Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert was a woman of many talents, and many names. As Jean Plaidy, she produced several volumes of fascinatingly detailed historical fiction. As Philippa Carr, she penned a multi-generational family saga spanning from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. As Victoria Holt, she wrote thirty-two gripping gothic romances.
In a writing career spanning fifty-two years, Hibbert wrote over 200 books, selling over 100 million copies in 20 languages. Enviably prolific, she reportedly wrote for five hours a day, seven days a week, often producing 5000 words by lunchtime.
I adore Eleanor Hibbert and have a large cabinet devoted solely to her Plaidy and Holt novels, which I have been painstakingly collecting from charity shops and Ebay for years. As much as I admire the Plaidy books, it is Holt who has stolen my heart.
I have already demonstrated my penchant for gothic-flavoured fiction on this blog: I adore the novels of Kate Morton, and Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall, which is very much cut from the same cloth, is my favourite read of the year so far. But Holt is the master of the genre that blends Rebecca with Jane Eyre, inhabits eerie country mansions and sweeping (and often Cornish) coastlines, and is populated by plucky heroines and brooding heroes.
“Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”
– Victoria Holt
The first Holt novel, Mistress of Mellyn, was published in 1960. Its resemblance to Rebecca was so marked that rumours soon began to swirl that ‘Victoria Holt’ was really a pseudonym for Daphne du Maurier. It would be several years before Holt was identified as Hibbert/Plaidy.
It would be a mistake to assume that the Holt novels are merely Mills and Boon (or Harlequin)-style rehashes of meatier works. Yes, they borrow from Du Maurier and Bronte. But they are glorious entertainments in their own right.
There is a formula at work so I wouldn’t recommend reading more than one or two Holts off the belt: things can get a bit samey. But they are my go-to when I am in a reading slump and am looking for a page turner to bring back my reading mojo.
I haven’t worked my way through my Holt collection yet: I am using them sparingly! My favourite to date, though, is The Shivering Sands (1969), which has all the classic Holt ingredients. Our heroine is Caroline Verlaine, recently widowed following the death of her concert pianist husband. When we first meet her, she is travelling to Lovat Stacy, a mansion on the Kent Coast, searching for clues as to the whereabouts of her missing archaeologist sister, Roma (who I always imagine as a kind of pre-twentieth century River Song for some reason …).
In typical Holt fashion, Caroline finds herself embroiled in a love triangle. On the one hand, there is the Rochester-type figure of Napier Stacy, a bit of a devil who may or may not have shot a man on purpose (he remains mysteriously tight-lipped about the whole incident. Understandably so, I suppose). On the other hand, we have the St. John Rivers-esque Godfrey. Caroline has to choose between two different kinds of love, and two contrasting futures. If she can avoid the demon quicksand, that is:
They had both been at hand when I needed them ….; in their different ways they loved me. Godfrey tenderly, kindly, gently and perhaps dispassionately; perhaps he had chosen me because I would make a suitable wife. And Napier, fiercely, possessively, desperately. (pp. 319-320)
Love triangles. Creepy houses. Even creepier elderly ladies who still wear their hair in bunches. Sinister little children. Dramatic coastlines. Demon quicksand! Call me weak, but I can’t resist all that.
Holt’s novels are, purely and simply, consummate entertainment. The majority of her works are out of print (grrr!) but can be tracked down easily enough (perhaps wait until I’ve completed my collection first. We don’t want things to get unpleasantly competitive and ugly now, do we?). Fortunately, many of her finest books are available, including The Shivering Sands. Already a fan? I would love to hear from you and find out your favourite Victoria!