The Enchanted Island: Mary Stewart, This Rough Magic

stewartIt was very interesting reading This Rough Magic so soon after Jamaica Inn. My book club likes to follow a thread from one book to the next; we picked Stewart as another good example of vintage romantic suspense, and settled on This Rough Magic because it’s one of her most popular titles. We did better than we knew: This Rough Magic turns out to have more than genre in common with Jamaica Inn, for it too turns on secrets pursued in the dark of night, and on the threat and power of the sea. Both novels highlight close relationships in an isolated and, to our outsiders’ eyes, exotic community, and both writers spend a lot of time on the landscape that provides the setting for their characters’ adventures.

The juxtaposition was not really to Stewart’s advantage, though. Her novel seemed thin by comparison: her landscapes are picturesque but unlike du Maurier’s they do not evoke unfolding layers of character and plot; her story is simplistically suspenseful — it induces curiosity about how things will turn out — but not ingenious, twisty, or, again, layered; her people are deceptive on the surface but offer no surprises once they are known as good guys or bad guys. I enjoyed reading This Rough Magic, but it didn’t provoke me to much thought: unless I really missed something, it doesn’t have much “aboutness.”

This is not to say that there’s nothing notable about This Rough Magic. Most obvious is its saturation with allusions to The Tempest: there’s the title, of course, but also the epigraphs to every chapter are from the play, and a number of characters are named for it too. The novel is set on Corfu, and much is made of the possibility that the Greek island is the play’s “real” setting. It has been a long time since I knew much about The Tempest, so I could be wrong about this, but it didn’t seem to me that this material was being used more than decoratively — to create an atmosphere of otherworldly enchantment. It’s a highly theatrical novel, quite literally, as the heroine, Lucy Waring, is an aspiring actress and the nearby “Castello” has been rented out to Sir Julian Gale, a legendary actor whose mysterious ailment folds into the rest of the novel’s mysteries. They both have occasion to use their acting skills in service of the plot, but I didn’t see this as a thematically telling development except to the extent that in any mystery, a lot of people are “acting” parts that aren’t entirely their own.

Another notable feature of the novel is its attention to its literal setting. Stewart is clearly fascinated by a certain vision of Greece — and of Greeks, Greek men in particular. There’s actually a character named “Adonis,” for instance:

In a country where beauty among the young is a common-place, he was still striking. He had the fine Byzantine features, with the clear skin and huge, long-lashed eyes that one sees staring down from the walls of every church in Greece; the type which El Greco himself immortalised, and which still, recognisably, walks the streets. Not that this young man conformed in anything but the brilliant eyes and the hauntingly perfect structure of the face  . . .


Stewart knows she and Lucy are trading in clichés and saves the moment by having Adonis himself wink at it: “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” he says. But he and the rest of the Greek characters really do seem little more than types, and like the allusions to The Tempest, the details of local culture fill in the setting but add no particular meaning. They also feel somewhat touristy — that is, this is Greece for visitors that we’re seeing, with its quaint parades and stoic villagers and handsome young men and blue, blue water. I recognize it, because I was there once (that’s me on Corfu many years ago) and saw it much the same way. It’s a very beautiful place to look at (or let one’s imagination linger in), but This Rough Magic is not a novel about Greece in any meaningful way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But I wonder if I could convince my book club to read Zorba the Greek next.

The other really memorable thing about This Rough Magic is the dolphin. I think maybe the dolphin is the reason the novel needs The Tempest — and Corfu, for that matter. Corfu makes the dolphin plausible, but  The Tempest allows the dolphin to be magical.