July 29, 2021

Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree

Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree

What can writers learn about secrets, family dynamics, writing fiction from real life, and creating characters who serve the story from Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree?


In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book The Ivy Tree and how she uses Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey’s fictional take on a real-life situation, to guide the reader in one direction before taking them somewhere else.   

It was first published in 1961 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

Whitescar is a beautiful old house and farm situated in Roman Wall country. It will make a rich inheritance for its heirs, but in order to secure it, they enlist the help of a young woman named Mary who bears remarkable resemblance to missing Whitescar heiress, Annabel Winslow. Their deception will spark a powder-keg of ambition, obsession and long-dead love.
 
 The ivy had reached for the tree and only the tree's upper branches managed to thrust the young gold leaves of early summer through the strangling curtain. Eventually the ivy would kill it . . .


Mary, Queen of Plots is a blog about Mary Stewart. If you’re interested in book covers and book art, take a look at this blog post about The Ivy Tree.


Takeaways for writers:

In The Ivy Tree, missing heiress Annabel Winslow returns to her ancestral home Whitescar – or does she? Cousin Con has a plan to ensure his inheritance, and shows flashes of why Annabel might have left. The complicated family relationships are revealed as the story progresses, and misunderstandings are resolved as secrets are revealed.

 

Exercises for writers:

Secrets – How do you set up secrets? How do you reveal secrets? Do you plot out how secrets impact a character, or do you feel it out as you write? Not all secrets have to have life-altering consequences. In The Ivy Tree, Annabel is keeping her identity secret from both Con and Adam. Try adding a small secret into your work-in-progress: set it up and pay it off. Alternatively, write a short story and include a secret, big or small.

Family Dynamics – All families have undercurrents based on prior history. How do you incorporate that into your work-in-progress? How do you reveal the past without doing an “As you know, Sibling/Spouse/Parent/Cousin…” info dump? Show tension between family members in your work-in-progress without directly referring directly to why things are tense (they already know), but give context to the reader in some way to get the reader up to speed with the conflict. In The Ivy Tree, Julie has given Mary/Annabel information she didn’t have before. Can you do something similar by having one character share a memory that another character didn’t realize they had, and give the reader critical information for the story to make sense via that shared memory?

Familial Leverage – Con thinks he has leverage over Mary/Annabel because he can reveal she’s a fraud to Grandfather Winslow. Mary/Annabel knows the truth, but also knows how volatile Con is. How do you have characters in your work-in-progress use leverage to get what they want?

Cat and Mouse – In The Ivy Tree, Annabel knows she’s the real deal but she’s trying to keep that information from Con. For anything she does or says that he thinks she shouldn’t know, she finds a logical, recent explanation. In your work-in-progress, how do you show the subtext of a conversation between characters in conflict? Do you use physical moves to mask an inadvertent reaction? Do you keep in mind what information each character has that they don’t want to let the other character know, or know they know? Who wants to keep their secrets private, and who has the greater motivation to do so?

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Transcript

Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos and grammar errors.

Episode 336 - The Ivy Tree

24:39

 

Linda 00:00

Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader, and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words.  

 

Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at www.sfoxarts.com.

 

In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book The Ivy Tree and how she uses Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey’s fictional take on a real-life situation, to guide the reader in one direction before taking them somewhere else.   

 

It was first published in 1961 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions. 

 

Description from Amazon:

 

Whitescar is a beautiful old house and farm situated in Roman Wall country. It will make a rich inheritance for its heirs, but in order to secure it, they enlist the help of a young woman named Mary who bears remarkable resemblance to missing Whitescar heiress, Annabel Winslow. Their deception will spark a powder-keg of ambition, obsession and long-dead love.

The ivy had reached for the tree and only the tree's upper branches managed to thrust the young gold leaves of early summer through the strangling curtain. Eventually the ivy would kill it . . .

 

Welcome to the podcast. Suzanne, I'm looking forward to talking with you today about The Ivy Tree, which is an interesting novel for different reasons that we'll get into today.

 

Suzanne

I am too. It's a really interesting book in the body of her romantic suspense and it's unusual in some ways that make it fun to think about and to talk about.

 

Linda 02:44

The book Brat Farrar is explicitly mentioned in a couple of places and Brat Farrar is a novel written by Josephine Tey published in 1949, but based on a real case of a long-lost heir come back to claim their fortune from the 1860s/1870s in Victorian England.

 

Suzanne

Which is very interesting. I love the work of Josephine Tey. Brat Farrar is one of my two favorite of her novels. It's one of those novels that I think has a somewhat – what sounds like an implausible storyline, but Tey’s skill at characterization and writing make it work and I love the way – and I think it's kind of funny that in Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree when Annabel Winslow is returning to her family's farm in northern England, she is said to explicitly use Brat Farrar as a sort of manual for how an imposter can learn to be a convincing imposter and I think it's just sort of a really fun detail in The Ivy Tree.

 

Linda

In The Ivy Tree at the beginning we are acquainted with Mary Gray, who is said to resemble the long-lost Annabel Winslow, and her cousin Con, who tells Mary Gray that he and Annabel were as good as engaged and Annabel ran off after a little fight. It's his idea to install Mary as the long-lost Annabel and to put her grandfather's mind at ease about how Annabel's life turned out, for one, and for two, to make sure that Con inherits the family farm because he has been working it since Annabel's disappearance and he doesn't know if he's in the will or not. But he feels that he is owed this after his many years of service and because of his uncertainty about whether he's in the will or not, he wants to make sure with this reappearance of Annabel and whether Annabel is still in the will and would get it she would then turn it over to him as Mary Gray. If she's not in the will then maybe it would help her grandfather see that Con is the one who should be inheriting the family farm. So that's what sets off the Brat Farrar comparison and Con is the one who suggests Brat Farrar as the template for their con.

 

Suzanne 05:00

Yes, I haven't thought until today because Con is short for Connor. He's from an Irish branch of the family. And I never thought about the fact that it's completely appropriate speaking as a modern reader that the guy's name is Con. And in fact, I think cons are actually the least of his nefarious activities in a certain way. He's a very interesting and very complex character. But yes, Con is a good nickname for him.

 

Linda

I'm thinking too, sometimes in a romantic novel, there's this sort of torn between two lovers trope, which there's Con who says that he and Annabel were engaged and then there's Annabel's relationship with the neighboring farm owner, Adam, who we find out over the course of the book she had an affair with him, he was married; some of these things she finds out from her younger cousin Julie, who is there for this big weekend and grandfather Winslow, Matthew Winslow, is going to gather the family to…who knows what is there going to be a big announcement about what's in his will, they know he's meeting with the lawyer, and Con is very on edge about this. He still is doing his job as he has been. But he feels that this fortuitous meeting with Mary Gray, who can certainly pass for Annabel Winslow 10 years after her disappearance, is going to cement his rightful place with the farm as the owner once Matthew passes on.

 

Suzanne

One of the many things that's interesting is that Julie, who's a younger granddaughter of Matthew Winslow, really has no interest in the farm whatsoever. Connor does not really need to worry quite as much about her. Her life is clearly elsewhere. It certainly seems clear that if she did inherit the farm, she would certainly hand it over to him in some way. But he's clearly not a man who wants to take chances with his own future. And he's unscrupulous enough to feel that turning possibilities into guarantees is worth it in a number of different ways. One of the poignant things about the novel is that yes, we meet Annabel Winslow as Mary Gray, the reader is fooled in the first part of the book, as well as the family. In this case, the reader is fooled by thinking that she's an imposter when she's not, where the family is essentially having a reverse experience. But I think that one of the things that is subtle but moving, is that Mary slash Annabel has been in the area for a while before she meets Con, when she discovers that Adam Forrest is in the area, is operating a sort of small produce farm on the edge of his family estate which has burned down and suffered reverses, it feels fairly clear that she would not have returned to the area had she known that he was there. That the way things were left between them for interesting and complex reasons is unresolved, is painful. And so it's a real shock to her to discover that in fact, he has returned to the area. It's a book that has a number of very interesting surprises. I think it almost – the whole sort of mystery and intrigue plot is quite intricate, and it's a really successful part of the book.

 

Linda

I agree. And I liked Julie as a character who was I think Julie is just slightly older than Annabel was at the time that Annabel left, so we get a little glimpse of what Annabel may have been like at that age. Mary Stewart says Julie was very much like Annabel and that there's a strong family resemblance. The other thing too is we find out some of the things about the relationship with Annabel and Adam through Julie, who as a we'll call her a tween although at the time that's certainly not how an adolescent or preteen would have been referred, but she knew that Annabel and Adam would post messages to each other in the ivy tree there was a hole where they could put a letter or something and the final letter that led to Annabel's leaving, in fact is found to be in the lightning-struck tree. So the letter, had Adam seen it at the time, would have changed the course of their lives.

 

Suzanne 10:00

And even though we're in Annabel's viewpoint - she is narrating in part because she's just clearly a very perceptive person, very resourceful, very shrewd. So she's a very good narrator, but you do get to see her more carefree younger self in Julie, which is fun and interesting. And Julie also plays into the fact that there's a development in terms of how one sees Connor Winslow, that right beginning, it's very clear that he is very charming. He's very arrogant and he's quite unscrupulous and as you say he was the initial mastermind of this plot to present Mary Gray as Annabel but as the book goes on and the plot deepens, one finds that Con is also a would-be murderer and saying it that way it makes it sound sort of more melodramatic and lurid than it actually feels in the book. Mary Stewart is not an author who twirls a moustache and gets all Snidely Whiplash. But it becomes clear that Annabel has had not just sort of disturbing, emotionally disturbing episodes with Con as a younger woman when they were both on the farm, but has been in real danger of her life with him something that she was not comfortable saying to anyone, and that also helped precipitate her disappearance. And so Julie, who Annabel loves dearly and is aware of both Julie's strength but also her vulnerability, Annabel becomes increasingly worried and rightly so that Julie is in danger from Con, who would be inclined again to just make sure that she can't possibly inherit anything. So again, to me, it's a very multi-layered suspense plot that's quite rich and interesting.

 

Linda 11:20

And we see right off the bat how mercurial Con can be, because when he comes upon Mary Gray, who's just sitting on a stone wall, smoking a cigarette and he thinks that she's Annabel, and he is immediately threatening to her so we see right off the bat, how much of a hair-trigger temper he has, and that he's not afraid to get physical. Mary/Annabel, Annabel/Mary – is able to deflect him by saying that she's not whoever he thinks she is, and that she's just going to go on her way. Because if this is how the local people greet strangers, then she wants no part of it. He does back down and she's able to cool him off, but we see how threatening he can be right off the bat when he's not even totally sure she's Annabel. He suspects that she is and immediately goes on the offensive.

 

Suzanne 12:12

Yep, you know, again, when we talk about it, for those who haven't read the book, it has this very melodramatic sound that he is some kind of you know, larger than life, nefarious murderer. And that's true in outline. I mean, that is what he is. And yet I think it's part of it's a testament to Stewart’s skill that in the novel, for me, at least, his propensity for evil is not overstated to the point of melodrama. He's also charming, you watch him biding his time, and which I think is a brilliant sort of strategy of Stewart, as a writer. He is a very good and dedicated farmer, he absolutely deserves to own this farm that he has been devoting his entire life to, for many years. I think in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be tempting to make this very morally problematic character inadequate in other ways as well. And it's part of Stewart’s brilliance that during the whole time that he's running this con, and that he's very dispassionately in a morally - considering who he needs to get out of the way how and when - he is also doing a very difficult job that no one except the grandfather, Matthew Winslow has had any interest in doing and that you see the way he works around the clock or constant crises. Stewart is also saying in some way, look, running a farm of some size is not an easy job. And he does it very well. And he does it with great dedication. And I think that that gives the book some of its depth. He is not simply a shyster. He's someone who, immoral and dangerous as he is, is actually trying to preserve something that I think most readers would feel it is by rights, his. He is the only person who wants it and he really is the person who would bring it into the future the most successfully.

 

Linda 14:11

He's a very calculating character. He is constantly looking at what's in front of him and calculating how that affects his chances of getting the farm. So if Julie's coming in, does Julie want the farm? No. Is she seeing someone? Yes. Is she likely to marry and be part of the life of her husband that is not on the farm? Yes. What can he do to make that happen, when he's taken with the idea of passing Mary off as Annabel, Annabel sees it as a chance for her to come back and sort of assess the situation safely, but Con sees that as a way to ensure that he will get what he wants. And as you said, he has been working the farm these - I think it's 10 years since Annabel has been gone. So it's not that he doesn't deserve it, but it's the ends justify means attitude that all is fair if it gets him what he wants. And if other people have to suffer and/or die, well, that's just too bad for them.

 

Suzanne 15:12

He has a certain classical agricultural viewpoint of the world, which is you may love your prize pig, but you still butcher them for their bacon. And that really is what he's doing. And I just also wanted to mention one more thing about the sort of character of Con, who I think of all the characters in the book, I mean, the character of Annabel slash Mary Gray has to work as a character and has to feel convincing doing something that's in fact, extreme, right. But I also think that if Connor and his world does not feel convincing, then you really have a sort of classic Gothic melodrama, it becomes cartoonish. And I wanted to say that when I was thinking about this book, which is one of the ones that Mary Stewart set in England, which is actually not her norm until very late in her career, that it works in part because of her ability to evoke the setting and communicate, even to me as a young girl from New Jersey who had no particular interest in agricultural life in the north of England - Stewart through Annabel and just also through her description, the places on the farm she shows you and the processes she shows you, I think shows you that this is both a very difficult life, but that it's also filled with challenge and beauty and interest. You understand why someone could feel very devoted to this place. I think even a reader again who's not at all interested in agricultural operations, you can feel why people love their land and love what is done on the land. And that Con partakes of that actually makes him a - I don't want to say more sympathetic character, but certainly a more understandable character. But I think the novel wouldn't work as well, if Stewart wasn't so good at evoking not just the setting as a physical layout, but the setting as kind of a working world.

 

Linda 17:07

And you see that with Adam to a little bit when Annabel goes to Adam's farm to get I think it's strawberries for dessert that Lisa is making. Lisa is Con's half-sister I believe and is the cook housekeeper in the household. Lisa is willing to help Con achieve his goals. Lisa is probably the least interesting character to me in the book, even Julie's young man who's a little bit older than Julie, so he's not late teens, early 20s. He's established in his career as an I think he's an archaeologist or in a related field. But he's in his late 20s, I believe, or possibly early 30s. And you don't see him very much. But what you see of him is rich, like he's a deep character. You get the feeling that you know who he is, you know what he wants, you know that he sees himself with clear eyes, whereas with Lisa, she's the least developed character for me. Her goals are Con's goals, she does not have much desire, I guess for things that don't keep her near Con. And if Con wants the farm, she'll work at the farm. But if Con decided he wanted to go into a city and work, then Lisa would be happy to pick up and do that, too.

 

Suzanne 18:26

I think that that's right, I believe Julie's man, his name is it Donald [Linda – Yes.] But he's a delightful character. And you really hope that Julie is going to end up with him. And you're not entirely sure that she will. And Lisa, I totally agree with you. She's the character whose personality is the least charming and interesting, whose backstory is the least known because she is, as you say, I think she's an extension of Con rather than a real character of her own. But I felt that that was deliberate on Stewart’s part in terms of saying this is a person – and you see a lot of these people right, that become so aligned with another person's goals or with a movement or with an idea that the entire rest of their life shrinks. And they'd come almost in a way a barnacle on a larger ship, so to speak. And it's very clear that Lisa, interestingly, is very comfortable with whatever unscrupulous behavior will get Con his way. And so while she is not particularly developed, I think she stands in for a type of humanity, we all recognize where people essentially feel so aligned with some external force that any normal considerations of either having a life of their own or even just of making good choices and right choices, they completely forget all of that and all that matters is this other person or this movement or this idea, and I think that that's a sort of interesting part of the book.

 

Linda 19:53

Lisa is also the most placid of the characters and I think that stands as a good contrast to Betsy, who is the day worker who comes in and helps with the kitchen and the housekeeping and who was a member of the household when Annabel was there. And Betsy is more of a bristly, sort of in your face speaks her mind. You know, she'll call it plain-spoken. And if she hurts your feelings, well, that's just too bad. She calls it the way she sees it. So I think if you had two people who had those strong personalities, it wouldn't work. And I think in a good way as a writer that having the contrast of Lisa's placid nature set against Betsy's more outspoken nature serves the story because it gives you not two different points of view, which it does, but you also get a feel for what the household dynamics are.

 

Suzanne 20:47

Yep. And I will say very briefly that The Ivy Tree in a way is set in the world of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, there are some overlaps. I don't know whether they were conscious on Stewart’s part. And certainly, it's not in any way kind of a direct inspiration. But you have this Northern England and Betsy reminds me in certain ways of Nelly Dean, the servant character in Wuthering Heights. And so you know, you sort of have these households that are rife with inheritance problems and with people who are willing to do very bad things in the service of what they believe they deserve. And I think that's another sort of interesting echo in the book. I agree. You know, Betsy, in a way, she's very convincing in the in the books moment, but she also is part of this sort of trope of household servants being some of the most credible and trustworthy witnesses to what goes on in one of these households because they really don't have a dog in the proverbial fight. Oh, they're often very shrewd, very funny and very insightful.

 

Linda 21:50

Betsy is a hurdle for Annabel's acceptance as Annabel, for Mary Gray to be tutored by Lisa, one of the hurdles she'll have to pass before she even sees Matthew is Betsy because Betsy works in the kitchen. So she'll be one of the first people that Mary/Annabel comes across and if she doesn't pass muster with her Betsy is certainly not above taking her suspicions to Matthew and putting the project in jeopardy right from the get go.

 

Suzanne 22:18

Right. And again, clearly Betsy would love it to be Annabel but where Matthew you can depend both on the fact that he's an elderly man who's increasingly frail but he also has a deep longing for Annabel who he loved, who he lost in a disappearance that to him was inexplicable. So both the characters and the reader know that he is going to be swayed by that longing to some extent, even though he's presented as a very shrewd alert man. Betsy does not have that she would love it to be Miss Annabel, but that really makes no particular difference to her life. And so she's clear-sighted, you know, so you have Matthew really wanting it to be Annabel you have Lisa not wanting it to be Annabel and Betsy of the characters is the one that just doesn't have a predetermined outcome. And so is going to look at this person who comes back in a way that is the most objective of all of them. And I think that that's a fun detail, as well as the fact that Betsy is just a delightful, funny character.

 

Linda 23:21

And I think on that note, we'll end our discussion about The Ivy Tree. I want to say it's a pleasure as always talking with you about Mary Stewart's books, because I always think of something new that I haven't thought of before when we talk about it, and just enjoy talking with another writer about one of our favorite writers.

 

Suzanne 23:44

I completely agree. It's a real pleasure for me. And I think when one is so familiar with books, as we are with these books, it's always fun to discover new angles or new insights about them. So thank you so much for the opportunity.

 

Linda 23:57

You’re welcome.

 

Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Tart Words.com/tart336. Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers and writers at Tart Words.com/About. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Thoughts.

 

Suzanne Fox

Guest

Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at www.sfoxarts.com.