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The Queen of Historical Fiction

by

Susan Higginbotham

 


 

This is an article I wrote for the November 2007 issue of Solander, the magazine
of the Historical Novel Society. It's reprinted here by permission.

 

This novel sings of illegitimate ladies and philandering men, and a long-winded, blowsy song it is. . . .
The novel of generations is here coupled with a sampling of Amber-class heroines to produce a fiction so foolish and so formula that its sponsors have seen fit in one place to label the creation "A Romantic Novel." It should offer limited appeal exclusively to readers of whatever that is.[1]

 

 So the mysterious "B.V.W.," writing in the New York Times in 1947, summed up Beyond the Blue Mountains, the second novel written by Eleanor Hibbert under the pseudonym of Jean Plaidy. Sixty years later, it's apparent that B.V.M.'s prediction couldn't have been more off the mark. Plaidy's novels have proven to have anything but limited appeal—as Crown Publishing, which has been reissuing them since 2003 under its Three Rivers Press imprint, can well attest.

 

One of the grande dames of historical fiction for decades, Hibbert, who was secretive about her age but whose birth year is usually given as 1906, began using the Jean Plaidy penname—taken from Cornwall's Plaidy Beach—in 1945, when she published Together They Ride, described by Richard Dalbyas "a well-written although not particularly successful Cornish smuggling yarn."[2] Her second Plaidy novel, Beyond the Blue Mountains, a tale of Australian settlers, was published by Robert Hale in 1947 and began a long relationship between Hale and Hibbert. In 1949 with the publication of The King's Pleasure, featuring Anne Boleyn, Hibbert-as-Plaidy turned her attention to the types of novels she is noted for today: stories of royalty and those surrounding them.

 

By the time she died aboard a cruise ship in 1993, the privacy-loving Hibbert had written about 200 novels, 90 or so of them under the Plaidy penname, the rest under the names of Victoria Holt (romantic suspense), Philippa Carr (family sagas), and early, far lesser known pseudonyms such as Elbur Ford and Ellalice Tate. Her novels sold over 100 million copies.[3]

 

Several years after Hibbert's death, Rachel Kahan, then an associate editor at Crown, was looking to build the publisher's historical fiction program. As a ten year old with a taste for books about royalty, Kahan discovered Plaidy's books in her public library and through her became hooked on historical fiction. "It was the ultimate escapism—it let me travel but it [was] also time travel."[4] When the adult Kahan realized that Plaidy's novels had gone out of print in the United States, she was appalled. "I felt awful—like when you learn that an old friend who you haven't seen for many years has suddenly died. But in this case, I was not just a fan mourning the loss of all those great novels, I was actually in a position to do something about it."[5] Kahan offered to buy the rights to ten of the Plaidy novels and reprint them.

 

It was a good move. As Kahan reports, "I discovered that I was most definitely not the only Jean Plaidy fan out there. The fiction buyer from Borders, as it turned out, was a long-time fan who had mourned the loss of those books as much as I did. . . . We reissued two Plaidy paperbacks in April 2003 and within three months we'd sold 30,000 copies of each. Readers flooded Crown's websites with questions about when the next books would be out. The relaunch was so successful on this side of the Atlantic that one of my colleagues in the UK[6] has bought the entire 90-title backlist."[7]

 

Crown has reissued the Plaidy novels in trade paperback, with readers' guides included and the titles of some changed to enhance shelf appeal. The new editions bear little resemblance to earlier American paperback editions of Plaidy's novels, which feature covers ranging from the lurid to the ludicrous. A 1952 Ace Giant paperback of The Goldsmith's Wife, sold under the more salacious title of The King's Mistress for the princely price of thirty-five cents, illustrates the scene of a brassy-haired, scarlet-lipped Jane Shore doing public penance. Jane is stripped from the waist up, her ample breasts only just hidden by her hair. With this cover, the promise on the inside page ("JANE WAS A WOMAN OF LUSTY TASTES!") and the paperback's back matter (advertising novels such as Cage of Lust and Teen-Age Vice!), readers who expected correspondingly racy contents were undoubtedly disappointed to find love scenes no more descriptive than, "He ran his hands caressingly over her."

 

Continuing the romance theme, Fawcett Crest, which issued mass-market paperbacks of some of Plaidy's novels in the 1980s, favored clinch covers featuring strong-jawed men with crisp haircuts embracing flowing-tressed, ravishingly beautiful women, even for novels with subjects who did not lend themselves historically to such treatment, such as Margaret of Anjou and the notoriously undersexed Henry VI (Red Rose of Anjou). With such covers still to be found in abundance on the secondhand market, it's no surprise that one occasionally comes across Plaidy's novels being described as historical romances, or even as bodice rippers by the uninitiated.

 

In contrast, the Crown reissues make it abundantly clear that straight historical fiction is in the offing. Unlike the British reissues, which sport variations on the popular "headless woman" covers, Crown's books feature portraits of the main character, head and all, or vignettes. Asked why Crown bucked the headless heroine trend, Allison McCabe, Senior Editor at Crown, explains, "We wanted to show the real women who inspired the novels, and so we chose to use portraits, whenever possible."

 

The first two novels reissued were about one of the most ubiquitous subjects for historical fiction: the court of Henry VIII. The Lady in the Tower and The Rose Without a Thorn feature the two most unfortunate of Henry's wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. Both take the same narrative approach: on the eve of her execution, the doomed queen reflects about her life.

 

The two novels are typical of Plaidy's works. They are straightforward retellings of the heroines' stories as reported by popular historians, albeit occasionally with some historical errors picked up from them. (Plaidy's Anne Boleyn, for instance, has a warm relationship with her kindly, low-born stepmother, a woman who probably never existed.) The prose is as straightforward as the storytelling, with few dramatic embellishments or stylistic feints. Perhaps because of this, the reader finds it easy to sympathize with the narrators; though they wear crowns on their soon-to-be-forfeited heads, they narrate their stories just as ordinary women might tell them.

 

A marked characteristic of Plaidy's work is that bedchamber doors are firmly shut; for instance, although the amorous Katherine Howard frequently mentions her sensual nature, she never goes beyond the vaguest descriptions of her sexual encounters.

 

So why do Jean Plaidy's novels, not noted for either showmanship or sex, appeal to 21st-century readers, who are so accustomed to both? In an age where historical fiction has grown steadily more sexually frank, I was curious as to whether Plaidy's sexual reticence might be part of her appeal to some readers. McCabe, however, gives a firm negative: "I have never considered the lack of explicit sex as a factor in what attracts readers." Indeed, no reader I interviewed cited this as a reason she enjoyed Plaidy's novels.

 

In fact, the key to Plaidy's appeal seems to be the history. Julie Lovisa, who has established a group devoted to Jean Plaidy's novels on the popular social networking site MySpace, explains, "I love Jean Plaidy because she wrote extremely factual historical fiction—I read somewhere that she used up to fifteen resource books for each novel she wrote. I know that some people find her a little dry, but I love that what I'm reading is basically a history book with some dialogue thrown in. And I love that she was so prolific so that I'll have Plaidy books to read for a long time to come!"

 

Faithfulness to history also made a fan out of Arleigh Johnson, an online reviewer of historical fiction at her site Historical-Fiction.net: "The most appealing aspect of Jean Plaidy's writing to me is the historical accuracy. While other authors can make a story entertaining, I'm more of a history buff than some who read the genre, and I do not enjoy seeing historical figures given personalities or attributes they do not deserve, based on rumor or conspiracy theories."

 

Elaine Payne, another Plaidy devotee, adds, "I find Jean Plaidy's novels to be very well researched; I feel just like I'm in the era the novel is written. I also like her style of writing; most are in the first person, which I've always enjoyed. It's also a great way to learn history."

 

"Plaidy’s books appeal to me because while the topics covered are based on real figures in history, the books
are not stuffy or boring," says reader Alita Rogers. "They are easy to read, easy to follow and very entertaining. Taking into consideration that the books are fiction, I learned about periods of history I had
not heard of before."

 

McCabe echoes these readers' sentiments. "I think 21st-century readers come to Jean Plaidy because she brings history alive, and in particular, she brings the women of history alive."

 

Women are indeed prominent in Plaidy's novels. Hibbert herself said, in reference to her Victoria Holt heroines, "They're women of integrity and strong character. These women of mine are going to fight and show the world that women are every bit as good and serious as men."[8] Most of the title characters in the Plaidy books are female (an entire series is devoted to English queens), and many of them are figures who have been relatively neglected in historical fiction: Eleanor of Provence, Henrietta Maria, Catherine of Braganza, and Mary II each have a novel to themselves. Even in those novels where the titular figures are male, women play an important role. A prime example is Edward Longshanks, also sold as Hammer of the Scots, part of Plaidy's Plantagenet series. Despite the title(s), the story is concerned as much with Edward I's family, especially his daughters, as with Edward. Daphne Risch, who has reviewed many Plaidy novels on her blog Tanzanite's Shelf and Stuff, finds this part of the appeal of Plaidy's novels. "That is one of the things I like about some of her books in the Plantagenet series—they focus on the wives and daughters of the king a little more than the king himself."

 

In this connection, it's useful to bear in mind the words of literary agent Irene Goodman, who stated, in regard to historical fiction, "The majority of the readers are women, and they like to read about other women."[9]

 

Goodman's words were recently echoed by another agent, Susanna Einstein. "The most popular historical fiction seems to be from a particular point of history but told from a women's point of view. There are not that many history stories told through women, so it's a chance to connect to history in that way."[10]

 

Lynne M. Kennedy, whose website for the Sachem Public Library in Holbrook, New York, includes a page called "The England of Jean Plaidy," identified another factor. "As for the enduring popularity of Plaidy's books, a huge reason is the continued fascination with the British monarchy. Every time a series like David Starkey's 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' comes out, there is an upsurge in interest." (The fascination is a continued one indeed. In 1949, reviewing The King's Pleasure, Mary M. Ahern wrote, "Of all English kings who have supplied dramatists, novelists and popular historians with themes, Henry VIII has proved the most fruitful. There is about him an urgent sense of momentous happenings."[11])

 

Kennedy also sees a practical aspect to the popularity of the reissued Plaidy novels. "Reissues do well, I think, when they are part of a series. As you know, there is a great deal of wear and tear involved with library books and occasionally they are beyond repair and must be discarded. We are therefore grateful when new editions of old faves are published." Indeed, new editions of historical novels by Anya Seton, Norah Lofts, Hilda Lewis, and Rosemary Hawley Jarman—most, probably not coincidentally, with female protagonists—have been appearing on shelves both in the United States and the United Kingdom, and McCabe at Crown Publishing is reissuing novels by Rosalind Laker.

 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Crown's list of Plaidy reissues, as reported by McCabe, is heavy on women and Tudors. Three series of Plaidy's novels, the Queens of England, the Tudor Novels, and the Stuart Saga, are scheduled to be reprinted. The most recent titles, appearing in late 2007, were The Reluctant Queen: The Story of Anne of York (narrated by Richard III's queen), and Loyal in Love: Henrietta Maria, Queen of Charles II (formerly titled Myself My Enemy). The Merry Monarch's Wife: The Story of Catherine of Braganza, previously published as The Pleasures of Love, and The Queen's Devotion: The Story of Queen Mary II, formerly known as William's Wife, are to follow in 2008, along with some of the Tudor novels. According to McCabe, no decision has been made as to whether to reissue other novels by Plaidy once the three series have been completed, but the readers I spoke to were unanimous in hoping that more followed, with the Plantagenet Saga, the Medici trilogy, and "all of them!" being the most frequent requests.

 

As Crown continues to line bookstore shelves with reissued Plaidy novels, one should ponder the closing words of B.V.W., the reviewer who panned Beyond the Blue Mountains in 1947. After three spoiler-laden, disdainful paragraphs, B.V.W. ended the review with some backhanded compliments for the hapless author. "It is pleasant to note, from the author's picture on the dust jacket, that she bears a winsome and charming resemblance to the British musical-comedy actress Jessie Matthews. Perhaps Miss Plaidy has missed her calling."[12]

 

Tell that to the folks at Crown, B.V.W. 

 


 

 

[1] B.V.W., "Concerning Carolan," New York Times, December 7, 1947.

[2] Richard Dalby, "All About Jean Plaidy," Book and Magazine Collector, April 1993 (reproduced at http://members.tripod.com/jeanplaidy/id17.htm)

[3] Bruce Lambert, "Eleanor Hibbert, Novelist Known As Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy" (Obituary), New York Times, January 21, 1993.

[4] Rachel Kahan, "Historical Fiction," Irene Goodman Literary Agency website (http://www.irenegoodman.com/2005_11_01_archive.html), November 30, 2005.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In the UK, Arrow Books is reissuing Jean Plaidy’s novels.

[7] Kahan, "Historical Fiction."

[8] Lacey Fosburgh, "Talk With Eleanor Hibbert and Helpers," New York Times, August 14, 1977.

[9] Irene Goodman, "Why Anne Boleyn is the Poster Girl of Historical Fiction," Solander, Autumn 2005.

[10] Amy Klein, "God Gets a Rewrite," Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, August 10, 2007 (http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=18026).

[11] Mary M. Ahern, "The New Fiction: Four Titles of Interest," New York Times, June 26, 1949.

[12] B.V.W., "Concerning Carolan," New York Times, December 7, 1947.

 

 

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