Eleanor Hibbert Critical Essays

Hibbert, Eleanor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hibbert, Eleanor 1906–

Eleanor Hibbert, an English novelist, has written under several pseudonyms, including Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt. Although she has not always found critical acclaim, she has a large and admiring public for her numerous historical novels and Gothic romances. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

The neo-Gothic novel, ("a chilling tale of suspense in the Gothic tradition" the publisher calls this one), menace and romance in a castle's unused wing and on the island across the water from the castle—that is what "Menfreya in the Morning" offers. But it is a well told tale, with a consistently maintained point-of-view—the heroine tells the story so we know she must be alive at the end, don't we?—characterization is mostly expository, however, and dialogue is mostly set and unrevealing. The people are mostly the Menfreys: Bevil, Gwennan, Sir Endelion; then there are Harriet, the ugly duckling with the limp, the unmanageable hair, the homely face; Harriet's father and Aunt Clarissa; and Fanny, the lass that will shock the reader. Woven into the main fabric are romantic tales told about the earlier inhabitants of both castle and island. And there is a hint of a smuggling ring. Not everyone's mug of ale, perhaps. But fans of Miss Holt who admired her earlier novels (and they will be mostly feminine, we think) will not be disappointed in this newest one. (p. 72)

Oscar A. Bouise, in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of Scranton), May 15, 1966.

Always the same sort of jacket cover: a mysterious looking mansion; a woman fleeing in horror or dispair; a gibbous moon to emphasize the lights and shadows. And always the fascination of a well-told tale, however much it may impose on our credulity.

How does Victoria Holt keep it up? The title page [of "The Shadow of the Lynx"] tells us this is her tenth novel, some of the former ones having been on best-seller lists for a gratifying number of weeks.

For one thing, she gives us authentic details of the locales of her novels. This one is set in Australia and in rural England near Canterbury. Her characters may be prototypes: the unprotected and victimized female, the pseudo villain, an idealized father, but she makes the story vivid by little details; for instance, "the bee crawling up the window … flinging itself against the glass in a desperate effort to free itself … caught! like myself …" or again, on the first phase of her trip to Australia: "Looking out at the orchards of apples and pears which would not be ready for almost two months, and then I would be far away."…

It's a good story, with a surprising twist at the end; and Miss Holt has not been exactly fair to us in this, for she has furnished no clues or previous warning. But it's still good for two hours of recreational reading. (p. 172)

Sister M. Marguerite, R.S.M., in Best Sellers (copyright 1971, by the University of Scranton), July 1, 1971.

Jean Plaidy never fails to provide what may be termed 'a good read', and The Captive of Kensington Palace is a compulsive good read, being the chrysalis-to-butterfly story of a great queen….

Miss Plaidy does a laudable amount of homework on her material, which is peppered with fascinating anecdotes. One can read the book for enjoyment alone, or delve into its morsels of fact and history. Either way the interest remains. She does not explore her people in great depth, though they are very much alive. But this, I feel, is her intention. She paints a very broad canvas, and unless one spreads over a thousand pages, Tolstoy-fashion, one must either cut down on characters or limit the plumbing….

I wondered where Miss Plaidy's particular magic lay, as I closed the book on Victoria receiving news of her accession. And I came to the conclusion that her gift is that of being a literary confidante: the best kind of gossip, neither malicious nor lascivious, imparting news one enjoys hearing and remembering. One feels one has experienced a genuine heart-to-heart talk: refreshing, informative, enlightening, and always entertaining. (p. 84)

Jean Stubbs, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Jean Stubbs 1973; reprinted with permission), January, 1973.

"On the Night of the Seventh Moon" and "The Shadow of the Lynx" … are what one expects femfic (to coin a term) to be: solemn, humorless, passion-drenched, obsessed with some big father-lover-brother figure. The genre begins respectably with "Jane Eyre," a novel containing humor, irony, close observation, as well as Rochester, whose name suggests a city and a castle as well as a man, and if the 20th-century Brontesques are not really worth reading it is because they can't do as well as Emily. Or, Gothicwise, as well as Mary Shelley. Here is Victoria Holt: "The candlelight flickered on the spiral stone stairs which were worn in the middle by hundreds of years of use. I was almost at the turret. There was the door. My heart leaped with fear, the candle tipped sideways and almost went out. A figure was standing at the door of the haunted room." Or again: "We smiled at each other; and the love I saw in his eyes was a glow that warmed me. I knew then that I wanted to learn more of his sort of love … that love which does not look for sensation or continual excitement, the love that is built not on the shifting sands of violent passion but on the steady rock of deep and abiding affection." Reader, I married him. (pp. 2, 24)

New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1973.

I would not want you to think that ["Here Lies Our Sovereign Lord"] is a salacious book. Rather it deals objectively with intrigue at court, the clash of [King Charles II's] mistresses, the King's unfailing good nature and sound political sense. The reader can learn a great deal about the Restoration period in England with its scheming politicians such as Buckingham, Rochester, and Charles Sackville and with relatives like the King's brother, the Duke of York (later King James II) and his son, the Duke of Monmouth.

This historical romance comes as the final volume of a trilogy. The other two novels are "The Wandering Prince" and "A Health Unto His Majesty." Despite the author's grasp of the details of this period, her style is simple and at times colorless. Thereader should not expect juicy passages such as one would find in Kathleen Winsor's 1945 "Forever Amber," revived in 1971. Compare "Here Lies" with Marchette Chute's "Shakespeare of London" or her "Ben Jonson of Westminster." The story is authentic, more accurate history than brilliant fiction. (p. 141)

Nicholas J. McNeil, S.J., in Best Sellers (copyright 1973, by the University of Scranton), June 15, 1973.

The actual and real House of a Thousand Lanterns is the focal point of the entire novel ["The House of a Thousand Lanterns"]. It was supposedly located in Hong Kong and about it Victoria Holt weaves one of her incomparable and inimitable stories….

The hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, the quaint and curious customs, the festivals, all the obvious and hidden differences between East and West are carefully and colorfully painted. It is here that Miss Holt excels in her word pictures of the exotic East….

Written in a Victorian style, it is still a fascinating suspense story which keeps one guessing to the very end. The outcome is a distinctly different one than all the clues would seem to indicate. An excellent story, well written, with the color, sound, and customs of the East permeating everything. (p. 240)

Daniel F. Lawler, S.J., in Best Sellers (copyright 1974, by the University of Scranton), August 15, 1974.

As it is still considered a principle of sound reviewing to declare one's bias before anyone else has time to point it out, I begin by declaring mine where the romantic novelists of today are concerned: it is envy. They are in a strong, even impregnable, position. Their books sell by the hundred thousand and earn them a fortune. A great many people turn to them, love them, and write in to say so.

They are hardly ever reviewed seriously: that is, in a way which could be undermining. The national press quite often does a batch—before Christmas, for example—but the reviewer hardly ever goes beyond indicating the story and throwing in a critical word like "rich-textured", and the tone is usually one of cursory tolerance. They are more patiently reviewed by such regional papers as the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard, South Wales Argus and Blaydon and Tyneside Courier, and by journals of specialist interest such as Good Housekeeping and Catholic Herald, and all of these use supportive expressions like "captivating" or at a pinch "superbly professional"…. The doyennes, Jean Plaidy, Doris Leslie, Jane Lane, Catherine Cookson and Norah Lofts, are on to their thirtieth, fortieth, fiftieth book….

"Cupid is wingèd and doth range." Yes, indeed. The venue of these romantic encounters can be anywhere from thirteenth-century Wales to what the blurb calls "the ancient world"—that is, the siege of Troy…. In some cases the hero or heroine is a famous historical character: William the Conqueror (The Bastard King by Jean Plaidy)….

The where, who and when do not really matter in the least. History is a means to an end. It is not that the authors have failed to do their research. They have obviously worked very hard and they often make the reader work hard too. When Robert, Duke of Normandy lengthily explains his complicated family tree to his five-year-old son William in The Bastard King, William may have been able to follow it but I certainly could not. The trouble is that they have limited powers of selection: in go all the meticulous details, significant and insignificant.

These novelists have no sense of history whatever. They neither want it nor need it. To explore the relationship of an average human being with his political and social environment at some specific point in time is not their concern at all. As long as torrid kisses rain down, we might as well be in the Ice Age. It is a measure of their lack of concern that to apply to their work the standards and criteria of any authority on the historical novel, Georg Lukacs, for example, would make the applier and not the novelist look silly. (p. 48)

Patricia Beer, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Patricia Beer, 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 17, 1975.

[The Witch from the Sea is] a highly enjoyable tale involving murder, witchcraft, and romance. Set in Elizabethan England, when witch hunters hunted real witches, Carr's novel spans three generations of seafaring families: the Pennlyons, Casvellyns, and Landors. They intermarry quite often, murder frequently, and in general stir up a great deal of action. This intricate plot will entertain and surprise the most seasoned Gothic fan. Carr's characters are well drawn: somehow she has managed to breathe life into the vulnerable heroine, the lusty hero, the mysterious other woman. (p. 408)

Carol K. Casey, in Library Journal (reprinted from the February 15, 1975, issue of Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1975 by Xerox Corporation), February 15, 1975.

It would be difficult to dismiss out of hand Miss Plaidy's plump biography [Mary Queen of Scots: The Fair Devil of Scotland]. Miss Plaidy, a popular writer of historical fiction, makes no claims to original scholarship, and she follows the career of the unhappy queen energetically with all those intimate close-ups which have paced her other works. However, Mary's life was dotted with such dark tumultuous dramas and personages, that a biography requires precise scholarship and a cool head of such as say, Lady Antonia Fraser. Miss Plaidy in her eagerness to cover all the central mysteries in Mary's career avoids weighing evidence by syntactical side steps…. She is also apt to take chamois leaps into thin air as she tends to think that Catherine de Medici wanted the death of her son Francis, Mary's young husband: "in view of what is known of her character." And there are spates of simply bad writing…. Plaidy devotes a good deal of attention to Mary's formative years in France—as Dauphiness and briefly, Queen. Then follows the still nigh incredible tale of her two disastrous Scots marriages, murders and scandals, the abortive flights and the doomed journey to England. Plaidy indulges in headlong speculation concerning the "rape" of Mary by her third husband Bothwell, an event she thinks came before the Bothwell-plotted murder of second husband Darnley. "This was a woman who responded to his [Bothwell's] masculinity, who cried out a feeble No while her body was saying Yes." And so it goes. Again Mary is understood to have been too passionate and impetuous for survival and there are the inevitable comparisons with her cool "dear sister" Elizabeth. Loaded with illustrations, this is a comfortably upholstered structure of secondary sources—undoubtedly more than acceptable to Miss Plaidy's following. (p. 764)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1975 by The Kirkus Service, Inc.), July 1, 1975.

Cranking up a properly unpredictable yet comfortably romantic plot, grande dame Victoria Holt will lose none of her loyal following with this Gothic adventure set at the turn of the century [Lord of the Far Island]…. A nightmarish excursion in a dinghy and dicey hints of bits and pieces from the past, including a recurrent childhood dream, enable Ms. Holt to do her customary best with these delicious mysteries. (p. 57)

Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the July 14, 1975, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1975 by Xerox Corporation), July 14, 1975.