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Novelist Mary Stewart's a Lady Like Antonia Fraser—by Title; and That Ends the Similarity

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The more tormented one is, the more serene the writing is,” observes author Mary Stewart, who is herself one of the serenest reads—and sellers—in the English language. Her 12th and latest Gothic thriller, Touch Not the Cat, leapt onto the top-10 lists in the U.S. within a week, propelling her cumulative sales past 11 million. That doesn’t count the total in her native Britain or in the 13 other tongues and umpteen lands in which she’s been published.

As for torment, Mary Rainbow (as she was born 59 years ago to an impoverished vicar) only possibly protests overmuch. Her childhood was misery, she reports, “because I was precociously clever and not popular among my horrible little peers. My happiest memory of school is being put into isolation for one whole glorious term because I had impetigo.” She has indeed suffered more serious impairments since. An ectopic and unsuccessful pregnancy was followed by three operations which left her unable to have children. And even right now, writing is torture because of spinal arthritis, among other ailments.

Yet that troubled part of Stewart’s biography leaves out her meeting with Scottish geologist Frederick Stewart at a World War II victory celebration costume ball when she was 29. He was not hard to spot—he was the chap wearing a girl’s gym tunic with a red ribbon in his hair. They were married within three months, and Mary, in her poetic way, says it was “like suddenly coming into harbor after a very rough and beastly sea.” It was four years later that she began her literary career. Frederick, now Regius Professor at Edinburgh University and chairman of the advisory board of Britain’s $360 million-a-year government research councils, has been knighted. Lady Stewart (Mary’s proper though unused title) lovingly refers to him as “the boss” and is purely facetious when she says, “We’ve had grounds for divorce for 30 years, but we’re both too lazy.”

Mary does not make so light of their cats and other surrogate kids. She calls her books (which also include suspense stories like The Ivy Tree and This Rough Magic, two historical novels and two children’s tales) “my little babies.” And then, there is her “most extravagant child,” a 1975 Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce. During the war she took an engineering course qualifying her to repair cars, which the “owner-proof” Rolls has so far thwarted. “Rollses aren’t just cars,” she says. “They’re an experience.”

But presently her left wrist bears a scar from an operation on a tendon that was infected from years of slamming back carriages on old typewriters, and far from being able to fix autos, she creates in acute pain now employing an IBM Selectric or, more comfortably, a dictating machine. Yet, lest her addicts fret that she has written her last baby, Mary Stewart notes, “All this makes me sound like a proper old wreck. The chassis may be, but the engine is fine.”