Mary Queen of Plots

The writing of Mary Stewart (1916-2014)

Thunder on the Right

Thunder on the Right. Hodder & Stoughton 1st edition, 1957. Illustrator: Eleanor Poore

Thunder on the Right is the third published novel of Mary Stewart. It is set in the Pyrenees in France and, as is the way of Mary Stewart’s books, much of the action takes place outdoors.

The main character is Jennifer Silver, 22, come to see her half-French cousin Gillian Lamartine who is staying at a convent. However, matters quickly become complicated and dangerous: Jennifer is told her cousin has died following an accident but finds herself unable to believe the information she is given. In trying to uncover the truth, Jennifer’s own life is put at risk in a tale of criminality and murder…

Mary Stewart has written a modern – that is, 1950s – take on the Gothic novel, featuring classic tropes such as a nunnery, stormy weather, isolation, an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, creaking doors etc. The narrator mentions Mrs Radcliffe, leading exponent of the Gothic novel, three times when Jennifer Silver enters the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages for the first time. But these references underline where Mary Stewart’s writing subverts the Gothic: ‘Mrs. Radcliffe, defeated, dwindled and faded’ (chapter 3) because, although Mrs. Stewart’s heroine may be unnerved by sinister surroundings and circumstances she is a modern heroine, guided not by superstition but by her common-sense and her values. She does not swoon, nor does she stand by helplessly: rather, she wades in to help ensure that goodness prevails.

A deserted house; a dead man on the floor, and a woman fleeing alone into the bare mountains… If it had been nightmare before, this was the very stuff of horror. Melodrama? That term, with its attendant irony, belonged to another lifetime, where such things didn’t happen. This had happened. This was real. She was in it; now; here.

Setting:

The Pyrenees, France.

First Line:

The Hôtel du Pimené, Gavarnie, takes its name from the great peak of the High Pyrenees in whose shadow, at early morning, it lies.

See also my blog post You’ll never guess what Thunder on the Right was called in earlier drafts…

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