Obituary: Jean Plaidy
Wednesday 20 January 1993
JEAN PLAIDY, whose real name was Eleanor Hibbert, was also known to millions of readers as Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr. She had an instinctive appreciation of solid worth - her own and other people's. She enjoyed her worldwide success, but she was the least pretentious or publicity-seeking of authors, preferring to get on with what she saw as her job: the writing of novels which delighted her readers and taught two generations of teenagers to perceive history as an enthralling human story rather than a recital of dry facts.
She was born and bred a Londoner - a fact of which she was immensely proud, although she never revealed her maiden name or date of birth - and at an early age determined (and that is the word) to be a writer. She set about it by writing 1,000-word short stories under various names for the Evening Standard. Having honed her skills, she turned to full-length fiction. Her first Plaidy novel, Beyond the Blue Mountains (1947), was rejected by several publishers as too long, but eventually Robert Hale perceived its worth and published it. Eleanor Hibbert never forgot the encouragement he gave her and quoted it often: 'Will you tell this author that there are glittering prizes ahead for those who can write as she does?' It marked the start of a lifelong partnership. All 90 of the Plaidy novels were first published in hardback by the firm of Robert Hale, and Eleanor Hibbert resisted moving elsewhere, preferring to remain loyal to the firm which had first shown confidence in her.
She married the much older George Hibbert as his second wife. His death in the 1960s was a great grief to her, though she was sustained by the love of his children and grandchildren, whose hearts she had captured as she did those of her readers. During the war the Hibberts lived for a time near Looe in Cornwall. The name Plaidy was taken from Plaidy Beach, and other Cornish place names appear as personal names throughout the Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr novels.
For Eleanor Hibbert was about to have a second and later a third incarnation. Her American agent suggested she should write a Jane-Eyre-type novel set in Cornwall. The result was the first Victoria Holt, Mistress of Mellyn, published by William Collins in 1961, with the author's identity cloaked in secrecy as a publicity gimmick - a very effective one, for the book became an instant bestseller. It was the first of 31 Gothic novels, all published by Collins - the 32nd, The Black Opal, will appear in September - a genre in which Eleanor Hibbert had imitators but few equals. Many of the books had in part a Cornish setting, though more exotic locations also figured, often drawn from places visited during the annual three-month cruise which Eleanor took in later years to avoid the English winter, taking with her her beloved portable typewriter on which all her novels were first written.
Two Jean Plaidys a year and one Victoria Holt were soon insufficient to absorb her creativity. Sir William Collins suggested she should embark on a third series. The Plaidy novels were fictionalised English history, concentrating where possible on queens and princesses, the Holts were fiction set in the second half of the 19th century. The Carrs were to be fiction with a historical background, told from the point of view of an English gentlewoman in succeeding generations and showing how great events affected individual lives. The series, which began with the Reformation and ended with victory in the Second World War, came to be known as the 'Daughters of England' and, like the Holts, were all published by Collins. The happy relationship which existed between Eleanor Hibbert and her two publishers, and her long-time agents, AM Heath, is all too rare in these days.
Although Eleanor Hibbert worked every morning, and replied personally to the innumerable fan letters she received (she never employed a secretary), she always had time for her family and friends, as well as her abiding love of English history and literature, opera and Shakespeare, chess and quiz games. Failing eyesight troubled her in later years, but she derived great pleasure from the talking books service of Westminster City Council, and woe to any publisher who dared to abridge an author's work. Eleanor Hibbert liked to experience an author's work as written and refused to countenance any abridged versions of her own.
The decision reflected once again her assessment of true worth. She claimed to be a good writer, not a great one, but she was undoubtedly a great lady.
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