Tue
Sep 14 2010 12:04pm
Eve dreaming of Adam: Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree

Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree (1961) is another double identity novel. Stewart clearly has read and been influenced by Brat Farrar (post), because she has the characters read it and deliberately imitate the methods used in it. This was published as romantic suspense, or gothic, like a lot of Stewart, and that’s the way it reads. There’s a girl and a house, and the girl’s reward and meaningful relationship is the house. There’s a dark handsome villain and a wounded hero. There’s a lovely bit with kittens. Unfortunately, I can’t say anything about what makes the book worth reading without spoilers, and even more unfortunately it is a book that is spoiled by the spoilers.

The book looks as if it’s essentially doing a replay of Brat Farrar in a romantic key, with a girl instead of a boy and a mystery in the past. It’s possible to enjoy it the first time as just exactly that—walking the tightrope, deceiving everybody, finding out what happened in the past. But in fact it’s doing a double reverse whammy and the girl turns out to be the real girl and not a double at all—the real girl pretending to be her own double. The first time I read it I the reveal knocked my socks off. But the reversal is pretty much the only reason to read this, unless you’re unutterably fond of gothic novels, and yet once you’ve revealed the fact of the reversal the book is spoiled and really much less enjoyable.

Re-reading it with the knowledge that Annabel is the real Annabel, it’s impossible not to conclude that it cheats. The book is written in first person, and it does cheat in what she tells you, the way she tells it, when it’s told. In third it wouldn’t be a cheat, but this is a romance novel, all first person and heaving emotions. It carefully doesn’t actually cheat except by omission, but goodness me it omits very judiciously. Agatha Christie’s first person murderers pretending to be detectives are writing deliberately to fool the reader when they say “I did what few things had to be done”—who is Annabel supposed to be writing to? This is typical Stewart brain-dump first, and that isn’t something that works well with a deceptive narrator.

It’s very clever indeed, too clever for its own good. For example, the real Annabel was supposed to be a wonder with horses, so the fake “Mary” says she is afraid of horses. She’s in a field with a horse when her grandfather tells her something that upsets her, she goes white and backs against the rail with the horse in front of her, her grandfather says he’d think she was afraid of the horse if that wasn’t impossible, she’s saved by Con, her cousin and supposed co-conspirator, who is in fact the person she’s fooling by doing the impersonation. The truth is that it’s what her grandfather said that upset her, but you believe along with Con that it’s the horse. This is from inside her point of view, and there’s lots and lots of stuff like this where she gives us her own reactions from inside but without explaining what they’re reactions to. Half the book is this. It’s a completely different book if you know what’s going on—and unfortunately, not such an enjoyable one.

As far as the plausibility of the deception goes—it’s good. Annabel has been away for years, a close resemblance in a stranger with ancestors from the area isn’t impossible. Everybody says how much thinner and older she looks, especially in comparison with her cousin Julie, who is also nearly identical. It’s plausible as a set of looks people have—especially as she’s conventionally beautiful. The reasons for the impersonation are that the grandfather has refused to change his will, that Con wants to inherit the farm and, having found her (and read Brat Farrar) he wants to bring a false Annabel to help him. Con’s motivations seem plausible, and so does Annabel’s as long as she isn’t Annabel—financial security. Her motivations as Annabel in pretending to be herself so that she can go home and Con won’t kill her are odder, but not entirely beyond belief. It is weird though, it’s the kind of thing that when you stop to think about it you’d probably be able to think of a better way of doing it.

As far as psychological realism goes, this isn’t in the same league as Brat Farrar, never mind The Scapegoat. It’s a load of nonsense, really—and the cat stealing the sandwich and the terrible dinner party don’t really make up for it. Adam, the romantic hero, is hardly characterised at all. Except for the conventions of the romance genre he wouldn’t exist. It has the house, the servants, the family, the landscape—but it’s a fairly shallow book all the same.

If you would like to read a Mary Stewart gothic, I recommend Nine Coaches Waiting, which is a nearly perfect example of its kind. The Ivy Tree is for double identity and Stewart completists.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

12 comments
OtterB
1. OtterB
I remember this book, but only vaguely. At the age I read it, I tended to get lost in convoluted plots and somehow miss big reveals.

I remember Nine Coaches Waiting much better, as I've reread it. I've also reread Airs Above the Ground recently, and am fond of that one. Perhaps I'll go back and reread some others of hers.

Also, thanks for the non-zombie post. As a non-zombie fan, I was about to give up on tor.com for the week.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Otterb: You're not the only one. My lack of enthusiasm for zombies is boundless. There will be other posts from me this week, and I promise none of them will be about zombies either.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
A much better Mary Stewart novel playing with false identities is Touch Not the Cat. Of course, the identity issue in that one is considerably more obvious - two of the characters are identical twins - but it plays more fair, and does not feel like a cheat on the reread. And although it has the typical Gothic house, the relationship with the servants is quite different - as is the resolution with the house.

I'm also fond of The Moon-Spinners, which has no double identity ploys whatsoever.
OtterB
4. Susan Loyal
I must be very odd, because I liked The Ivy Tree much better as a reread than I did the first time out, when I was bothered by the sense that I was missing something right under my nose. (I was in my very early teens, replete with the conviction that adults were always editing the facts, anyway.) I am, indeed, the sort of person who only likes puppet shows viewed from behind the scenes.

Nine Coaches Waiting is indubitably the better novel, but I'm much fonder of The Ivy Tree than Jo is, partly because of the "a girl and a house" trope, which Stewart repeats to good effect in Thornyhold. Rumer Godden's China Court is probably the best of the "girl and a house" novels of mid-last century (as Jo has suggested elsewhere). The only one I can think of in recent years is Lifelode, which is part of the reason I loved it so much.
OtterB
5. Lynnet1
Your comment about wondering if the author is cheating made me think of Brust's Cowboy Feng. As far as I'm aware, you haven't reviewed it here yet, and I'd be interested to see your take on it at some point.
Herenya
6. Herenya
I actually like The Ivy better a second time around. For much of the first time, it was just a Mary Stewart I didn't exactly warm to - I think I was afraid Con wasn going to be the required romantic interest, and Annabel's apparant deception made me uncomfortable. For some reason, I often find it hard to like deceptive characters - and to me, Annabel protecting herself from would-be-murder Con seemed a much better justification than financial gain.
Also, I felt like the narration wasn't cheating - that Annabel wasn't really lying by presenting her emotions and reactions and then leaving the reader to draw the wrong conclusions. I loved being able to reread it and correctly interpret everything.

But I'm also a Stewart completist - I'd read nearly all her others before I read The Ivy Tree, and it then impressed me because it wasn't what I expected.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Herenya: I also came to this after reading most of the rest of Stewart, though not _Nine Coaches Waiting_ which I could never find, and which was consequently the last Stewart I read, only a couple of years ago.
Angela Korra'ti
8. annathepiper
Woo, I quite like Mary Stewart, so thank you for this post and for reminding me there's more of her work I need to read. :)
OtterB
9. Foxessa
I think Nine Coaches Waiting was the first Stewart I ever read. At the perfect age too, probably, about eleven. My grandmother had it. Nor have I re-read it since then, iirc, though as a child, young adult and early adult I re-read madly. I continued to re-read the classics yearly until fairly recently. But now I re-read nothing with the exceptions of novels by second rate nineteenth century writers, as 'they' libel Sir Walter Scott and authors of that ilk.

I too really really really do not care for zombies, for lots of reasons, starting with some fairly deep knowledge of their place in Haitian culture, which resembles not at all pop culture zombies.

Love, c.
Joann Zimmerman
10. joann
A few months ago, I was actually working through The Ivy Tree to see when an astute reader could have figured out the main twist. From some notes: "Looks to me like she's being very fair; to a first-time reader it might appear odd that Mary Grey is asking all about the Forrests, but if you twig, there's a whole new dimension added. Then later, there are all sorts of interior monologue things that read quite differently if you assume that it's Annabel speaking. This time around, I've identified another place, where she's having the midnight meeting with Adam; several things happen. She knows exactly where to find the inscriptions on the sundial; she practically states that things get out of control when Adam suddenly decides she's not Annabel, and that she just lets it happen. In fact, if she *were* Mary Grey, there's no way she'd admit it, I think; it is only because she *is* Annabel that she can tell Adam she's Mary."

Jo mentions that Adam is almost a non-character. I think he has to be that way--any characterization he got, up to the reveal scene, would have to be based on what a newcomer would see--and know. It's possible that Stewart was being over-scrupulous here, but otherwise we'd get much too much stuff filtered through emotions that "Mary Grey" would not have.

Did I miss something, or has no one mentioned the obvious (to me, anyway) forebear of all this--Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation?
OtterB
11. intertext
Oddly, Nine Coaches Waiting has always been my least favourite of Mary Stewart's novels. My all-time favourite is The Gabriel Hounds, partly because I love the setting and partly because the romance seems the most believable of them. I immediately thought of The Ivy Tree when you posted about Brat Farrar, and obviously liked it a lot more than you did. I've always thought it was somewhat a-typical of her gothic romances, and one of the best.
OtterB
12. HelenS
Did I miss something, or has no one mentioned the obvious (to me, anyway) forebear of all this--Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation?

It did get mentioned on the double identity thread. But the threads themselves are doubling all over the place; no wonder if one gets a little lost!

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