 with first-class honours in English, was awarded a first-class Teaching Diploma in English with Art the following year and in 1941 gained her master's degree.[4]

Academic teaching[edit]

The scarcity of jobs during World War II meant that she held a variety of posts during this period, including primary school teaching, teaching at secondary level at a girls' boarding school, and working part-time at the Sixth Form of Durham School.[4] Between 1941 and 1956, she was an assistant lecturer (1941–5) and part-time lecturer (1948–56) in English literature, mostly Anglo-Saxon, at Durham University. She received an honorary D.Litt. in 2009.[5] It was in Durham that she met and married her husband, Frederick Stewart, a young Scot who lectured in Geology. She became known as Mary Stewart.

In 1956, the couple moved to Edinburgh.[6] Mary, in her own words, was a "born storyteller" and had been writing stories since the age of three. Following the move to Scotland, she submitted a novel to the publishers Hodder & Stoughton. Madam, Will You Talk? was an immediate success, followed by many other successful works over the years.[3]

Writing career[edit]

Stewart was the best-selling author of many romantic suspense and historical fiction novels. They were well received by critics, due especially to her skillful story-telling and elegant prose. Her novels are also known for their well-crafted settings, many in England but also in such locations as Damascus and the Greek islands, as well as Spain, France, Austria, etc.[7]

She was at the height of her popularity from the late 1950s to the 1980s, when many of her novels were translated into other languages. The Moon-Spinners, one of her most popular novels, was also made into a Disney live-action movie. Stewart was one of the most prominent writers of the romantic suspense subgenre, blending romance novels and mystery. Critically, her works are considered superior to those of other acclaimed romantic suspense novelists, such as Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney.[8] She seamlessly combined the two genres, maintaining a full mystery while focusing on the courtship between two people,[9] so that the process of solving the mystery "helps to illuminate" the hero's personality—thereby helping the heroine to fall in love with him.[10]

In the late 1960s a new generation of young readers revived a readership in T. H. White's The Once and Future King (published in full 1958) and The Lord of the Rings (published in full 1956), and as a consequence Arthurian and heroic legends regained popularity among a critical mass of readers. Mary Stewart added to this climate by publishing The Crystal Cave (1970), the first in what was to become The Merlin Trilogy, later extended by two further novels. The books placed Stewart on the best-seller list many times throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Personal life[edit]

Mary Rainbow met and married her husband, Frederick Stewart, a young Scot lecturer in Geology, whilst they were both working at Durham University. They were married by her father in September 1945 after having met at a VE Day dance; [3]their engagement was announced in The Times only one month after they met.[11] At 30, she suffered an ectopic pregnancy, undiagnosed for several weeks, and as a consequence could not have children.

In 1956, they moved to Edinburgh, where he became professor of geology and mineralogy, and later chairman of the Geology Department at University of Edinburgh.[6]

In 1974, Mary's husband Frederick Stewart was knighted and she became Lady Stewart, although she never used the title. Her husband died in 2001.[12]

In semi-retirement Stewart resided in Edinburgh as well as near Loch Awe. An avid gardener, Mary and her husband shared a keen love of nature. She was also fond of her cat Tory, a black and white female, who lived to be eighteen.[13]

Mary Stewart died on 9 May 2014.[14][15] Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was added in 2022.[3]


Fantasy genre[edit]

Award Work Result Ref.
Frederick Niven Literary Award The Crystal Cave (1970) Won [15]
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award The Crystal Cave (1970) Won [16]
The Hollow Hills (1973) Won [16]
Scottish Arts Council Award Ludo and the Star Horse (1974) Won [17]

Mystery genre[edit]

Award Work Result Ref.
Agatha Award Lifetime Achievement Won [18]
Edgar Allan Poe Award This Rough Magic (1964) Nominated [19]
Airs Above the Ground (1965) Nominated [19]
Gold Dagger Award My Brother Michael (1961) Nominated [20]


Romantic suspense novels[edit]

The Merlin Chronicles[edit]

  1. The Crystal Cave (1970)
  2. The Hollow Hills (1973)
  3. The Last Enchantment (1979)
  4. The Wicked Day (1983)
  5. The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)

Children's novels[edit]


  • Frost on the Window: And other Poems (1990) (poetry collection)


  1. ^ "Sir Frederick Stewart". The Telegraph. 17 December 2001. Archived from the original on 2 April 2009.
  2. ^ "Mary Stewart". Encyclopædia Britannica (student encyclopedia). Archived from the original on 9 February 2006. Retrieved 28 May 2007.
  3. ^ a b c d Upton, B. G. J, ed. (2009). "Stewart, Sir Frederick Henry (1916–2001), geologist novelist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/76595. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. Retrieved 15 August 2022. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ a b Stewart, Mary (1973). About Mary Stewart. Ontario, Canada: Musson Book Company.
  5. ^ Hutchison, Chris (3 July 2009). "Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart - Doctor of Letters" (PDF). Durham University Honorary Degrees. Durham University. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 October 2012. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
  6. ^ a b Stewart, Mary (1988). Thornyhold (paperback). Author biography.
  7. ^ Contemporary Literary Criticism, v. 35. Gale Research Company, 1985.
  8. ^ Friedman, Lenemaja (1990), Mary Stewart, Boston, Massachusetts: Twain Publishers, ISBN 9780805769852
  9. ^ Regis (2003), pp. 143–144.
  10. ^ Regis (2003), p. 146.
  11. ^ ""Marriages." Times [London, England] 11 June 1945: 7. The Times Digital Archive". Times Digital Archive. Archived from the original on 18 August 2021. Retrieved 25 July 2018.
  12. ^ Pearce, Wright (19 December 2001). "Sir Frederick Stewart". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 13 March 2005. Retrieved 28 May 2007.
  13. ^ Tangye, Derek (1976). Sun on the Lintel. p. 83.
  14. ^ Hore, Rachel (15 May 2014). "Mary Stewart obituary". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 11 February 2021. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  15. ^ a b Gates, Anita (15 May 2014). "Mary Stewart, British Writer Who Spanned Genres, Dies at 97". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 28 January 2021. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  16. ^ a b "Mythopoeic Awards – Fantasy". Mythopoeic Society. Archived from the original on 16 May 2021. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  17. ^ "Mary Stewart". The Herald. 21 May 2014. Archived from the original on 13 August 2020. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  18. ^ "About Malice Domestic". Malice Domestic. Archived from the original on 6 September 2015.
  19. ^ a b "Category List – Best Novel". The Edgars. Mystery Writers of America. Archived from the original on 17 April 2021. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  20. ^ Sobin, Roger M, ed. (2011). "Crime Writers Association (UK)". The Essential Mystery Lists: For Readers, Collectors, and Librarians. ISBN 9781615952038. Archived from the original on 18 August 2021. Retrieved 18 August 2021.


  • Regis, Pamela (2003), A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 0-8122-3303-4
  • Friedman, Lenemaja (1990), Mary Stewart, Boston, Massachusetts: Twain Publishers, ISBN 9780805769852
  • Stewart, Mary (1973), About Mary Stewart, Ontario, Canada: Musson Book Company, 14 page booklet with no ISBN

External links[edit]