Forgotten Authors: No 7: Victoria Holt

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:00

Stay with me - this gets complicated. Victoria Holt's real name was Eleanor Hibbert (née Burford), born in Kensington, 1906.

After signing books as Elbur Ford (a contraction of her birth name), she used pseudonyms including Jean Plaidy (a name taken from a Cornish beach), Philippa Carr, Kathleen Kellow and others, and wrote around 200 historical novels. She sold staggering amounts, in the region of 100 million copies. Lately, there have been some excellent reissues of the Plaidy titles, so it's a good time to rediscover Britain's most popular historical novelist. She was feted for blending accurate period detail with strong plots and rich characterisation, so what happened to "The Queen of Romantic Suspense"?

Burford was first published in 1941 for an advance of £30. Soon she was writing about Catherine de Medici, Charles II, Katherine of Aragon, Marie Antoinette and Lucrezia Borgia. Her style had enough gusto to draw polite applause from the critics, but her public adored her. This wasn't enough; she chronicled criminal cases, then embarked upon great cycles of novels in chronological order, covering the Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, Georgians and Victorians. She branched into gothic romance, mystery, non-fiction and children's books, and particularly enjoyed portraying feisty women of independence and integrity who fought for liberation.

Her viewpoints ring true; Hitler, she says in The English Are Like That, made the fatal mistake of frightening the English. Hamlet, she notes, is not incapable of action; he kills his man three times in the play. It's hard to find anyone with anything bad to say about her ideas, which makes her disappearance even stranger.

Perhaps her ubiquity rendered her disposable; popularity rarely guarantees posterity. Then there were those horrible pastel covers that reminded one of Quality Street chocolates. The truth is that popular historical fiction for women became unfashionable, just as surely as men stopped reading tales of kings and explorers. In came chick-lit and laddish stories that eschewed any mention of our past collective history. Hibbert died on a cruise between Greece and Egypt, in her 80s. "Never regret," she once said. "If it's good, it's wonderful. If it's bad, it's experience."

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