I’d like to share some facts I’ve discovered about Wildfire at Midnight over the years. Get set for geekery:
Although Wildfire at Midnight was Mary Stewart’s second published novel (published in 1956. Madam, Will You Talk? was published in 1954/1955), this book was actually written after Thunder on the Right (published 1957). Problems with Thunder held up its publication and Wildfire jumped into the gap. The publisher’s guidance… made me realise that Thunder on the Right in its unlicked form would never do, so I put it aside for re-writing, and wrote another, Wildfire at Midnight. (Mary Stewart in ‘About Mary Stewart’).
Mary Stewart was still thinking of writing under a pseudonym when she drafted Wildfire at Midnight. A hand-written manuscript, in Mary Stewart’s writing, has ‘by Elizabeth Hayward’ on the front page. Hayward is one of her brother’s middle names.
Originally, the opening line of Wildfire was ‘Nothing could have looked more peaceful’. This is a strong opener, with its air of all not being as it seems, but it is quite similar to the beginning of Madam, Will You Talk? (‘The whole affair began so very quietly.’) That may be why the opening was changed before publication, to: ‘In the first place, I suppose, it was my parents’ fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta’. The final version, then, prefixed the story with background information on Gianetta; we are several pages into the chapter before we have ‘Nothing could have been more peaceful’ and the description of Gianetta travelling by boat to her hotel on Skye.
Other changes include that a character name changes from Hester MacBride to Heather Macrae. Note that Mary Stewart’s mother-in-law was called Hester.
This book is Mary Stewart’s shot at ‘the classic closed-room detective story with restricted action, a biggish cast, and a closely circular plot. It taught me technically a great deal, but mainly that the detective story, with its emphasis on plot rather than people, is not for me. What mattered to me was not the mystery, but the choice the heroine faces between personal and larger choices.’ Mary Stewart quoted in ‘Contemporary Literary Criticism’, Vol. 35.
Chapter headings: I didn’t realise it the first time I read Wildfire at Midnight but Delectable Mountain (chapter 25) comes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: the Delectable Mountains are on Christian’s route to the Celestial City. Chapter 21, Slough of Despond, is also from Pilgrim’s Progress while The Blasted Heath (chapter 20) is from Macbeth. The Echoing Tomb (chapter 10) may come from Erasmus Darwin’s poem ‘The Botanic Garden’ or could it be biblical and refer to the empty tomb after the resurrection of Jesus? I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the allusions in the chapter headings and in the body of the book.
Okay, my inner nerd is sated for now. Please do get in touch if you have any Mary Stewart facts to share!