Last month I posted a page on Mary Stewart’s 1961 novel The Ivy Tree and hosted a guest review of the book by Annabel Frazer. Earlier today I ran a post showing details of some book art for The Ivy Tree. With this post I want to share a little more information on the book for keen Mary Stewart fans like myself who will have read the novel – possibly multiple times – so please be aware that THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.

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You are now on the SPOILER side of Hadrian’s Wall – don’t say you weren’t warned!

Over the years I have read many suggestions that The Ivy Tree is more sombre than Mary Stewart’s other works of suspense, and that perhaps the writer had wished to dispense with a ‘happy ever after’ ending. The most prominent article to take this approach is ‘Mary Queen of Hearts’, by Professor FWJ Hemmings in the New Statesman, 5 November 1965, which includes this on The Ivy Tree:

An intelligent writer is bound occasionally to rebel against the servitude of success, and once in her career Mrs Stewart seems to have tried to kick over the traces: The Ivy Tree, her longest and most intricately plotted book… looks as though it was planned as a break and a possible new departure. It is quite as exciting as any of the others, the character-drawing is as secure, but the atmosphere lacks the sunny serenity, the sense of ‘it’ll all come right in the end, which steers the others out of tragic depths. It does all come right in the end, of course, but it was clearly not meant to, and I think it would have been more interesting if it hadn’t.

Quoted in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol 7

There are also reviews with an emphasis on Gothic tropes suggesting that the book boils down to, as this (spoilerific and rather unenthusiastic) review by Jo Walton on puts it:

There’s a girl and a house, and the girl’s reward and meaningful relationship is the house.

How do these suggestions fit with Mary Stewart’s intentions, as shown in her manuscript papers held at the National Library of Scotland? Firstly, please note that the relevant items in the NLS do not contain any of the author’s initial notes and ideas for this novel: the earliest draft is a complete typescript, albeit with copious inserts, annotations and scored through sections. So I do not claim to know Mary Stewart’s original ideas for The Ivy Tree. But I can state that the changes in her manuscript flow in the opposite direction to that assumed by reviewers, and also that the earlier draft includes a rejection of ‘the house’.

Mary Stewart’s earlier typescript is different in minor and major ways from her published novel. But the central romance is exactly the same. Having been apart and unhappy for the best part of a decade, our lovers are re-united. There is no indication in the papers held in the NLS that Mary Stewart ever thought of keeping the two apart.

The massive change from draft to publication concerns Con. There is the horseshoe, there is Rowan, but there is no death!

‘Well,’ said the doctor briskly, ‘that’s all I can do till we get an X-ray. Something to lay him on, please. A table-top, a wire mattress…’

Adam’s arm around me had grown rigid.

‘You mean he isn’t dead?’

‘Not a bit of it,’ said Dr Wilson. ‘A glancing blow and a nasty cut, and plenty blood, but I don’t find any sign of a fracture there.’

I said thankfully: ‘Oh Adam, oh Adam, he isn’t dead!’

So keeping Con alive was Mary Stewart’s plan, although he does not survive in the final published version. Hemming’s phrase, ‘It does all come right in the end, of course, but it was clearly not meant to’, is a false assumption.

Keeping the villain alive presents its own problems of course, because of the time in which the book was written*. Mary Stewart includes the following information at the end of the typescript:

Plotting Mar 8 – Apr 17 1959. 1st draft finished Aug 22 1959. 2nd draft finished Aug 12 1960.

But capital punishment in Great Britain was not abolished until 1965, with the last executions, by hanging, taking place in 1964.

So if Mary Stewart let her villain live, was she condemning him to hang instead? Not in the typescript. Instead he was to be allowed to walk free. This necessitated several pages on how this could possibly work. Julie would be safe because she would be abroad with her husband so much of the time:

‘He’ll take her away from Whitescar… and spend half the year in a tent somewhere, digging… Uzbekistan, for instance, or the Desert of Lop if the Romans went there

And in any case, Con would have no need to plot or murder because Annabel planned to give him everything. Con would have Whitescar, she and Adam would have the West Lodge and:

‘My money goes to Con by deed of gift, and if I die before five years are up, he’ll have to pay death duties,’ I laughed. ‘And by that time, no doubt, we’ll have found a way to get on.’

This is quite astonishing. Mary Stewart evidently dearly wanted a ‘happy ever after’ for everyone. Nor is she interested in gaining ‘the house’ (whether Whitescar or a restored Forrest Hall) for Annabel. Without wanting to insert spoilers for any other of her novels, that visitors to this blog may not have read, I think there is something here that is reminiscent of Touch Not the Cat. Yet, having created this version of The Ivy Tree, Mary Stewart must have realised that it simply would not work. Con does not survive the next typescript and ‘poor Lisa’ leaves for Ireland.

I don’t think I have finished with The Ivy Tree quite yet, there are themes and characters and manuscript/published novel changes that I am itching to discuss but I have gone on long enough tonight. What are your thoughts on what I have just shared? I do hope I haven’t put anyone off the novel! Personally, I am fascinated by the evolution of each of Mary Stewart’s novels, and I’m amazed at what she first attempted to write regarding Con. Do let me know your views.

* My whole thinking in this section was flawed, as Rosetta very nicely points out in the comments. Attempted murder would not have led to hanging, as it ceased being a capital offence in 1861! This leaves me more curious than ever as to why Mary Stewart ended the book as she did in that earlier draft. All suggestions welcome!