In our newest column in RT Book Reviews magazine, "Once Upon A Romantic Times," we take a look back at early issues of RT and dig deep into our archives to bring you classic stories about some of romance's early pioneers. In our January issue, we honored the late Victoria Holt by taking a look at the historical romance author's legacy. Today, we bring you a rare treat. A full feature article from the second issue of Romantic Times, published in 1981 and written by Marion Harris and staff of Romantic Times, “Hail Victoria! Long May She Reign."
In September, Fawcett Crest will publish The Mask of the Enchantress by Victoria Holt, marking a milestone for the acknowledged mistress of romantic suspense: the twentieth anniversary of the start of what must be considered an extraordinary career as an author. One of the world’s most popular novelists, Miss Holt has nearly a score of international bestsellers to her credit.
As Victoria Holt she is considered one of the supreme writers of the ‘gothic’ romance, a compelling storyteller whose gripping novels of the darker face of love have thrilled millions.
As Jean Plaidy she has won the accolade ‘One of England’s foremost historical novelists.’
As Philippa Carr she has earned acclaim for producing the bestselling family saga, ‘Daughters of England,’ a series that follows the fortunes of one English family from Tudor time to present day.
But what about Eleanor Hibbert, the woman behind a 20-year career as a bestselling author? Although she does not give personal interviews, she did provide written material for Romantic Times’ reporters. Printed here is the most revealing story yet of this world famous author’s personal life.
Eleanor Burford was born in London, England in 1906, the daughter of Joseph and Alice (Tate) Burford. She was sickly as a child (throat problem) and was privately educated in London. Having learned to read even before she began attending school, the petite brunette decided very early in life that she too would become a writer someday. In view of her childhood obsession with books, and her unwavering determination, it’s no wonder that she now requires three different pseudonyms to account for all her efforts!
Prior to the birth of Victoria Holt (a name suggested by her agent) she had published over 30 books under the names of Eleanor Burford, Elbur Ford, Kathleen Kellow, and Ellalice Tate. She began with publishers Mills & Boon and was for a time one of Harlequin’s most popular authors. Beyond the Blue Mountains by Jean Plaidy was a 1951 selection.
In 1960, no one was writing or publishing novels of romantic suspense. But in that year, Victoria Holt created a contemporary feeling for romance with the great gothic tradition of brooding suspense. The Mistress of Mellyn became an immediate bestseller. By the time her fourth novel, The Legend of the Seventh Virgin, was published, the phrase “romantic suspense” had become part of the language and an important category of fiction in bookstores.
Why the name Victoria Holt captured such a large readership, no one really knows. For eight years, Doubleday kept the Victoria Holt pseudonym a well-guarded secret. Was Victoria Holt really Daphne du Maurier, people have wondered? “I have heard her name mentioned in connection with mine and I think it is because we both lived in Cornwall and have written about this place. Rebecca is the atmospheric suspense type of book mine are. But I don’t think there is much similarity between her others and mine,” she said.
“In my teens and early twenties I wrote several novels, none of which achieved publication,” she confided. “But this was not quite as depressing as it might have been, for in the meantime, I wrote short stories which were published in the Daily Mail, the Evening News and other papers.”
In college, she studied shorthand and typing and also languages, at which is she was unusually fluent. After leaving college she held a variety of jobs, ranging from handling opals and pearls in London’s famous Hatton Garden to acting as an interpreter to French and German patrons in one of London’s chic cafés.
Meeting George Hibbert and eventually marrying him gave her the impetus to launch her writing career in earnest. There was no question that she would try her hand at writing a historical novel. They were the type of novel which had always attracted her. “Dickens, Zola and particularly the Brontës and nearly all the Victorians influenced my writings,” she says.
Right from the beginning she realized she would have to work very hard to become a successful writer. “I soon found that the best method was to work steadily and consistently. The method I adopted is to write for about five hours a day — but not at one stretch.” She likes to rise early and arrive at her desk ready to start work at eight o’clock each morning. She works until ten; then has a half hour break. During this time she attends to tasks around the house and broods on the characters she is involved in. “They’re real to me and I often talk to them,” she admits. At ten-thirty she resumes work for an hour. Then she takes a long break until five in the afternoon. At five, she settles down to another two hour stint, finishing for the day at seven o’clock in the evening. “This method, combined with a single-minded enthusiasm and determination to succeed, has meant that I have become prolific and books appear at regular intervals.”
Research is a vital part of her life. “I prefer to do all the research myself,” she explains. “I have never thought it wise to employ researchers because delving into the past is not merely collecting facts, but actually absorbing the spirit of the age. I feel it is very necessary for me to capture that. It is something vague, intangible, which must be suggested; and is entirely a personal feeling that I have to discover and impart to the reader.”
Love Affair with the Tudors
She is fortunate to line in London, surrounded by libraries which are some of the best in England. She is so highly esteemed that she is allowed into the special archives where there are thousands of books on her subject — some are very rare — and she is even permitted to take them home and keep them as long as she wishes. “This has been of the greatest possible help,” she adds.
Her research and absoprtion begin some time before the actual writing. “I read the history of the period and then as many biographies, memoirs and letters as I can — not only of the leading characters but of anyone who lived in that age.”
Mrs. Hibbert works and lives in their penthouse overlooking London and reluctantly sold the much loved 13th century inn that was their second home, just recently. The house once provided lodging for Henry VII and Elizabeth I. “I named that house the King’s Lodging, naturally,” she admits. “A Tudor staircase was put in and part of it remains today. Later, when Elizabeth stayed there, special carved fireplaces were put in for her. I restored it to make it as much like it was in their day, so you see, the Tudors mean something special to me.”
Looking back over her books, she feels the richest yield came from the Tudors, though “I have ranged from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the start of the twentieth. I then went back to the Norman Conquest with a Norman trilogy, and followed this with the Plantagenet saga. I shall go on writing book in chronological order until I catch up with the early Tudors.
It is always the personal, or human perspective which attracts her most and it is the very tone of the human voice, heard in past eras, she strives to capture.
“Happily, there seems always to have been those people who hide behind the arras, secreting themselves in budoirs and peeping through the keyholes and going away to report what they’ve seen and heard.” And it is this kind of fossilized gossip Mrs. Hibbert calls a “tremendous boon” for a writer such as herself.
In preparation for a novel she becomes completely immersed in the reading of histories, biographies, memoirs and letters. “There comes a time, however, when I seem to be reading the same thing over and over again. That is the moment I begin,” she explains.
The Excitement of Writing
When she’s relaxing, Eleanor Hibbert enjoys seeing friends, playing chess and working needlepoint. She and her husband have taken numerous curises — more than 60! — which provides wonderful solace for writing time.
“If anybody says to me … ‘you look tired,’ it’s because I haven’t been able to get at my typewriter … Writing excites me. I live all my characters and never have any trouble thinking of plots of how people would have said something … because I’m them when I’m writing. Obviously,” she teases, “I only do one at a time. I couldn’t switch from Victoria Holt to Jean Plaidy to Philippa Carr just like that,” and if you imagine you can even hear her snap her long fingers...
She’s right, nothing comes that easy.
For more on Victoria Holt, pick up a copy of the January issue of RT. Or subscribe today and get the digital version of RT instantly!