When I get interested in a historical figure, I like to read everything I can about him or her, so when I first became interested in Edward II, I promptly began to look for novels about him. The first I happened upon was The Follies of the King by Jean Plaidy.
Amazingly, this was the first time I’d heard of Jean Plaidy, probably because I came to historical fiction relatively late in life. To think of all those mass market Jean Plaidy paperbacks I could have bought in the 1970’s and 1980’s, if only I’d had the gift of foresight! Unfortunately, after I got out of college I tended to read only the classics, which was fine, and contemporary literary fiction, most of which was completely forgettable but which I dutifully read anyway. In fairness, the covers of a lot of Plaidy novels in those days were enough to scare off even non-literary-snobs: generically beautiful women in clinging garments being embraced by ruggedly handsome men against backdrops that often bore no resemblance at all to the contents of the book. If I saw the books at all, I probably dismissed them as historical romance and passed them by.
But with my first Jean Plaidy, The Follies of the King, I was hooked—and I was delighted when I soon learned that this was part of a whole series about the Plantagenets, including figures like Eleanor of Provence who seldom figure into historical fiction. Soon I was cruising for Plaidys on Amazon and e-Bay, and to my delight I found that some of her novels about the Tudors, like The Rose Without a Thorn and The Lady in the Tower, were back in print and that more were on the way.
Why did my first Jean Plaidy lead me to more and more? Plaidy isn’t a showy writer: those who want fireworks and gimmicks and snappy dialogue will be disappointed. Some of her novels indeed feel somewhat rushed; Plaidy, after all, was only one of several pennames used by the very prolific Eleanor Hibbert, and sometimes it’s all too clear that these books, especially some of the earlier Plantagenet ones, were written quickly. No, what I think draws me to Plaidy the most is the sympathy she manages to evoke for all of her characters, even the ones of whom I suspect she doesn’t approve of very much—like the characters in The Follies of the King. You can tolerate a lot from a writer who’s tolerant of her characters. It also helps that Plaidy wrote not only about ubiquitous figures like Anne Boleyn, but about less popular subjects such as the Georgian kings and their families.
Back around 2003, I had one Plaidy novel on my shelf; now I have over forty, from one of the earliest, Beyond the Blue Mountains (which turned up, of all places, in a stack of used books in my mother-in-law’s house), to my favorite Plaidy title, Gay Lord Robert. There are still a number of Plaidy novels I’ve yet to buy and/or read, for although I think fondly of my first Plaidy, I’ll be rather sad when I’ve finally read my last one.
Susan Higginbotham is author of The Traitor's Wife and Hugh and Bess. You can visit Susan's blog at Medieval Woman. Thanks for guest posting for us during Jean Plaidy Season.