When English author Eleanor Hibbert died aboard a cruise ship 25 years ago on January 18, 1993, she didn’t die alone. Buried at sea somewhere between Athens and Egypt in the Mediterranean, Hibbert took with her at least eight pseudonyms, including Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, and Philippa Carr, to name only her three best-known.
Hibbert’s long career produced 200 books that were translated into 20 languages, selling 100 million copies. After her death, her literary estate was valued at nearly 9 million pounds (which is almost $13 million US dollars today!).
Hibbert’s final cruise was her usual solution for escaping cold, dark English winters. Her exotic destinations often turned up later in her books, and although she’d break for games of chess and on-board entertainment, she always packed her typewriter.
Certainly one of the most prolific authors ever awarded the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, Hibbert didn’t come to the United States to accept it. “She was rather a shy person,” says Rita Clay Estrada, an RWA founding member, “but she was a strong woman at a time when there were not many strong women, and she showed it through her writing.”
As a teenager, Estrada remembers accompanying her mother to meet Hibbert at an Air Force base in Europe when her father was stationed there. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” says Estrada, for whom the RWA’s RITA Award, recognizing outstanding published work, is named. “She had a lovely smile; she was genteel. We talked in general about writing. She was a sweetheart.”
Estrada’s mother was the late Ruth Gallagher, author of three women’s historical fiction novels and also a founding member of the RWA. Estrada remembers her mother once telling her, “If you ever want to know how to build a story, read Hibbert. She sets up the anticipation as you read. You don’t know how it is going to end, so you keep reading until the end.”
Estrada adds: “Hibbert had the pattern down right. And she did it without sex.” It was only after Americans began writing romance novels that they started to contain “a little more intimacy. Because that’s America for you,” says Estrada.
Hibbert personified the spunky heroines she would become famous for. Born in 1906, she grew up close to the London dockyards where her father was a laborer. She learned typing, shorthand, and languages in business college, then supported herself while exploring history’s past glories with visits to Tudor and Baroque palaces and stately homes. When she married an older, book-loving man, George Hibbert, she was able to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
Success did not come easily. She penned nine long contemporary (unpublished) novels before an editor suggested she try something that sells: romantic fiction. Under her maiden name, Eleanor Buford, she wrote a number of these before putting her love of history into her Jean Plaidy novels. Featuring real royals such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, these books (91 in all) were lauded for being well researched, accurate, and well written.
In 1960, the first of 32 novels written as Victoria Holt, The Mistress of Mellyn revived the moribund Gothic romance novel. A Jane-Eyer type of suspense story complete with governess, haunted mansion and handsome, troubled master, the book also earned Hibbert 100,000 pounds.
And writing as Philippa Carr from 1972 to 1993, she followed generations of English women through historic events, from the Reformation through World War II.
How did she keep all her personas separate? “I only do one at a time,” Hibbert told Romantic Times magazine in 1981. “I couldn’t switch from Victoria Holt to Jean Plaidy to Philippa Carr just like that!”
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