At the height of her career in the 1950s and 1960s, Jean Plaidy was Britain's most popular historical novelist, highly regarded by readers and critics alike. Although all her novels were fictionalized history, they were all very carefully researched and based on the works of leading contemporary historians such as Agnes Strickland, Tytler, Froude and Speede. Her greatest joy was to collect a pile of dusty old history books, read them all from cover to cover, and then transform the events they described into exciting narratives which have captivated millions of readers over the past 40 years.
Jean Plaidy is also well-known for the Gothic romances she wrote under the name Victoria Holt and her massive Daughters of England saga, spanning more than four centuries, for which she used the pseudonym Philippa Carr. Less familiar are the works she wrote under a number of other noms de plume, including several excellent crime novels and a handful of nonfiction titles, among them a fascinating and well-researched three volume study of the Spanish Inquisition.
She always regarded her work as "pure entertainment". "It's nicer to be read," she once wrote, "than to get nice reviews." Although some critics -- unable to write anything popular themselves -- were decidedly malicious about her, Plaidy did receive hundreds of favorable notices from reviewers who appreciated her talent. An article in the Sunday Times summed up the reasons for her success. "Jean Plaidy, by the skillful blending of superb storytelling and meticulous attention to authenticity of detail and depth of characterization, has become one of the country's most widely read novelists."
She was born Eleanor Alice Burford in 1906 -- not in a romantic manor house, or even on a windswept Cornish moor, but in the prosaic, South London suburb of Kensington. Her father, Joseph Burford, was something of an odd-job-man, with no steady profession, but he quickly passed on his great love of books to his young daughter. She was an avid reader from the age of four onwards.
She was also captivated by the city of her birth. "I consider myself extremely lucky to have been born and raised in London," she later wrote," and to have had on my doorstep this most fascinating of cities with so many relics of 2000 years of history still to be found in its streets. One of my greatest pleasures was, and still is, exploring London. Circumstances arose which brought my school life to an abrupt termination, and I went hastily to a business college where I studied shorthand, typewriting and languages. And so I had to set about the business of earning a living.
"For the next two or three years I filled many posts. I have handled unique opals and pearls of great price in Hatton Garden, and was once engaged as an interpreter to French and German patrons of a city cafe, where luckily for me, no Germans ever came, and the French who did were very gallant."
In her early twenties, she married a leather merchant, George Hibbert (she was his second wife), who shared her love of books and reading. "I found that married life gave me the necessary freedom to follow an ambition which had been with me since childhood; and so I started to write in earnest."
At first, she tried to emulate her literary heroes -- the Brontes, George Eliot, Dickens, Victor Hugo and Tolstoy -- and during the 1930s she completed nine long novels, all of them serious, psychological studies of contemporary life. However, none of these were accepted for publication.
As this was the age of the popular story magazines (Strand, Pearson, London, Windsor, etc.) It is quite possible that Eleanor Hibbert contributed to some of these under pseudonyms but if she did, it's impossible to trace her work now. The earliest places known to be by her are several short (1000-word) stories which were published in the Daily Mail and Evening News under various names (most daily newspapers carried serials and stories in those days).
It was Mail's literary editor who first persuaded Eleanor to give up 'serious' fiction. "You're barking up the wrong tree," he told her. "You must write something which is salable, and the easiest way is to write a romantic novel." Having had very little previous experience of this genre, she decided to study it closely, reading 50 romances before writing one herself -- Daughter of Anna -- which was promptly accepted by Herbert Jenkins.
The book was a success when it was published in 1941, and Jenkins immediately contracted her to produce one novel (later two) each year for an advance of £30 a title.
All these novels were published under the author's maiden name, Eleanor Burford. They are romantic tales of young love, with titles like Passionate Witness (1941), The House at Cupid's Cross (1949), The Love Child (1950) and Castles in Spain (9154). She wrote 20 such books for Herbert Jenkins between 1941 and 1955, and a further 10 for Mills & Boon in the years from 1956 to 1962. These are now the least-known titles in the Plaidy collection -- generally quite scarce and difficult to find, but still inexpensive.
More interesting are the four superb crime novels which Eleanor Hibbert wrote under a condensed variant of her maiden name, 'Elbur Ford'. These are based on the cases of four of the most celebrated and infamous murderers of the nineteenth century: Dr. Edward Pritchard (Flesh and the Devil, 1950); Adelaide Bartlett (Poison in Pimlico, 1950); Euphrasie Mercier (The Bed Disturbed, 1952) and Constance Kent (Such Bitter Business, 1953 --published in the U.S. in 1954 under the title Evil in the House). This gripping series of novels, each one closely based on official records, skillfully reveals the various events and emotions which lay behind some of the most sensational and ghastly murders of the last century.
During the war, the Hibberts lived in Cornwall, not far from a scenic and secluded beach called Plaidy. It was this that gave Eleanor the idea for her best-known pseudonym, 'Jean Plaidy'. The first of her novels to appear under this name was Together They Ride (1945), a well-written although not particularly successful Cornish smuggling yarn. Set in the 'cruel and exciting days' of the late eighteenth century, this was clearly inspired by Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn and Frenchman's Creek. This was the only Plaidy novel to be published by Gerald G. Swan, who churned out a vast amount of cheap books, comics and magazines in the late forties and Fifties.
The next Plaidy novel, Beyond the Blue Mountains, was very long -- over 500 pages -- and was rejected by several firms (including Swan) on that count, Robert Hale, however, perceived its worth and accepted it, writing to Eleanor's agent: 'Will you tell this author that there are glittering prizes ahead for those who can write as she does?' This marked the start of an immensely successful partnership between author and publisher which lasted until Plaidy's death in January 1993 (although, beyond large royalties, there have always been very few 'glittering prizes' for historical fiction).
Beyond the Blue Mountains (1958) is an untypical Plaidy title, a rousing 'blockbuster' chronicling the lives of three generations of women, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century with the ordeals of young Kitty Kennedy and her illegitimate daughter as they go from Newgate Jail to the prison colonies of Australia. This brutal world of crime and horror, cruelty and indifference, is graphically described by the author.
Over the next 15 years, Plaidy devoted her energies to bringing to life the historical characters -- mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries -- who most fascinated her, notably Jane Shore (The Goldsmith's Wife), Katherine Parr (The Sixth Wife), Philip II (The Spanish Bridegroom), Henry VIIIs two sisters (Mary Queen of France and The Thistle and the Rose) and Mary Queen of Scots (Royal Road to Fotheringay and Captive Queen of Scots).
Her trilogies based on the lives of Catherine de Medici, Charles II, Katherine of Aragon, and Isabella and Ferdinand were especially popular and well received, and in the late Sixties and Seventies were reissued in single-volume editions. The Times Literary Supplement described the Catherine de Medici novels as exciting tales told with accurate knowledge of public events adding that the author knows her period and manages with skill a crowded cast. The Spectator, meanwhile, aptly summed up Madame Serpent as the best kind of historical novel -- one into which we sink with pleasure and a feeling of undeserved education. This description could be applied to all the other Plaidy novels of the 1950s and 1960s.
Her two books based on the incredible life of Lucrezia Borgia were written in tandems with A Triptych of Poisoners (1958), a nonfictious study of the nefarious careers of Cesare Borgia, Marie dAubray and Edward Pritchard (star of Flesh and the Devil). Seeking to find a common link between the characters of these notorious murderers, she concluded that all were driven by monstrous and unrestrained egotism. Of this volume, Books and Bookman wrote The hard facts of history are interspersed with rollicking evil. For Dr. Pritchard, Jean Plaidy has given us a Hogarthian print, for dAubray, an elegant, clearly written study, and for Cesare Borgia, a magnificent riot of colorful wickedness, exhausting to read, highly entertaining.
During the next three years, simultaneous with her Isabella & Ferdinand trilogy, Plaidy produced three equally well-researched volumes on the rise, spread, and eventual dissolution of the Spanish Inquisition, which are still regarded as among the best ever written on this dark chapter of European history. The terrible fanaticism and hypocrisy which bred the Inquisition are vividly conveyed in these highly-charged books, and it's only a pity that Jean Plaidy didn't spend more time on similar nonfiction works rather than the more lightweight of her historical novels.
Apart from a brief foray into eighteenth century France with a books about Marie Antoinette (Flaunting Extravagant Queen) and two about Louis XV (Louis the Well-Beloved and The Road to Compiegne), Plaidy continued to concentrate on the Tudor and Stuart periods before settling down to a strict chronological sequence of novels in 1965.
This began with The Three Crowns, the first of a trilogy of works about the Last of the Stuarts, and continued with the 10-volume Georgian Saga (1967-71) and the Victorian Saga (five volumes 1972-74). After completing The Widow of Windsor (1974), Plaidy went back to the eleventh century, embarking on a new (and equally popular) sequence, the Norman Trilogy (three volumes, 1974-76). This she followed up with the massive Plantagenet Saga (15 volumes, 1976-82), which culminated in a novel about Henry VII, Uneasy Lies the Head.
Taken together, this extraordinary cycle of novels presents a unique, insiders view of English history in the years between 1066 and 1901. It is an astonishing achievement to satisfy her legions of fans, Plaidy had, since 1952, produced two novels a year, but in 1981 and 82 she had raised her output to three books a year in order to finish her great work.
In 1983, Plaidy -- by now in her late seventies --embarked on a new sequence of novels, the Queens of England series. This began with the life of Henrietta Maria (Myself, My Enemy) and ended with that of Mary II (William's Wife, 1992) -- a total of 10 books in as many years. Unfortunately, these works show a marked deterioration in style from her novels of the 1950s and 60s, and anyone who wants to sample her writing should certainly start with the earlier titles.
In addition to her 77 Jean Plaidy novels and five nonfiction titles, she also wrote eight novels under the name Kathleen Kellow between 1952 and 1960. These were all published by Robert Hale and -- like most of her Jean Plaidy titles -- were issued in attractive dust jackets by the specialist historical artist Philip Gough (whose style is similar to that of Rex Whistler).
Several of these Kathleen Kellow novels are in the crime and mystery genre and are well worth seeking out, especially the thrilling whodunit, Call of the Blood (1956). Of this book, the Daily Mail reviewer wrote; Miss Kellow has written a crime novel of distinction and I commend it to the connoisseur. Her final Kathleen Kellow title, The World's a Stage (1960), is an entertaining yarn about David Garrick and his lover, Peg Woffington.
Equally good are the five historical novels she wrote between 1956 and 1961 under the alias Ellalice Tate (adapted from her mother's maiden name, Alice Tate), most notably Defenders of the Faith and The Scarlet Cloak. Both these books, along with two by Kathleen Kellow (Lilith and It Began in Vauxhall Gardens), were reissued in the late 1960s under the better-known Jean Plaidy pseudonym.
All five Tate novels were published by Hodder & Stoughton rather than Hale, Perhaps the best is The Queen of Diamonds (1958), a fantastic tale of natural and supernatural trickery which offers a new solution to the mystery surrounding the theft of Marie Antoinette's diamond necklace.
Despite the great success of her Jean Plaidy books, she continued to write light romantic novels under the name Eleanor Burford until the early Sixties. Miss Burford was finally laid to rest, however, when a brand new name burst on the scene: That of Victoria Holt.
For this new series of books, she wisely turned to the giant publishing firm of Collins, as Hammond Innes had done 20 years earlier. She had adopted this new name (taken from that of her bank) with the intention of reviving the once-popular genre of gothic Romance. Having made a close study of the fiction market, she had shrewdly decided that there was a huge potential readership for romantic suspense stories set in gloomy, old manor houses, a type of fiction which had fallen into neglect since its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century.
Holts first novel, Mistress of Mellyn, was published by Collins in 1961, with the author's identity deliberately kept secret as a publicity gimmick. Many readers were convinced that Victoria Holt must be a pseudonym of Daphne Du Maurier, as the atmosphere of the book was very similar to that of Rebecca, and Du Maurier was known to intensely dislike the label of romantic novelist. However, it was eventually revealed that Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy were one and the same person.
The initial confusion is quite understandable: Rebecca had many imitators, but it wasn't until Mistress of Mellyn appeared that another book in the same genre recaptured its power and intensity. With its superb evocation of the Cornish coast and the world of its landed gentry, it is a worthy successor to Du Maurier's masterpiece. "It is utterly compulsive," commented Alex Stuart in John O Londons. "Once you begin to read, it is the drug for which, without in the least meaning to, you form an addiction!"
Kirkland Revels, another good, Bronte-inspired novel, followed in 1962. This was also well received by critics: "It clears the brain of all that kitchen-sink realism," enthused Maurice Weaver. "A period setting, a drab house heavy with foreboding, a wisp of creeping mist . . . I find it all most refreshing"
Most of the Victoria Holt novels are set in the nineteenth century, recalling those of Sheridan Le Fanu and Wilkie Collins (although they are much shorter than these authors verbose, serial-bound works). They are usually told in the first person by young women employed as governesses or ladies companions, who are invariably drawn into the center of some mystery from which -- after much suspense and danger (and a certain amount of romance) -- they eventually escape for the obligatory happy ending. In the course of their adventures, Holts heroines are captured by pirates, thrown into harems, and suffer a variety of other indignities -- many of which crop up again in the works of her most recent imitators.
Several of the early "Holt" novels (including Bride of Pendorric, The Legend of the Seventh Virgin, Menfreya and Lord of the Far Island) are set in remote houses on the craggy Cornish coast, but others roam further a field to countries such as France (The King of the Castle) and Egypt (The Curse of the Kings) -- a powerful and genuinely terrifying story set in the Valley of the Kings. One -- The Queen's Confession (1968), a fictional autobiography of Marie Antoinette, made up of her letters and memoirs -- is more like the historical novels of Plaidy and "Tate" than the usual run of Holts work.
Victoria Holt has proved to be Eleanor Hibberts biggest money-spinner. The works she has written under that name have been translated into 20 languages and achieved worldwide sales of over 75 million books -- surpassing those of her Jean Plaidy titles. She is particularly popular in America, where she has an enormous following.
Eleanor Hibberts last pseudonym was Philippa Carr, adopted in 1972 for a new sequence of novels covering the years between the Reformation and the end of the Second World War. Recalling the family sagas of R. F. Delderfirld and Winston Graham, these books formed what came to be known as the Daughters of England series. Each one is narrated by a woman of the time, and centres around authentic historical episodes.
Since The Miracle at St. Brunos appeared in 1972, another 17 Philippa Carr novels have been published, all of them by Collins (now Harper Collins). A nineteenth -- We'll Meet Again -- was due to come out in June of 1993. Although not quite as popular as the Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy books, each one is borrowed from British libraries at least 300,000 times a year, putting Philippa Carr amongst the 100 most requested authors.
The least well-known of Eleanor Hibberts many pseudonyms is, without any doubt, Anna Percival, which she used for just a single novel: The Brides of Lanlory, published by Robert Hale in 1960, It's not clear why she abandoned this name so quickly but, if nothing else, it offers a rare challenge to the collector!
After the death of her husband in the 1960s, Eleanor Hibbert continued to lead a simple life, despite her vast wealth. Her writing left her with no time for hobbies, although she went on a two or three month cruise every winter (the places she visited often crop up in her Victoria Holt novels).
For a few years, she rented a historic and wonderfully atmospheric old house in Sandwich, the King's Lodging, which she refurnished in the Gothic style. However, she eventually found this too much of a distraction (there was only one new Plaidy in 1975!) and returned to her modern London flat overlooking Hyde Park and the Albert Hall.
She wrote five hours a day, seven days a week, starting at 7:30 in the morning and completing at least 5,000 words by lunchtime. In the afternoons, she replied personally (she never employed a secretary) to the countless fan letters she had received from all over the world.
She even took her typewriter with her on her cruises, working each morning in her cabin just as she did at home. I love my work so much that nothing would stop me writing, she once said. If I take even a week's break, I just feel miserable. It's like a drug. She was at her typewriter when she died suddenly on January 18th 1993, on a cruise ship sailing from Athens to Port Said.
Although the supernatural does not play a prominent part in Eleanor Hibberts work, she did herself once experience a remarkable premonition. At 1:20 a.m. on the morning of December 17th, 1983, she was suddenly woken by a huge explosion, which she immediately recognized as a bomb. However, when she went to the window, all was peaceful; she could see no sign of wreckage or disturbance, and so returned to bed. Exactly 12 hours later, she heard the identical explosion, and this time saw smoke rising from the street next to Harrods, where the IRA had just detonated a massive car bomb. Without realizing it, she had foreseen this terrible event.
Although the majority of Eleanor Hibberts novels -- and particularly her Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt books -- are still in print, the first editions in their often very attractive dust jackets can be bought much more cheaply. Personally inscribed copies signed by Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and all her other personas can also be found at very reasonable prices. Eleanor Hibberts 183 books will give readers of escapist literature much pleasure for years to come -- and keep collectors busy for almost as long!
Note: This article was written shortly after Eleanor Hibbert's death in 1993. Most books are no longer in print and most are getting difficult to come by. First editions and signed copies are especially rare and costly. Three Rivers Press is currently printing several select books by Jean Plaidy.