As a life-long bookworm, Miss Bates has fallen in love with many a writer. Sometimes, the relationship is long-lasting (hello, Charlotte Brontë); sometimes, not (good-bye, D. H. Lawrence). But the experience has always been love at first sight: it’s rare that an author woos her over several books. Reading the first sentence of Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? was like Romeo recognizing Juliet across the ballroom. “The whole affair began so very quietly”: Stewart’s novel and Miss B.’s tumble into amore was as lovely and definitive as reading “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” A turn of phrase pulling the reader into the writer’s world, a declarative sentence mysterious, question-inducing: What is this “affair”? How was it “quietly” begun? What came next? If a walk wasn’t possible: why not? what happened instead? What other possibilities were explored? Reading further in Madam, Will You Talk?, Miss Bates discovered more similarities to her beloved Jane Eyre: a heroine moral and fearless, standing on principle, defending the vulnerable, showing compassion, and answering to the unknown with firm purpose and stalwart spirit. Moreover, in the midst of danger and a world of corruption and crime, our heroine finds love in confrontation with a man who is hero and possible villain. Our heroine’s moral stance and fortitude set the world aright for herself and her hero, who emerges worthy of her. There were bumps on Miss B’s Mary Stewart ride, discomfiting jolts encountered on rough country roads by the Bentleys and Mercedes her heroines and heroes drive, but oh what a ride, what views and vistas. Stewart’s novel did not have Brontë’s scope or brilliance, but as Stewart claimed, her stories “love and imitate the beautiful and the good,” marvelously so, says Miss Bates.
Madam, Will You Talk? is a novel permeated with the post-WWII ethos, at least for the victors: a war-weary world awakening to the everyday rhythms of life lived in the comfort of peace and security. But shadows linger. Widow Charity Selborne is in Provence, Avignon to be exact, to holiday with her irrepressible friend, Louise. (Charity lost her husband, Johnny, when his plane went down in France during the war.) At the Hôtel Tistet-Védène, Charity befriends David Shelley, a boy vacationing with his indifferent, cold step-mother, Loraine. Sundry unsavory characters surround wicked step-mom and good-humoured, well-mannered English schoolboy. David’s father, for one. Richard Byron was accused, but acquitted, of murder, also possibly assault against David. At first, David appears afraid of him as Richard Byron mysteriously follows Charity and David on their site-seeing forays (Loraine happy to have David off her hands). Loraine is involved in nefarious schemes with suspect men. Richard Byron, worthy of the “byronic” allusion, is broody, dark, piquantly handsome, but lowering and threatening. Is he? A threat? If so, why doesn’t he hurt David, or Charity? Why is Charity drawn to him?
As mystery, danger, and characters are ever more convoluted, Charity realizes that her initial understanding of David, Loraine, and Richard was erroneous. She quotes Macbeth to Richard, after a day of heart-palpitating car chasing when they make peace, “And nothing is but what is not.” (This may be one of Miss Bates’ favourite lines in literature.) In describing her books, Stewart said she would take:
… conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in a conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary, with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.
This describes Madam, Will You Talk? to a tee and supports what Miss Bates claims. Firstly, that Stewart’s description of her novels is England’s mythic sense of who they were during WWII (hobbits, but better-looking). Her heroines, and heroes once they reveal themselves as such, are caught in a corrupt and deceptive world, a world they must unravel if right is to prevail. What Miss Bates delighted in was that Charity learned to identify the right and good, separate wheat from chaff (Richard from Loraine and company) by using her understanding of right and wrong, intelligence, and courage. To add delirium to delight, Charity did so donning chic, feminine outfits, driving like Michael Schumacher, and quoting Shakespeare. She is never a ninny; confused and troubled by events, yes, but she RATIOCINATES. A most impressive feat: a heroine who thinks. A writer who doesn’t tell us her heroine is smart, she shows us she’s smart.
Miss Bates loved Charity because she led with her heart and her heart, former schoolmarm that she is, gives herself over to a child. Here are her thoughts on the polite, bright David:
… stealing a look down at the childish curve of the thin cheek laid against the dog’s fur, I wasn’t so sure that he could deal with whatever queer situation he was in. And again, I knew that I wanted most desperately to help. It was irrational, and I can’t explain it, even today. It was just the way David made me feel.
(Italics are Miss Bates’s.) Miss Bates loved this passage because it shows the importance of the heart over reason, but not at the cost of reason. Charity understands herself well: she’s considered, thoughtful, and cerebral, but she has the true understanding of what it means to lead the “examined life.” Leading with the heart is not impulse, it is love. Charity knows how to love without losing sight of herself. She knows how to care for another. She cares for David and that makes her all the more endearing and likeable. Very much like the best of Neelsian heroines: her “Juno-esque” nurses, as Gen Turner put it delightfully.
Miss Bates also delights in Charity’s enjoyment of solitude. If not for the scrumptiously dark and handsome Richard, Charity has the makings of a great spinster. She savors her own company and revels in her imagination:
I sat down on a fallen piece of carved stone, leaned back against a pillar, and closed my eyes. I tried not to think of Johnny … it didn’t do any good to think of Johnny … I must just think of nothing except how quiet it was, and how much I like being alone … I wanted, above all things, to be out of Avignon, out of that galère, even for a short time. And I wanted to be alone.
Miss Bates appreciated that Charity remembered, loved, and grieved Johnny, but more so that Charity knew how to be at peace with herself and take pleasure in beauty. Witness her thoughts following the above:
The evening was drawing down, and the light deepened. Away behind me I caught a last glimpse of the towers of Avignon, like torches above the trees. Around me the landscape grew wilder and more beautiful, muted from the white and dusty glare of day to the rose and purple of evening. The sun set, not in one concentrated star of fire, but in a deep diffusion of amber light, till the sharp black spires of the cypresses seemed to be quivering against the glow, and flowing upwards like flames formed of shadows.
As an armchair traveller, Miss Bates loved reading Stewart’s descriptions. They establish one more worthy quality in her heroine, that is, a sensuality and fine sense of aesthetic that is outside of the bedroom. Our contemporary romance writers have much to learn from Stewart and her “sweet,” “kisses-only,” romantic mystery-thrillers. Sensuality trumps sexuality, at least for Miss B.
Charity’s “educated imagination,” to borrow a phrase from Miss Bates’ favourite literary critic, Northrop Frye, gives her the ability to transport herself aesthetically, but also into the past. Here’s a wonderful passage about the deserted town of Les Beaux that precedes Mr Rochester’s entry to the scene, oops, that’d be Mr. Byron’s:
The prospect is wild enough, and strange enough, to satisfy anyone who, like myself that evening, felt so pressingly the need for quiet and my own company. With faint amusement I perceived slowly creeping over me the mood of melancholy in which the not-quite-romantics of the eighteenth century in England found such gentle pleasure.
I sat near the window of the little inn’s dining-room, watching the evening light on the distant slopes, and enjoying my lonely dinner. I ate slowly, and the light was dying from the land when at length I took my coffee and chartreuse outside onto the little terrace, and prepared to let the past have its way with me.
I got out my book, and read the chanson de toile again, the songs of lovely Isabel, Yolande the beautiful, Aiglentine the fair, who had sat at their embroidery, singing, so very long ago, in this same land. Then I shut the book, and sat dreaming, with my eyes on the broken lines and ghost-filled terraces of the town, trying to pave the streets and cut back the vegetation and fill the empty ways with horses and men and the glint of armour and the scarlet of banners.
This is one of Miss Bates’s favourite passages as it encompasses the many elements that make Charity’s narration, and Stewart’s voice, pleasurable: the narrator’s gentle mood of tristesse, a sense of flowing out of a tradition (England’s 18th century “not-quite-romantics,”) the sensual pleasures of the moment (coffee and chartreuse), the rueful turn of phrase (“to let the past have its way with me”), and the bonding to the past via the imagination that is the delight of a certain heightened sensibility.
Lastly, amidst Provençal beauty, many-coursed meals, murder and mayhem, looms the war’s spectre. Once Richard Byron’s heroic status is established, Miss Bates saw how his life and experience had to be reclaimed by Charity’s loving-kindness. At first, Richard Byron is frustrated by Charity’s connection to David and how she foils him, mistakenly identifying him as the villain. In his vexation:
He said savagely: ‘My God, I’d like to try. If I lay hands on you again I’ll not answer for myself. I’d like to wring your lovely neck.’
‘I see. Gestapo stuff.” But my voice shook.
‘And why not? I’ve seen it done, and to women. It works, as often as not.’
In that tiny phrase, Richard Byron reveals bleakness, despair, and a horrific war experience to Charity. If there is a flaw in Madam, Will You Talk?, it is in the hero’s abrupt transformation from lovely-neck-wringer to besotted inamorato. It is all bound up with what Charity (her name, as his is, allegorical) means in a world, in light of the post-war revelations of atrocities, that no longer makes sense for Richard Byron, not in what he witnessed in the war, and not in his personal life. It is Charity who has to lead the way, via memories acknowledged and assimilated into the present, forgiveness, and loving-kindness:
‘ … One ought to build even better the second time, and I can still build. And Johnny – ‘ I said, turning to Richard Byron, ‘why, Johnny would have egged me on.’
He straightened up, and his arms went round me, this time very gently. He was smiling, and his eyes has a little steady flame deep in the grey. He held me a little away from him and looked at me, his lips curving.
‘I love you, Charity,’ he said again. ‘You’re so sweet and you’re so sane. My God, I think you could almost make the world seem a sweet, sane place again, the way it used to be … Am I to take it that you’re telling me to go ahead and kiss you again?’
Though there is a good third of the novel left after this exchange and though Richard Byron’s avowal is abrupt and a tad jarring, for Miss Bates, this marks the HEA. Romance has done its part: now, two people will fight evil, all the stronger and better together than apart. The rest is dénouement. A child will be re-integrated into a loving family and the world will be set aright. Justice will be served; and, out of ugliness, beauty will be revealed triumphant. But that, dearest reader, is for you to discover when you read to the glorious end of this glorious novel. Miss B. cried. In Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk?, Miss Bates found, in the words of romance’s venerated tradition, Jane Austen’s, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.”
Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? is published by Hodder and Stoughton and available in paper and “e” at the usual places. Miss Bates purchased it with her meagre spinster savings and has lined up another thirteen to read.
Stewart, like Betty Neels (who, writing in the 70s and 80s, exhibited a sensibility akin to Stewart’s) and Susanna Kearsley (who’s gifting us with novels that echo Stewart’s) is beloved of many readers. As The Guardian wrote, ” … she was a natural successor to Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. As The Herald commented in 2004 [they quote], ‘She built the bridge between classic literature and modern popular fiction. She did it first and she did it best.’ ” Miss Bates has endeavoured to point to Stewart’s genius in her humble offering above. This is her first Stewart novel, but by no means her last, God willing. What are your thoughts, ideas, and most importantly, memories, of reading the incomparable Mary Stewart? Where did you encounter and read her? How old were you? What were/are your impressions and responses?