Monday, November 2, 2009

In Praise of Victoria Holt / Jean Plaidy

by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

I must have been about 11 or 12 when I first discovered Victoria Holt, and her alter-egos Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr. A friend of mine loaned me THE MISTRESS OF MELLYN, and told me I had to read it (you can read a brief plot summary here Victoria Holt wrote Gothic novels back in the days when Gothic’s were still cool. There was always a heroine who was in danger, and the man who may or may not turn out to be the hero. They were mainly set in the 19th century, although there were a few that were contemporaries. Her books weren’t steamy, there were no graphic love scenes, but they were atmospheric, with exotic locales (to me Cornwall and Yorkshire were exotic!) and full of suspense. I loved that the heroines were strong, not weak little misses who waited for the hero to rescue them. In her NYT obituary, she is quoted as saying that she focused on "women of integrity and strong character" who were "struggling for liberation, fighting for their own survival.” I soon glommed through all the books that were available. My favorite Holt’s are THE MISTRESS OF MELLYN, BRIDE OF PENDORRIC, and MINE ENEMY, and THE QUEEN (about Elizabeth I’s cousin Lettice Knollys).

Imagine my glee when I found out that she wrote under two different pseudonyms. More books for me! As Philippa Carr, she wrote the ‘DAUGHTERS OF ENGLAND’ series, which chronicled one family from the Elizabethan era all the way to the 20th century (THE WITCH FROM THE SEA Sea is a personal favorite). But it was Jean Plaidy's novels that quickly became my favorites. I’m a history geek and her novels were filled with Scandalous Women. She wrote books that ran the gamut from novels about Lucrezia Borgia (presenting one of the first sympathetic portraits of Borgia), through Catherine de Medici, Isabella of Castile and Marie Antoinette.

She wrote about the entire British monarchy from William the Conqueror through Queen Victoria. I learned about women that I had never heard of before: Dorothy Jordan (THE GODDESS OF THE GREEN ROOM), Hannah Lightfoot (SWEET LASS OF RICHMOND HILL), and Mary Robinson (PERDITA'S PRINCE). But my favorites by far were the books that she wrote about Charles II told through the eyes of the women in his life, from his very first mistress Lucy Walters through Nell Gwynn and Louise de Keroualle. I am not ashamed to say that I learned a lot of my English history from her books. Every writer who writes historical fiction, owes a debt to her meticulously researched books. By the time of her death in 1993 while traveling on a cruise ship somewhere between Greece and Egypt, she had 100 million books in print. All told she wrote about 200 novels.

According to Wikipedia, she was born Eleanor Burford in 1906 (or maybe 1903, no one is quite sure) in the Royal Borough of Kensington in London. She inherited her love of reading from her father who was an odd-job man. She left school at 16, and got a job with a jeweler in Hatton Garden. In her early twenties, she married George Hibbert, a leather merchant who also shared her love of books. She started writing in the 1930’s but didn’t have her first book published until 1941. It was an editor at a newspaper who steered in her the direction of romance when she applied for a job as a writer. Her first novels were published under her maiden name. By the 1960’s, she had published 32 works of romantic fiction. She was very secretive about her life, and it was a carefully guarded secret in the publishing world that she was the woman behind all three pseudonyms.

Thanks to Crown and their Three Rivers Press imprint, many of her Jean Plaidy books are now coming back into print in handsome trade editions. No longer will those of us who love her books have to read our tattered old copies or take them out of the library. Now there are Victoria Holt books starting with THE MISTRESS OF MELLYN being reissued by St. Martin’s Press, bringing her novels to a new generation of readers. I am not the only one who loves Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt. The blog Plaidy’s Royal Intrigue ( is devoted to the Queen of Historical Fiction’s royalty series.♥

BIO:   Elizabeth Kerri Mahon is a native New Yorker, professional actress, and a former President of RWA NYC. She's also the author of Scandalous Women -- chosen one of the 100 Most Awesome Blogs for History Junkies by Best Elizabeth’s non-fiction book, based on her blog, SCANDALOUS WOMEN, was just bought by Penguin Putnam, with a publication date of 2011.


  1. It is wonderful that Victoria Holt's books are being re-released. I haven't read anything by her in years. I'll have to add her to my reading list, especially MISTRESS OF MELLYN. Thanks for keeping us informed. And, happy birthday!

  2. What a rich post, Elizabeth - filled with details and titles for Victoria! I loved her Gothics and had learned only much later that she "was" Jean Plaidy - whose historical "fictionograhpies" were much loved in my house. Thanks for always having the most in-depth info on the best lady authors (and I use the term "lady" in the honorable sense!). I've got a whole new shopping list now!

  3. Victoria Holt and her alter ego Phillipa Carr were my favorite authors growing up. They were my introduction to romance. I am ashamed to say I've never read her books as Jean Plaidy but I hope to recify that very soon.

    Thanks for posting about her, Elizabeth. Happy Birthday and I hope you are having a grand time at the Lady Jane Salon.

  4. I love Victoria Holt. And Phyllis Whitney and Mary Stewart (my all time favorite author). I have a copy of The Shivering Sands -- my favorite of Holt's books. When I first got published my gift to myself was to find and buy copies of all of Mary Stewart's books (even found one published in England only I hadn't read). And along the way came across Holt books and rediscovered my love for her stories.

  5. What a wonderful post, Elizabeth! More than any other writer, Victoria Holt was my inspiration for deciding to become a writer "when I grew up." I loved the Plaidy historicals, of course, and the gothics written under the Holt brand as well. Through them, I learned about opal mining in Australia and fishing villages in Cornwall and cool stuff e.g., in India gifting someone with a peacock feather is meant not as a blessing but as a curse.

    When English History came 'round in the eighth grade, I was star of the class. Thanks to Ms. Holt, I didn't have to memorize timelines or facts. I just knew them. The stories, the history, was in my blood.

    But my all time favorites of her novels were and are the books in the Daughters of England Series penned under the Phillippa Carr moniker. Every Saturday I would bug my dad to drive me to our local library branch where I would return my book from the previous week and of course pick up a new one. I was a kid, 12, when I started reading the series, in succession, of course, and in my 30's when I found and read the last one, set post World War II. In the 90's, I made it my mission to find and purchase every single book in the series. Several, such as MIRACLE AT ST. BRUNO's and WITCH FROM THE SEA and SARABAND FOR TWO SISTERS, I've re-read. Those books have pride of place on my keeper shelf. They stand the test of time--and then some.

  6. It was such a joy for me to write about Victoria Holt. So much of my love for English history and history in general was enhanced by reading her books. It certainly added to my Anglophilia! I urge anyone who hasn't read her Philippa Carr books to seek them out because they are wonderful. Her books were such a comfort to me growing up. Hopefully new readers will pick up her gothics.

  7. OMG!... you ain't even going to believe this, but that is the first Romance I ever read. I was in the sixth grade and I went to the library and told the librarian what I liked to read.I said: "Old Stuff with love in it." And she said "I have just the thing," and handed me a copy of THE MISTRESS OF MELLYN. It hooked me on romances forever...
    Thank you for a wonderful profile and memory.


  8. Elizabeth, I bought a second-hand copy of Mistress of Mellyn recently, published in 1960. Of course I had read it long since, but thought I would just dip in a little here and there for auld lang syne. You won't believe this, but even knowing the story, I couldn't put the book down, and read it cover-to-cover. Those earliest novels set in Cornwall are my favorites. One thing I've learned from them is that you can take a non-romantic setting, look at it through your mental romantic filter, and turn it into something evocative and atmospheric. I was sitting on the beach at St. Ives one time, and the tide came in and took my sneakers out to sea. Not romantic at all--I had to trek around Cornwall in flip-flops. But it made me think of all those Cornish novels--Daphne du Maurier's, Winston Graham's Poldark series, Victoria Holt--where the sea is almost a character in itself. So much can be done with it in fictions. Great post! Elizabeth Palladino

  9. Sorry for the typo in the last line. It should be "fiction." Elizabeth Palladino