Mary Queen of Plots

The writing of Mary Stewart (1916-2014)

Thornyhold

Thornyhold, Hodder 1st ed 1988. Illustr NK

Thornyhold is Mary Stewart’s twentieth published novel. The Hodder & Stoughton UK first edition was released in 1988.

This novel is narrated by Geillis (also called Gilly and, as a child, Jilly) Ramsey, who is 27 years old when in 1948 she inherits a house called Thornyhold in an isolated part of Wiltshire, a short drive from Stonehenge. The story concerns her first months of living in Thornyhold.

Unlike Mary Stewart’s earlier suspense novels, we are given a fair amount of back-story on Gilly’s life. We learn of  her lonely, cold childhood and schooldays enlivened by her few encounters with her mother’s cousin Geillis Saxon. Cousin Geillis awakens young Jilly’s interest in plants and animals and also opens her eyes to the possibility of there being more to life than the visible, to the possibility of magic. And it is Cousin Geillis who bequeaths Thornyhold to Jilly just as a new home is desperately needed.

The book’s characters are few but memorable. There is Agnes Trapp, a woman of about 37 who seems strangely fixated on a missing book, and who reminds Gilly of a girl who had bullied her at school:

It happened again, the scarlet flush rising swiftly up her neck and right over her face. And this time, with a curious inner lurch of nerves, I recognised it, and knew why it had so disconcerted me, and why my dealings with her so far had been timid to the point of misgiving. My chief tormentor at the convent [the Anglican convent school that Gilly, like Mary Stewart herself, had attended and been bullied at], in anger, or in contempt when she had managed to make me cry, had looked like that. And the blue eyes, fixed like a doll’s eyes in the suffused face, had looked just the same.

Agnes’s hulking teenage son Jessamy also seems faintly menacing but other characters are a delight. Young William, ‘a boy of perhaps ten or eleven years old’, is likeable and helpful and Mary Stewart demonstrates once again her ability to write endearing relationships between her narrators and children. William’s father Christopher is described as an ‘homme fatal’, a man of great magnetism:

pity help the lonely and impressionable female who comes within range of him… Pity help poor lonely spinster Geillis Ramsey. I rode home through the gently darkening autumn evening, my feet pumping away at the pedals over the rough forest track, my head in the clouds of sweet imagination, my brain completely dormant.

Till the track dipped sharply to ford a muddy rill. I met it wrongly, splashed myself to the knees with black water, and came to, swearing.

And then there are the animals: the ferrets, dogs and of course Hodge the cat (named presumably after Dr Samuel Johnson’s cat) who are beautifully written; it is very obvious that Mary Stewart loved animals. It is this novel that perhaps points to why she loved animals so much: many aspects of Jilly’s and Mary’s childhoods are undeniably similar, so Jilly’s having been deprived of pets (a pet dog ‘gone’ when she returned from school, a pet rabbit skinned by the curate for cooking) just might be a rewriting of Mary Stewart’s own experience.

my own deep and even obsessive love for animals was a personal thing, a product of my own unhappiness and lack of self-confidence. Animals were safer, and far kinder, than people.

Alongside this, Gilly talks in chapter 11 of

the strong sense of property that I had, the two-way need of belonging, and the almost fierce sense of responsibility that went with it

as a result of a childhood where ‘nothing had been mine’. Much of Mary Stewart’s fiction is concerned with this need for a home and a sense of belonging.

Thornyhold is unlike Mary Stewart’s previous novels: it does not contain roller-coaster suspense or danger; it is not Arthurian fiction; it is not a children’s book. In common with many of her novels from 1970 onwards, it has strong elements of magic – the story includes a crystal ball, seeing the future, witches and covens and potions and dreams of flying, as well as discussions of witchcraft and mention of the real-life witch-trial of Geillis Duncane. But in chapter 22 we are told:

this is not a tale of midnight witchcraft, but a simple, a reasonably simple, love story

I would add that Thornyhold is much more than a love story. It is an absorbing story of coming to terms with the past, healing childhood scars and creating a home.

Dr Johnson's pet cat 'Hodge', Gough Square - geograph.org.uk - 1713195
Dr Johnson’s pet cat Hodge       kim traynor [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Characters:

Geillis (Gilly, Jilly) Ramsey (narrator), ‘Cousin’ Geillis Saxon, Agnes Trapp, Jessamy Trapp, William Dryden, Christopher John Dryden

Setting:

Wiltshire, several miles from Tidworth and, we are told, ‘on the edge of Westermain Forest’

First Line:

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to.

See alsoThornyhold: a bewitching tale

6 thoughts on “Thornyhold

  1. I always wondered what Mary Stewart’s real pets were named. Especially her black and white cat that she is photographed with. Have you ever been able to find that out?

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    1. Hi Sally, I think the cat you are talking about is Troy, is it the photo of her feeding him that you have in mind? Her book of poetry, Frost on the Window, has a poem called To Troy Dying: ‘And quietly, whispering to the deaf old ears,/ We let you go, dear friend.’ He died in 1975 aged about 18. The poem also lists other pets who she hoped would wait for her in ‘the star-blown fields’: Johnny, Kim, Tig, Nic, Nippon, ‘and dear lost collie-Boy’. Troy’s successor, Blaise, looked just like Troy. There is a poem ‘To Blaise’ too. The dedication in The Little Broomstick is to ‘Troy, my resident familiar, and Johnny, the cat who came in from the cold’. She certainly loved her pets, didn’t she?

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      1. I am reading Thornyhold for the first time. Did MS do the illustrations in my 1988 Hodder & Stoughton Ed.? I am reminded of Beatrix Potter and also L. M. Montgomery.
        Iris Murdoch uses the phrase “written in water” in her book The Sea, The Sea. MS in her Foreword to Frost on the Window also refers to being “writ in water”. Did she mean her self was written in water? I am trying to puzzle out that phrase.
        Anyway, their books seem to be incantations-soul expressions.

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      2. Hi Lara, I believe the illustrator is Gavin Rowe, who also illustrated Stormy Petrel and her early ’90s paperback editions; it is a pity that illustrators are so often not named. ‘Writ in water’ is from the gravestone of poet John Keats, and I have always thought it is something to do with the transience of fame or life, hope that helps!

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    1. I love this idea of re-reading Mary Stewart books in the appropriate season, Suzanne. As for Geillis, I had heard of it as an old Scots name but didn’t know how to pronounce it. I’m told there is a character in Outlander named after Geillis Duncan and in the TV series it is pronounced Gay-liss.

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