Mary Queen of Plots

The writing of Mary Stewart (1916-2014)

My Brother Michael

My Brother Michael Hodder 1st 1959, 1960. Jacket design by BIRO

My Brother Michael is Mary Stewart’s fifth published novel. It was first serialised in Argosy, a monthly magazine, between November 1959 and March 1960 (with the first instalment being prefaced by a letter from Mary Stewart dated June 1959). The Hodder & Stoughton UK first edition was released in February 1960.

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My Brother Michael in Argosy. Illustr Wm Stubbs

The novel is narrated by Camilla Haven, a 25 year old school teacher who is on holiday in Greece after breaking off a six year engagement. We join her at the point where she has been to the islands of Mykonos, Delos and Crete, and on mainland Greece to Eleusis, Argos and Corinth, travelling alone, and she is now sitting in a cafe in Omonia Square in Athens. She is calculating how to make her money last for a trip to Delphi, and feeling a little as though life is passing her by:

‘I feel just a little bit high and dry. You’d have thought that something – some sniff of an adventure – would have happened to a young woman… marooned on her own in the wilds of Hellas, but no: I go tamely from temple to temple, guide-book in hand, and spend the rather long evenings writing up notes for that wonderful book I was always going to write, and persuading myself I’m enjoying the peace and quiet.’

Into this rather wistful post-breakup introspection a challenge presents itself. Camilla unexpectedly has a chance to test her ‘talent for living’. Partly because she struggles to assert herself at this stage in the novel (she has been engaged since she was a teenager, to a man who seems to have been rather domineering) and partly because she feels compelled to help in a ‘matter of life and death’, Camilla finds herself involved in driving a strange car to an unknown man. Despite having, um, rather limited driving skills!

This driving challenge leads on to a quest to discover the truth about events during the Greek civil war that raged at the end of World War Two. Camilla is drawn into situations of tragedy and betrayal, both old and new. There is murder and violence, more violence than in any other of Mary Stewart’s books, I think. Camilla finds a tortured murder victim, realises that she has heard another murder being committed, and sees two men fight to the death immediately after she has been attacked herself:

One hand came hard over my mouth, crushing my lips against my teeth, but the palm was slimy with sweat; it slipped, and I wrenched my head away and managed at the same moment to kick him hard on the shin-bone. I paid dearly for the moment of advantage, for as I twisted my body in a vain attempt to break away, he half-lunged forward to drag me close again and silence me, trod on a loose stone that rolled under his foot, and we fell together… as we hit the ground he moved like lightning, flinging himself over my body with a quick heave… I was on my back, my left arm twisted up under me, so that our double weight held it there, almost breaking. My right hand was in his grip, clamped down against the rock beside me. His free hand flashed up to my throat…

Against this brutality, there is beauty. There is a soupçon of romance, there is human connectedness, there is art: descriptions of beautiful watercolours, discussions of literature and ancient civilisations, appreciation of the Charioteer statue.

The Charioteer of Delphi. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Lemur12

Added to this is the beauty of Greece, with its magnificent landscape and the allure of its history and ‘ghosts’.

‘There – that’s Apollo’s temple, below the cliffs they call the Shining Ones. You see?’

I saw. Ahead of us the mountain thrust that great buttress out into the valley, the river of olive-trees swirling round it as the water swirls round the prow of a ship, to spread out beyond into a great flat lake that filled the plain. High up, in the angle where the bluff joined the mountain, I saw it, Apollo’s temple, six columns of apricot stone, glowing against the climbing darkness of the trees behind. Above them soared the sunburned cliffs; below was a tumble, as yet unrecognisable, of what must be monument and treasury and shrine. From where we were the pillars seemed hardly real; not stone that had ever felt hand or chisel, but insubstantial, the music-built columns of legend; Olympian building, left floating – warm from the god’s hand – between sky and earth. Above, the indescribable sky of Hellas; below, the silver tide of the olives everlastingly rippling down to the sea. No house, no man, no beast. As it was in the beginning.

The book title refers to Michael Lester, a British Liaison Officer who served with the Greek guerrillas during the war. His brother Simon has come to Greece to unearth the past. By using the words ‘My brother’ Mary is underlining her theme of human connection, being ‘part of the pattern’, as exemplified in her characters’ discussion of Donne’s poem ‘No man is an island’ and the line ‘I am involved in mankind’. It also ties in neatly with some of the Greek quotes in the book (eg. The chapter heading ‘Seek/ Thy brother with a tale that must be heard/ Howe’er it sicken.’ Euripides).

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My Brother Michael Hodder pb 9th imp 1971

Characters:

Camilla, Simon, Nigel, Danielle, Stephanos, Niko, Dimitrios, Angelos.

Setting:

Mainland Greece: Athens, Delphi, Arachova, Mount Parnassus.

First Line:

Nothing ever happens to me.

Most Disquieting Line:

is one still young at twenty-five?

See also (if you have read the book; may contain some spoilers): Mary Stewart and the dreadful driving of Miss Camilla Haven and (with lots of spoilers): More about My Brother Michael

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