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Eleanor Hibbert wrote 183 books, including three children’s novels, under several pseudonyms during her fifty-year career. Over 14 million copies were sold worldwide.
Hibbert was born Eleanor Alice Burford on 1 September 1906 in Kensington, London. Her father Joseph was an “odd jobs” man with no steady profession but he passed on his avid love for books, as Hibbert was a keen reader from aged four and she began writing at an early age.
She initially emulated her literary heroes – the Brontes, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy – and wrote nine lengthy novels during the 1930s. They were serious psychological studies of contemporary life but none were accepted for publication.
Hibbert married leather merchant George Percival Hibbert, who shared her love of books and reading, in her early twenties as his second wife.
“I found that married life gave me the necessary freedom to follow an ambition which had been with me since childhood, and so I started to write in earnest.”
Her greatest joy was collecting and reading dusty old history books, before transforming these events into exciting narratives.
Several short stories were published in the Evening News, Daily Mail, The Star, Woman’s Realm and Ladies’ Home Journal during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Daily Mail’s literary editor suggested Hibbert wrote a romantic novel.
Hibbert’s first, Daughter of Anna, was published by Herbert Jenkins in 1941 under maiden name. She was paid £30 per novel at the start of her career.
Nineteen books followed, including Passionate Witness , The House at Cupid’s Cross , The Love Child  and Castles in Spain . A further ten titles were published by Mills & Boon from 1956 to 1962.
Another of Hibbert’s pseudonyms was taken from Plaidy Beach – near the Hibberts’ home in Cornwall during World War II.
Her first historical novel, Together They Ride , as Jean Plaidy was a well-written 18th Century Cornish smuggling yarn inspired by Daphne due Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek. It was not an instant success.
The second, Beyond the Blue Mountains, was initially rejected by several publishers.
Robert Hale accepted the manuscript as he perceived its worth, so he wrote to Hibbert’s agent, “Will you tell this author that there are glittering prizes ahead for those who can write as she does?”
Hibbert reached the peak of her success during the 1950s and 1960s as “Jean Plaidy, Britain’s most popular historical novelist.”
Titles included five non-fiction books including three volumes on the rise, spread and dissolution of the Spanish Inquisition. They were well-researched and still considered the best – vividly portraying the fanaticism and hypocrisy.
Hibbert began writing her Tudor Saga novels from 1949.
Hibbert continued leading a simple life living in her London flat after the death of her husband during the 1960s. She wrote an average of two books per year, later increasing her output to three during the 1980s.
From 1965 Hibbert began writing a strict chronological sequence of novels, beginning with The Three Crowns in 1965 – the first in a trilogy on the ‘Last of the Stuarts’.
Other works included the Georgian and Victorian sagas, before Hibbert returned to the eleventh century with the ‘Norman Trilogy’ in 1974. Her biggest project, ‘The Plantagenet Saga’, consisted of fifteen books.
Hibbert began the ‘Queens of England’ series in her late 70s, beginning with Myself, My Enemy in 1983. She wrote ten books, ending with William’s Wife in 1992.
US publisher Doubleday believed Hibbert was a potential best-selling author so she was contracted to write a novel combining romance, suspense and gothic [dark] elements.
Hibbert realised the huge potential readership for “romantic suspense stories set in gloomy old manor houses,” so she revived the gothic novel, a genre which fell into neglect since its heydey during the 19th Century.
Holt’s first novel, Mistress of Mellyn, was published in 1960—an immediate success. Mildred C Kuner adapted the story into a stage play.
Over 75 million copies were sold and translated into 20 languages.
Holt was also heralded “Queen of Romantic Suspense” as her writing style influenced other gothic-style romantic suspense authors. She won the Romance Writers 1989 RITA award for Lifetime Achievement.
Hibbert adopted her last pseudonym, Philippa Carr, in 1972 for her ‘Daughters of England’ saga—based on fictitious journals focused on real historical events kept by the women in one family from the Reformation until World War II.
The final book, Daughters of England was published posthumously, but it is not connected with Carr’s other novels.
She died suddenly whilst at her typewriter aboard a cruise sailing from Athens, Greece, to Port Said, Egypt on 18 January 1993, aged 86.
Cash, Carolyn, Eleanor Hibbert 1906-1993, Writers Voice [Official Bulletin of the Fellowship of Australian Writers NSW Inc], June-July 2007
Dalby, Richard, All About Jean Plaidy, Book and Magazine Collector #109, April 1993
HarperCollins Publishers Limited (UK) – Victoria Holt
Random House Australia – Jean Plaidy
© 2010 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 30 January 2010.