Ex Libris: Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting By Margaret Clay O, think upon the pleasure of the palace, Securèd ease and state, the stirring meats Ready to move out of the dishes, That e’en now quicken when they’re eaten! Banquets abroad by torch light! music! sports! ... Nine coaches waiting, hurry, hurry, hurry! Ay, to the devil. – Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger's Tragedy

After satisfying my biannual Brontë thirst this past summer in rereading my favorite book, Jane Eyre, I stumbled upon Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, which offered the perfect anecdote of easing me out of Thornfield Hall through an introduction to Chateau Valmy … and the mysterious de Valmy family.

I first encountered Mary Stewart’s writing as a child in A Walk in Wolf Wood, a fabulous novel concerning a sister and brother who travel back in time to 14th-century England and help rescue a kindhearted werewolf in a nail-biting narrative replete with magic. I was most gratified nearly 20 years later to discover that her adult fiction is no less captivating.

Written in 1958, Nine Coaches Waiting was then a contemporary Gothic romance novel telling the ominous tale of a young English governess, Linda Martin, who moves to France to teach 9-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, heir to the family title and estate and ward of his uncle, Leon de Valmy. When Philippe’s aunt travels to England to hire an English governess for him, Linda finds herself concealing that she is, in fact, half-French, and pretends to have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language. Although the family is gracious upon her installation at Valmy, Linda perceives a threat to her charge when Philippe narrowly avoids two fatal “accidents.” His charming yet arrogantly sinister uncle, Leon, who glides noiselessly from room to room about the house in a wheelchair, does nothing to assuage her apprehension. Only his son, Raoul, seems to have the strength to stand up to him, and while Linda finds herself falling for the handsome young Frenchman, she cannot untangle the web she imagines forming around her and Philippe and begins to suspect everyone. Mary Stewart effectively intertwines romance and suspense while igniting the imagination with vivid descriptions of the French countryside and intriguing characters.

Linda often uses poetry to analyze the situations she encounters, and in keeping with this background, Stewart employs chapter epigraphs that fit the themes or actions of each chapter. Among these are lines from plays and sonnets by Shakespeare as well as quotes from Milton, Dickens, Keats, Tennyson, Donne, Blake, and others, giving the book an erudite, literary quality. She also links each chapter to a ride of some sort, counting up the “coaches” in the titles; thus, the first chapter is “First and Second Coaches” and the last chapter, “Ninth Coach.”

This wonderful period novel depicts 1950s France, fraught with suspense that kept me guessing, and second guessing, until the end. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, my one critique is that Linda’s love for Raoul felt a bit hasty and underdeveloped, which then caused subsequent events to seem unlikely and, ultimately, made the conclusion less satisfying. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend it for anyone in search of a good Gothic thriller.

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