Rosemary Goring

AT A VE Day fancy dress ball, a shy young English woman called Mary Rainbow found herself unaccompanied when her partner for the evening was suddenly recalled to the nearby army base at Catterick. A friend introduced her to an Aberdonian called Dr Frederick Stewart, who asked her to dance. He was dressed as a St Trinian’s schoolgirl, in gym slip, lavender socks and knickers, with a red ribbon in his hair. “She told me she thought, ‘he’s the one’,” says Jennifer Ogden, niece of the shy young woman, who went on to become Mary Stewart, a world renowned novelist. “Within three weeks they were engaged, and within three months they were married.” Their union was to last 55 years, until Fred’s death.

The speed of their attraction, what Georgette Heyer would describe as a coup de foudre, is the very stuff of romantic fiction. It’s no surprise, then, that when Stewart began to write, her stories contained a strong vein of passion. Their intelligent, clear-headed and resourceful heroines encountered often brusque or difficult men who, in the course of hazardous adventures, inevitably fell headlong for each other. Not that any of her heroes dressed in a gym slip. Stewart was too shrewd to allow any hint of the ridiculous to mar the glamorous spells she spun.

A former teacher, with a double first in French, English and Anglo-Saxon from the University of Durham, Stewart was born in 1916, and was educated, miserably, at boarding school. To mark the centenary of her birth last month, her publisher Hodder is reprinting her “long-lost” short novel, The Wind off the Small Isles, a spirited, sometimes frightening gothic tale set in the ashen landscape of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. It’s an island she had once visited with her husband. The origins of its central drama, which takes place in subterranean sea caves, may lie in the day when Professor Stewart instructed his wife to climb 40 or 50 feet into a volcano’s crater. Her niece laughs. “He was taking photographs, and he needed something to show the size of the crater, and he used Auntie Mary.”

Ogden, 68, was her aunt’s companion for the last 12 years of her life, after Fred died, until Stewart’s death in 2014. Stewart had often asked if Jennifer would consider coming to live with them, but it was only when she saw how swiftly her aunt was going downhill after her husband’s death that she gave up her job and moved in. Did she ever regret doing this?

“Not in the least, not even in the last years when it was becoming rather more hard work”. She describes their time together as “full of fun and laughter”, and talks with great fondness and love for her aunt. The publication of The Wind off the Small Isles, and the prospect of the imminent republication of some of Stewart’s most popular titles, leaves her “thrilled to bits”. As it would have her aunt. “She loved reprints, and would always say, ‘I’m still alive, I’m still around.’ And this does keep her alive.”

There is tragedy, however, behind Stewart’s story, without which the books might not have been written. Ogden’s relationship with her aunt was always very close. Indeed, Stewart was devoted to her seven nieces and nephews. It had always been her dream to have four children, but in February 1948, she nearly died because of an ectoptic pregnancy.

The following month, Ogden was born: “She was still lying in hospital recovering from the full hysterectomy. My mother, being as tactful as she always was, wrote saying, ‘Well Mary, I’ve just got another daughter, dark hair, grey eyes, just like you.’ Auntie Mary wrote to her and said, ‘Look, you’ve already got three children, can I have this one?’”

Ogden’s mother refused, but said her sister would be welcome whenever she wanted to visit. “So all through my life, really, I had two mothers, because she was always there. I have lovely memories of this beautiful woman driving up in a big car, and smelling heavenly – Chanel No 5 as we now know it was – and that closeness was always there. Although I loved my mother dearly, I also loved Auntie Mary dearly.”

Knowing she could never have children, Stewart went back to lecturing, but it was her father who changed her prospects forever. Ogden recounts the story with obvious pleasure. “My grandfather turned to her and said, ‘Well Mary, you’ve been writing stories since you were a little girl, you’ve always wanted to write. Why don’t you write that book now?’ And she wrote, Madam, Will You Talk? And of course her books were her children.”

Following the immediate acclaim for her debut, which came out in 1954, very soon, with titles such as Nine Coaches Waiting and This Rough Magic Stewart became one of the best-selling thriller writers of her day, her pacy plots and effortlessly clear writing making her an almost overnight literary sensation. Some hailed her as “the natural successor of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte”, yet you will need the exploratory skills of Indiana Jones to find any interview with her in the archives. Stewart loathed publicity, and rarely spoke to journalists. When her geologist husband, who was knighted for his work, retired as professor from the University of Edinburgh, they moved to their second home in Argyll overlooking Loch Awe. Set in 16 acres of garden and woodland, it is “the perfect spot for a writer”, says Ogden, who talks to me by phone from this idyllic-sounding location, having just come in indoors from gardening.

Built in 1897 by William Douglas Campbell, she says, the house is “not Scottish baronial but it stands there like an Italian villa. It’s cream with a red roof, loads and loads of gables, and a tower up the middle with the staircase in it. ... It sits on the top of a bank up a back lane away from the village, with the gardens running right down to the road. It overlooks the loch. It’s beautiful.”

When Stewart first saw it, she fell in love at once, but was about to go on tour to America. It was sold while she was gone, but four years later it came back on the market. Even though she said it had been “absolutely ruined”, Ogden recalls, by being turned into a B&B, Stewart didn’t hesitate: “She bought it there and then on the spot.” There could hardly be a better retreat for a writer. Or for a man famed for discovering the largest sapphire in Scotland. On the day Ogden and I speak, I learn that the most powerful earthquake ever recorded here was in Loch Awe, in 1888. “Auntie Mary never mentioned that,” she says, but has little doubt she must have known.

Photographs of Stewart show an elegant, keen-eyed woman from the upper class. In person, says her niece, “she didn’t take easily to strangers but if she liked you you knew it. Shy, retiring would be a good description. Because she was also a solitary person, she liked her own space. When I came up here I would just leave her be. If she wanted me she would shout for me. Having said that, she had the kindest heart in Christendom.” One of the reasons Ogden became her companion was because Stewart had been so generous to the family – and not just hers – throughout her life.

Auntie Mary also, she says, “had a first-class brain.” Weeks before her death at the age of 97, she astounded lunch guests by reciting 23 verses of The Ancient Mariner. On another occasion, when one of Ogden’s friends quoted from Beowulf in English, Stewart replied in fluent Anglo-Saxon. “I stand rebuked!” the friend replied.

The day Stewart died, Ogden was in London, but the friend who was with her aunt described the scene. All day the novelist had spoken about the date, May 9, which was the anniversary of the day she met Fred. She had reminisced about the VE Day ball. “At eight 8 o’clock she suddenly turned and said, ‘I’m really tired, I think I’ll go to bed.’ She got onto the chair lift to go upstairs, and turned and said, ‘I’m really looking forward to seeing Fred again,’ and half an hour later she was gone.”

The Wind off the Small Isles is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99