Ever wondered about the title of Madam, Will You Talk? Me too.
Well, for starters the book wasn’t originally called Madam, Will You Talk?. Mary Stewart mentions that the novel was called Murder for Charity (in ‘About Mary Stewart’, p8) but she doesn’t say anything about the name it has on her Wildfire at Midnight manuscript: Decoy to Danger has been scored out and replaced with the title Madam, Will You Talk? in the author’s own handwriting.
The book was written in 1950-51, re-written in 1952-53, accepted for publication on Christmas Eve 1953, serialised between October and December 1954 and came out in hardback in February 1955. Somewhere along that timeline, the name changed to Madam, Will You Talk? This seems a strange title but as we read the novel, key chapter headings let us know that it comes from an old song. Chapter 16 is headed Madam, will you talk___? (OLD SONG) (Ch. 15 has Madam, will you walk___? and Ch. 17 has Madam, will you walk and talk with me?) So, what is this ‘old song’?
A quick look online turns up an old Cheshire song called I Will Give You the Keys of Heaven which includes the lines quoted above: take a look at the lyrics and music. For me, knowledge of this song adds to the rich texture of the book. I love the depth and breadth of literary allusion in Mary Stewart novels.
-Oh, and have a look at this short 1946 British pathé video, just over 2 minutes of fabulousness called Madame Will You Walk and Talk. I admit it’s nothing to do with Mary Stewart really but it does show, I think, that the song or at any rate the phrase wasn’t too obscure. Or, who knows, perhaps this short film was her inspiration for the name of the book. If so, perhaps it was partly as a reaction to the helpless femininity in the video that Mary Stewart’s Charity is such a good and knowledgeable driver! Right, I must nip to the butcher’s for some offal…