At the peak of her career, author Victoria Holt was the queen of the gothic suspense novel. I read her books as a teenager, but then moved on to discover Georgette Heyer, and never looked back.
Until this year. As I’ve already recounted in a previous post, I came across a small treasure trove of romantic suspense novels at an estate sale and plunked down my cash. Among them were a few Victoria Holt novels, including The Shivering Sands from 1969.
Smooth as chocolate, serene as a sunrise, beautifully written.
The Shivering Sands draws obviously upon Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but that is typical of the genre. It’s a pleasant read, what I like to call comfort reading. It’s easy to follow the story. The characters are vivid and complex, usually hiding secrets. The setting is a big old forbidding house in the English countryside. The heroine’s danger grows to the final confrontation with menace from an unexpected source.
These are common tropes of the gothic romantic suspense story.
Yes indeed, I remember gothic mania in the 1970s. And “mania” is the correct word for it. Women readers were crazy for gothics. Every paperback rack in every grocery and drugstore held novels covered by gray-toned, shadowy images of a girl fleeing a dark, brooding house in the background with perhaps one lighted window.
Victoria Holt’s first novel, The Mistress of Mellyn, appeared in 1960 and it became an instant bestseller. It revived the gothic genre, and by 1970 gothics outsold all other genres in paperback fiction. In 1975, a Holt paperback first printing was 800,000 copies, which is a pretty darned good print run, even by today’s standards.
I also remember when gothics died by 1980, supplanted by the bodice rippers, a less-than-kind term for historical romances featuring explicit sex scenes instead of the clean romantic yearnings within gothic drawing rooms.
I used to attend a writer’s conference held annually at the University of Oklahoma, and during the ’80s when an editor or literary agent would finish speaking and open the session for questions, the same elderly woman–clutching her cane in one hand and a manuscript box in the other–would rise shakily to her feet and ask, “Are gothics being published again?”
The crowd would groan, the conference promoters would smile behind their hands, and the editor or agent would courteously reply, “No.”
The world moved on. The bedroom door was flung open. Gothics were left behind in the dust of near-forgotten fiction.
And yet … last week, I enjoyed The Shivering Sands. Its stately pacing did not make me impatient. The heroine and hero seemed quaintly old-fashioned, but the setting is not modern-day so I didn’t mind. It was a relief not to have to skip over lurid anatomical grapplings. And if the heroine’s “investigation” of her sister’s disappearance was more passive and ineffective than modern taste might prefer, well, who cares?
I’ve read plenty of the modern heroines who stride into the world, kicking butt and getting things done. I’m not opposed to them–mind you–but sometimes they seem too strident, too shrill, too . . . unfeminine.
As for Ms. Holt, let’s unmask her.
According to Wikipedia, her real name was Eleanor Hibbert, an Englishwoman born in 1906 who died in 1993. She began writing in the 1930s after her marriage enabled her to stop working, and her first novel was published in 1941. Altogether, she wrote under eight names, and by the end of her career she’d published 191 books, including 100-million copies sold worldwide in 20 languages.
Her work was praised by critics for its accuracy, quality of writing, and attention to detail.
Here are her pseudonyms. See if you recognize any of them:
Jean Plaidy–fictionalized novels about European royalty
Victoria Holt–gothic romantic suspense
Phillippa Carr–multi-generational family sagas
Eleanor Burford, Elbur Ford, Kathleen Kellow, Anna Percival, and Ellalice Tate.
Mrs. Hibbert got things done by writing seven days a week, and she usually completed 5,000 words by lunchtime.
Then she filled the rest of her day by researching, going over her manuscript, and answering fan mail. In the evenings she played chess.
When she grew older, she escaped the cold, damp English winters by going on worldwide cruises to all sorts of exotic ports. And she kept to her writing routine while aboard.
She died at sea at the age of 86, enroute between Greece and Egypt, and she was buried at sea.
In 2006, her publisher reprinted four Victoria Holt novels, including The Shivering Sands. Holt said that she preferred to write about “women of integrity and strong character” who were “struggling for liberation, fighting for survival.”
That kind of theme doesn’t go out of fashion, does it? Change the setting, and modernize the characters, and you still have a gripping story readers can relate to.
Her reputation and written legacy remain well deserved.