Decades before it became trendy for romance fiction authors to adopt different pseudonyms to reinvent themselves or to publish in a new subgenre, Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert was publishing under eight names. Romance readers may not recognize her legal name, but chances are most of them have read at least a novel or two by Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, or Philippa Carr.
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 more novels as Eleanor Burford over the next two decades; all were romances featuring youthful protagonists and bearing titles like Passionate Witness (1941) and The House at Cupid’s Cross (1949).
But it's the pseudonyms she adopted later that were the names to win 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 novels between 1952 and 1960. Several of the latter were also mysteries. She also wrote one book as Anna Percival and five as Ellalice Tate.
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; and the suggestions of scandal and betrayal. Kirkus called Mistress of Mellyn “a legitimate successor to Jane Eyre,“ and rumor said that it had been written by Daphne du Maurier.
I was hooked on Holt after that first book. I read all of the more than thirty books that followed Mistress of Mellyn, all the way through The Black Opal published posthumously in 1993. Among my favorites were Kirkland Revels (1962) with its ghosts, mysterious abbey, and innocent heroine in jeopardy, and Menfreya in the Morning (1966), reminiscent of du Maurier’s Rebecca. All of the traditional gothic elements are included, but the books still possessed a power that made Holt books superior to the multitude of imitators who followed her. 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 are 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.
Her writing pace was one many authors might envy. She wrote five hours a day, seven days a week, usually completing five thousand words by lunchtime. Her afternoons were devoted to answering the letters she received from fans all over the world. She even took her typewriter with her on her annual winter cruises so that she could continue working.
Hibbert died at the age of 87 on board a cruise ship, the Sea Princess, between Athens and Port Said, Egypt. She had sold more than 100 million copies of her two hundred books written over a career that spanned more than half a century. 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 to writers 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.”
Sourcebooks Casablanca, the imprint that gave readers the reissues of Georgette Heyer’s books, will begin offering reissues of Victoria Holt’s books in 2013. The India Fan (1988) will be released in March, and The Time of the Hunter’s Moon (1983) will follow in July.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.