Wednesday, 4 October 2000

Mary Stewart: The Ivy Tree (1961)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964
Review number: 643

The Ivy Tree is imaginatively centred around Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, quite explicitly (the characters talk about using it as their textbook for what they are trying to do). Although both novels effectively give away the ending of the other - the earlier Brat Farrar more or less forcing Stewart to turn Tey's twist the other way, making it rather Hitchcockian - it probably makes most sense to read Tey's novel first. While not doing so will not make The Ivy Tree incomprehensible, it contains nuances which are unlikely to be noticed by someone not familiar with Brat Farrar.

Both novels are about impostors claiming to be lost heirs - unless they are about lost heirs pretending to be impostors for some reason. The Ivy Tree's Mary Grey is the image of Annabel Winslow, heir to the Northumberland farm of Whitescar, who ran away almost ten years ago. As a visitor to Hadrian's Wall, she meets Annabel's cousin, Con, who is acting as farm manager for her grandfather. Con and his sister believe that Annabel is dead, and that Con should inherit in return for the hard work he has put into the farm, but her grandfather refuses to believes this, and is understood to have left things in such a way that Con will be unable to use the money for investment in the farm. They come up with a scheme for Mary to pretend to be Annabel, then inherit whatever is left to her and turn it over to Con, keeping the money due Annabel from her mother's family, which will provide a reasonable amount to live on.

Compared to Brat Farrar, which maintains its suspense to the end and which is an acknowledged classic of the thriller genre, The Ivy Tree is poorly constructed. Stewart was attempting something a bit different from her usual novels - Mary Grey is no innocent caught up in something she doesn't understand - and The Ivy Tree is something of an interesting experiment that doesn't quite come off. The ending, an extended piece of action in a huge storm rather reminiscent of the weather scenes in Thomas Hardy, is implausible and slapdash.

The plot may be substandard, but the characters are among Mary Stewart's best, particularly the attractive but menacing Con, who could have escaped from a D.H. Lawrence novel. The idea behind the story also makes it one of Stewart's most interesting, though it is not one which invites re-reading like some of her others.

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