Friday, March 26, 2010
Writing Her Back Into History
March marks, among other celebrations, the annual observance of Women’s History Month. This year is the 30th anniversary of this communal recognition of women’s contributions to culture, history, and society. I think it’s a celebration that should resonate loudly within the romance community. Ours is a genre that is still ignored or derided by many, and the conviction that this status is due in part to women being a great majority among the creators and consumers of romance fiction is widely shared. In 2009, the Romance Vagabonds used Women’s History Month as the occasion to celebrate thirteen women who contributed significantly to the history of romance fiction: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, E. M. Hull, Georgette Heyer, Faith Baldwin, Barbara Cartland, Nancy Bruff and Frances Shelly Wees (as representatives of Harlequin writers), Mary Stewart, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Nora Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer, and Jayne Ann Krentz. At the time, I especially regretted our omission of one writer whose books filled my teen years and whose story I find particularly inspiring. Since the 2010 theme is “Writing Women Back into History,” this seemed like the perfect time to write Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert back into my tribute to the women of romance fiction.
You may not recognize her legal name, but those of you who were romance readers during the golden age of the 20th century gothic romance probably have read some of her books. Hibbert was born in 1906 in London. Little is known about her early life; two of her publishers even list conflicting dates for her year of birth. But we do know that she completed nine long novels before her first book was published in 1941. She seems to have had ambitions to write literary fiction until an editor advised her to write something “saleable” instead and suggested romance fiction. She read fifty romances as research and then wrote Daughter of Anna for which she received the munificent sum of £30. The book was a success, and Herbert Jenkins contracted her to write first one novel, later two, each year. She went on to publish twenty-nine novels as Eleanor Burford over the next two decades; all were romances with youthful protagonists, with titles like Passionate Witness (1941) and The House at Cupid’s Cross (1949).
However, the pseudonyms she adopted later were the names that won her international fame. In 1945, she began writing as Jean Plaidy, a name she borrowed from a secluded Cornwall beach. During the 1950s and 60s, she was Britain’s most popular historical novelist, publishing ninety books under that name. The last one in 1994 was published posthumously. Catherine de Medici, Katherine of Aragon, Isabella of Spain, Lucrezia Borgia—Plaidy wrote about all of them. Her Plantagenet Saga (15 volumes, 1976-1982) covers English history between 1066 and 1901. As Elbur Ford, she wrote four novels (1950-1954) based on infamous murderers of the 19th century, and as Kathleen Kellow, she wrote another eight (1952-1960). Several of the latter were also mysteries.
It was in 1960 that she first used the name that set me haunting bookstores and searching library shelves. Hibbert’s first book as Victoria Holt was Mistress of Mellyn. I was enthralled when I encountered the book’s heroine, young governess, Martha Leigh; its powerful, enigmatic hero, Con TreMellyn; the great, haunted mansion; the suggestions of scandal and betrayal. Kirkus called MOM “a legitimate successor to Jane Eyre"; rumor said that it had been written by Daphne DuMaurier. I was hooked on Holt after that first book. I read all of the more than thirty books that followed MOM—Kirkland Revels, The Legend of the Seventh Virgin, Menfreya in the Morning, The Judas Kiss, all the way through The Black Opal in 1993. All of the traditional gothic elements were there, but the books still had a power and a freshness that made Holt books superior to the multitude of imitators who followed her into gothic territory. No less a source than the New York Times Book Review called her books “magic.” I was just one of millions of readers who agreed. Hibbert’s popularity as Holt surpassed her fame as Plaidy, especially in North America. The Holt books were translated into twenty languages and sold more than 75 million copies. Hibbert had started a revival of the gothic romance that persists into the 21st century.
Although never as popular as her Holt books, Hibbert’s books written as Philippa Carr also gained a considerable following. Family saga rather than romance, the nineteen books she wrote under the Carr name were narrated by women. The Daughters of England series begins with The Miracle at St. Bruno’s (1972), a sixteenth-century saga that claims Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Thomas More as characters and ends with We’ll Meet Again (1993), set against the backdrop of the end of World War II. The Elizabethan-set The Witch from the Sea may be the best known of the Carr books.
Hibbert died at the age of 87 on board a cruise ship, the Sea Princess, between Athens and Port Said, Egypt, while on what her agent described as “her annual winter trip.” She had sold more than 100 million copies of her nearly two hundred books written over more than half a century. Using her own name and half a dozen pseudonyms, she wrote gothic romance, historical fiction, mystery, children’s books, and non-fiction. She won praise from critics and loyalty from untold numbers of fans. Her particular focus, she said, was “"women of integrity and strong character" who were "struggling for liberation, fighting for their own survival." Her advice is as sound today as it was when she gave it decades ago: “Never regret. If it's good, it's wonderful. If it's bad, it's experience.”
I think she is a woman and a writer well worth celebrating and writing back into the history of romance fiction.
Have you read any of Hibbert’s books under any of her names? What romance writers of the past would you like to see “written back into the history” of the genre?
"Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web.
Dalby, Richard. “All about Jean Plaidy.” Book and Magazine Collector 109 (April 1993).