The Ivy Tree (1961) by Mary Stewart

Book review by Frances S: The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart was first published in 1961, slightly later than the usual Reading 1900-1950 period but otherwise well qualified for the Popular Fiction canon.

I recently came across, in a totally different context, a current online entry by literary agent Caroline Wood. Wood says that she loves books ‘that transport me to a different time or place, books that have a secret or mystery at the heart of them, books about family and relationships, books that are psychologically complex and emotionally involving, always beautifully written and with a distinctive voice.’

The Ivy Tree ticks all those boxes.

The Ivy Tree is placed in North East England in the 1950s and is narrated by the central character, a young woman travelling as ‘Mary Grey’. She has been living in Canada, has lost her job, and is visiting her family’s original home area. With little money, she has found a job in a café in Newcastle to pay her way.

The story opens with ‘Mary’ sitting alone in the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, gazing at the views. Her thoughts are abruptly interrupted when a handsome but unfriendly young man, Connor Winslow, accuses her of being his second-cousin Annabel. Annabel has been missing for eight years, after running away as a 19-year-old. ‘Mary’ convinces Con that he is mistaken, and returns to Newcastle, shaken by the incident. A strange woman begins to turn up regularly in the café, and then comes to ‘Mary’s’ flat. She is Lisa Dermott, Connor’s loyal and protective step sister. Connor manages a successful farm, Whitescar, for his great uncle, the ageing and ailing Matthew Winslow. Lisa keeps house, well and comfortably, for them all. Connor and Lisa are desperate to inherit the farm, but Matthew’s will names Annabel as the main beneficiary. Relishing the power he has over the family, Matthew refuses to change the will even though everybody else is convinced that Annabel is dead. Connor and Lisa offer ‘Mary’ a large sum of money to pretend to be Annabel on the understanding that she will hand over the farm to Connor as soon as she inherits it. After initial reluctance, she agrees, and is given intensive coaching by Lisa and Connor for several weeks so that she can pass for Annabel.

The author pre-empts criticism that the plot copies Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel Brat Farrar by having ‘‘Mary/Annabel’’ and Lisa themselves referring to the Tey book, and also to the true stories of Perkin Warbeck and the Tichborne Claimant.

The plan seems to work. No one suspects that ‘Annabel’ is an imposter. However, the true reason for Annabel’s original flight from Whitescar begins to emerge when her cousin, Julie, comes up from London for a visit, and reveals that Annabel had been in a relationship with Adam, the married owner of Forrest Hall, the local big house. The ivy tree of the title is an old oak overgrown by ivy, where Adam and Annabel had hidden their love letters. When Adam, now a widower, returns from abroad, Connor’s plans begin to unravel, and ‘Mary/Annabel’’s true identity is revealed. Violence and death result, but after some scary moments there are happy endings for most of the central characters.

‘Mary/Annabel’ is a lonely, troubled young woman, but she is also brave and enterprising. A twentieth century Jane Eyre, but with the skills to drive a car – fast -, off road, in the middle of the night, and, when the car gets stuck, to gallop for help on a barely broken-in thoroughbred horse. Jane Eyre would recognise the urge to flee after falling in love with a married man, and the discovery, much later, that he has been scarred by a fire that destroyed both his house and the fragile health of his wife.

‘Mary/Annabel’ has been described by some reviewers as an ‘unreliable narrator’, but that isn’t strictly true. The narrator rarely tells the reader anything about her past life. She deliberately misleads other characters, but she never lies to us except by omission. And clues to her real history there are a-plenty. The first, a whopping great truth, appears just five short paragraphs into the first chapter! I spotted only one or two of the other clues on first reading, but enjoyed kicking myself for missing them when I re-read the book. I eagerly began reading from the beginning again as soon as I had finished the final paragraphs, which movingly return to the opening scene but in a new mood of contentment and hope.

Totally true are the narrator’s evocative and appreciative descriptions of the Northumberland countryside, gardens, horses and farming life, reflecting, one assumes, the loves of Mary Stewart herself.

Stewart’s descriptions are finely observed, vivid and poetic: ‘Now last year’s beech mast crackled under my feet, and I thought I could smell lime-blossom, until the path led me up to the high wall that girdled Forrest, and there the neglected overgrowth crowded in, with its stronger scents of ivy and rotting wood and wild garlic and elder-flowers.’

‘The swifts were out and flying high. Their screaming was thin and ecstatic, and exciting, like all the sounds that one feels one is not meant to hear; the singing of the grey seal and the squeak of a bat and the moaning of shearwaters under the ground at night on the wild sea’s edge.’

A description of the dawn chorus is reminiscent of Edward Thomas’ poem Adlestrop:

‘I remember realising that the dark had slackened, and then, later, a blackbird fluted a piercing stave of song alone in the cold dawn. After he fell silent, there was a deep hush, for the space of a long breath, and then suddenly, all the birds in the world were chattering, whistling, jargoning in a mad medley of sound.’

The weather and the landscape are used by Stewart throughout the story to highlight the plot, climaxing in the destruction of the ivy tree when it is struck by lightning in a great storm. There are old quarries to fall (or be pushed) into, turbulent rivers to cross, woods to navigate and ruins to get trapped in. Sense of place is matched by a sense of history. Forrest’s history dates back to Roman times, and life on Whitescar Farm seems little changed since the 19th century. The modern outside world only intrudes as visitors arrive in fast cars or we follow ‘Mary’ back to her gloomy flat in Newcastle.

It is interesting to read of Annabel’s ability to ‘whisper’ horses; a term I only learnt in the 1990s but which, according to the OED, dates from the early 19th Century. Noticeably, the horses and farm animals are frightened of Connor, one of the early clues to his character.

Another phrase I had not seen before in writing is spoken by Betsy Bates, a servant, who described ‘your Granda playing Hamlet with you’. ‘Playing Hamlet’ was one of my own Yorkshire Grandmother’s favourite expressions to describe someone showing bad temper; I have always assumed it to be a common, nationwide, idiom, but Stewart seems to include it to show Betsy’s northern dialect.

As an admirer of P G Wodehouse’s creation Angus McAllister, I was delighted to see McAllister’s favourite comment: ‘Mphm’ placed by Stewart in the mouth of archaeologist, Donald Seton, and described as ‘the slight, indescribable sound that, in the North, manages to express assent, depreciation, interest, dissent, apology – anything at all that the listener cares to read into it. It sounds like ‘Mphm,’ and you can conduct whole (and perfectly intelligible) conversation with that one sound, anywhere north of the Tyne.’

There are some jarring references. Connor is described as someone who would not need much excuse to join any fight going, ‘possibly a look that is inbred with the Irish, for there could be no doubt about this young man’s ancestry’. And there are several patronising comments about women, some coming from the women themselves. So, from ‘Mary/Annabel’: ‘I’ll try and explain now, like a reasonable human being, which means not like a woman.’ I was also startled when Connor talked about an accusation as ‘crap of that sort’.

But I can forgive Stewart these offences when she also gives us such a cracking story, successfully combining suspense and romance, with, along the way, vivid images like ‘Something tugged at the skirts of my mind, jerked me awake.’

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