August 07, 2013

Reclusive authors

J K Rowling’s recent outing as new writer Robert Galbraith has received masses of media coverage. And whether her book is good, bad or indifferent, it has been firmly trampled to death by the mighty reputation of Harry Potter and there’s not much she can do about it. She will find it extremely difficult to write another book in a different genre without some blabbermouth from her inner circle dying to tell the whole world she’s at it again. I don’t wonder she often wishes she lived in the pre-social media age when people bought books for their content and weren’t so obsessive about the personalities of writers.


It got me thinking about authors who have successfully negotiated the multi-genre field and not had to worry too much about readers dying to know every triviality about them.

One who immediately springs to mind accompanied me on an ocean voyage in the 1960s … OK, I’ll be honest, she didn’t actually share a cabin with me or dine at my table in the saloon, but I found out through scuttlebutt from one of the ship’s officers that she was on the same ship – up at the “pointy end” in First Class, while I shared a cabin with three other girls down in lowly “steerage”, or Tourist Class.

My informant told me that she sailed often on the P&O ocean liners around the world and wrote her books as she travelled. She didn’t socialise much with her fellow passengers, but loved the peace and quiet of writing in her cabin with her sole company her portable typewriter.

I was thrilled when I discovered who she was because she happened to be one of my favourite authors, Jean Plaidy (real name Eleanor Hibbert), and my love of historical fiction dates to reading her when I was just a girl. Only much later did I learn that she also wrote as Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr. These were her most famous aliases, but she had many others as can be seen from her biography.

But of course in those distant more respectful times, people’s privacy wasn’t to be breached at whim by fans and I would have never dreamed of intruding and asking the ship’s officer to arrange for an introduction. Just knowing she was in the vicinity, experiencing the same choppy weather and sights and sounds that I did, all while writing another book that I was bound to enjoy, was exciting enough for me.

What book was it? There is no way of knowing for sure, but Eleanor Hibbert was interviewed several times as she passed through Sydney by the magazine Australian Womens Weekly and a 1967 article suggests that while she was at sea she wrote mainly as Victoria Holt. The publication date about a year after my own voyage makes me think it could have been this one (which I have definitely read!)





Eleanor Hibbert, copyright Australian Womens Weekly 1982

It was inevitable that my reading tastes evolved in time and I read less of her work. I’m not sure if her books would appeal to me today as they once did, but she still remains an inspiration. She had extraordinary self-discipline to maintain an extremely successful career as an author without being over-scrutinised or having to endure invasive media coverage or being made to justify the use of pseudonyms. 

It was a poignant moment when I learned in January, 1993, that Eleanor Hibbert had died on a cruise liner and was buried at sea. 

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