Nine Coaches Waiting is Mary Stewart’s fourth novel and it was first published in 1958.
The heroine-narrrator of this novel is Linda Martin, 23, who lost her parents – English poet Charles Martin and part-French Maman – in an aircraft accident when she was 14. As well as being orphaned, the accident cost Linda a life in Paris: we learn that she was put to a London orphanage and then worked as ‘general help and dogsbody’ at a boys’ school in Kent. When she is offered a post as nursery-governess in the Savoy region of France, Linda accepts without hesitation: here is the chance for a lonely young woman to really start living, in the country she loves.
And this is where the book begins, with Linda en route to France. She meets her charge, nine year old Philippe, Comte de Valmy: he is an orphan too, which makes Linda protective of him from the outset. Philippe, heir to the Valmy estate, lived with his uncle Hippolyte following his parents’ accident but the demands of Hippolyte’s archaeological career mean that Philippe has just begun living with his uncle Léon and aunt Héloïse at Chateau Valmy.
Linda finds herself in a rather strange household. Léon, a very strong personality confined to a wheelchair, seems able to read Linda’s mind and to her he seems like ‘Milton’s ruined archangel’, a ‘thunder-scarred angel’; Héloïse can be charming but seems forbiddingly distant to lonely, affection-starved Linda; and Philippe is, unsurprisingly, a very serious boy, ‘a very quiet, self-controlled child, who never chattered’. And while some of the chateau staff, like Mrs Seddon and Berthe, are friendly, others are more hostile.
Linda, then, is still lonely: ‘I’d lived with loneliness a long time. That was something which was always there’. She badly needed to feel ‘wanted and liked. And heaven knew I needed that assurance… I was very ready to meet any gesture, however slight, with the response of affection’.
Small wonder then that when Léon’s son (and Héloïse’s stepson) Raoul appears and showers attention on Linda – taking her out for dinner and drinks and to the casino, and kissing her, and showing interest in her – that Linda responds by falling ‘head over ears in love’. There are several references to Cinderella in the novel – and Linda is a romantic who wants a fairy-tale happy ending with Prince Charming.
But a series of ‘accidents’ endangering Philippe causes Linda to see Raoul in a more sinister light. Is she being set up to be blamed – as a murdering, gold-digging governess – if Philippe is killed? Linda decides to run away with Philippe to keep him safe. They run to her English friend, William Blake, and for me the scene where Linda and Philippe hide in William’s cabin is one of the most terrifying in the book.
‘He was moving about, with a slow deliberation that was far more terrifying than haste. Only his breathing still hurried, and that, surely, should have been under control by now… I found that I was shaking, crouched together in my form of blankets. It wasn’t the climb up the mountain-side… [it] was excitement, the tongue-lolling excitement of the hound as he closes in. He knew we were here.’
Just as when Gianetta is hiding in the mist in Wildfire at Midnight, it is impossible, I think, to read this scene without holding your breath.
So what happens next? Well, you’ll have to read the book! Read it in the knowledge that, for many Mary Stewart fans, this is their favourite book; read it for the references to Cinderella and Jane Eyre, and how Mary Stewart plays with these references; and read it because it is beautifully written, thrilling and an excellent novel by an incredibly talented storyteller.
See also my blog post Nine Coaches Waiting: whatever happened to Suzy – but only if you have read Nine Coaches Waiting! If you haven’t read the book, you might get horribly confused about the different plot versions and, at least indirectly, the blog post contains spoilers.
Narrator: Linda Martin.
M. Florimond, dress designer
William Blake, an Englishman on the neighbouring estate to Valmy
The de Valmy family:
Héloïse de Valmy
Léon de Valmy (husband of Héloïse)
Hippolyte de Valmy (Léon’s younger brother)
Raoul de Valmy (son of Léon)
Philippe, Comte de Valmy, aged 9 and recently orphaned. Léon and Hippolyte are his uncles.
Staff at Chateau Valmy:
Mrs Mary Seddon
The Savoy region of France. Paris. Geneva.
I was glad that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.