Friday, December 27, 2013

Returning to Thornyhold

Thornyhold, Mary Stewart

We had a holiday from work on the day after Christmas, and I spent much of it reading this book.  Technically, I was re-reading it, though it felt like a new book.  I had no memory of the story, which I first read 20 years ago.  At the time, all I knew of Mary Stewart was her Merlin books.  I have a vague memory of coming across this at the library and deciding to try something different.  I also vaguely remember thinking "Meh" and reading nothing further.  Over the last couple of years, inspired by blog reviews, I have finally tried her suspense novels again, and enjoyed them very much.  Though I already have several on the TBR stacks, the posts I read about Thornyhold moved it to the top of the list.  I was lucky enough to find a copy through Paperback Swap, which arrived on Christmas Eve - perfect timing.

Reading this book now, I can't imagine why I was originally so unimpressed with it.  Maybe it's just that reading tastes change over the years.  It is certainly a quieter story than her earlier books.  But then it has so many things I like in a story.  There is white magic, practical magic, based partly in herbals.  There is a lovely old house, full of books (though few biographies), to be explored and claimed.  There is a black cat with a white chest and paws, to be called home, and a collie to be rescued.  There is even a touch of Merlin, not just in the quiet magic, but in a visit to Stonehenge, the monument raised to Ambrosius (not his brother Uther, as someone says here).  And as soon as I met William, a young motherless boy, I had a good idea where this story was going to go.  But as always, the fun was in getting there.

The narrator here is Geillis Ramsey, whose mother's family has witching lines."I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out."  Gilly is named for her godmother, Geillis Saxon, her mother's cousin.  Her childhood is bleak, growing up with a cold, reserved mother in a dreary coal-mining village.  Gilly is hungry for love, for beauty, for friends.  Only rarely does she see the elder Geillis, who brings her all that.  When her mother dies, Gilly gives up her place at university, returning to the village to care for her father.  It is only after his death, facing a life with no money and few prospects, that she learns of her cousin's death, and of her will.  Geillis has left Gilly her home in the Wiltshire countryside, Thornyhold, and all its contents.

When she arrives at her new home, Gilly finds that her cousin was well-known in the community as an herbalist, even some say a witch.  Exploring the house, she finds a locked room, the stillroom, with plants, medicines, and even poisons (carefully labeled and locked away).  A neighbor, Agnes Trapp, asks urgently about a recipe book that Miss Saxon promised her.  She is equally urgent in pressing her company and her cooking on Gilly, who begins to resist both.  A more welcome visitor is William, who helped the older Geillis with her gardens in exchange for medical care of his ferrets.  His visits become daily, and Gilly learns that he is usually left to his own devices while his father, a novelist, is working.

As Gilly spends her days exploring and then organizing her new home, there are unsettling events - vivid dreams, surprising messages, unexpected encounters, flashes of knowledge - that seem to be leading her toward something (even at times, driving her).  I found myself trying as she was to put the pieces together, to figure out what was happening, wondering what was real, what might be illusion.  This is a gentle story, with a quiet romance, winding to a very satisfying resolution (with even a touch of farce at the end).  It's one I know I'll be reading again - I think it is a perfect example of "comfort reading."


  1. I was surprised how quickly I became swept up in this: it really was just a lovely, simple pleasure to read. A total, predictable feel-good experience. Where do you think she finds names like Geillis?!

  2. vicki, you know what's going to happen, but it's not color-by-numbers or rote, and I didn't find it sappy either. One of the major characters in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo books is called Gellis - and she was a witch in the non-magical sense, so it's nice to meet a good Geillis to balance her out.

  3. Are you sure that's the only reason William is left to his own devices? Have you ever smelt ferrets? Their odour tends to linger:-)

    I know nothing of Stewart other than her Merlin books and I'm not sure this is my cup of tea, but I might see if I can get cheap copies of the Merlin sequence and re-read those and maybe then I'll feel like tackling her other work.

  4. I enjoyed this one too, but I do prefer her earlier suspense novels which are more to my taste. I've found her final three books (this, Stormy Petrel and Rose Cottage) to be much gentler than her others, though still good stories with wonderful settings - and definitely perfect comfort reads!

  5. This is the first Mary Stewart novel I read back in January 2012 and I loved it. I like all of the elements that you mention and the slow, comforting pace. I adore her books from the fifties, but this one will always be my sentimental favorite.

  6. Alex, that question made me laugh out loud :) I have only seen ferrets from a distance & had no desire to get too close. I've never read the third Merlin book, but I finally got a copy of it earlier this year.

    Helen, I have the other two you mention on the TBR stacks (this summer I suddenly started finding her books in used-book stores). I still have lots of the earlier books to read as well - I keep wondering how I've missed her all these years.

    Anbolyn, I'd have real trouble picking just one favorite at this point (and with so many still to read), but this one would definitely be high on the list, The earlier books are so intense, and when things in real life are stressful, a story like this can be the perfect antidote.

  7. Sounds wonderful! I love Mary Stewart stories--my mom used to subscribe to English women's magazines in the 1960's, which always had something from Stewart serialized, so I learned to read reading them. Loved the illustrations too.

    I haven't read this one, though, and it sounds marvelous. Definitely one for the wish list on paperbackswap.

    Happy New Year.

  8. Jane, as I remember there were other copies available on PBS, so I hope you can get one. This really is a charming story. I didn't realize Stewart had been serialized. With the more intense books, it would be awful to wait between chapters!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!