The popular “her stories” of Jean Plaidy livened up a dull subject

History so often sounds like a long, boozy stag party to which the invitees have brought their cannons. Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland articulated what many of us feel about this tiresome subject: “the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good-for-nothing, and hardly any women at all.”

Popular historical fiction of the mid-20th Century, on the other hand, snapped up female readers by offering an embarrassment of queens and duchesses. As la nouvelle histoire turned our study of the past from war and conquest to farming, trade and social contracts, pop fiction kept pace with female inn-keepers, medicine women and escaped slaves who changed the course of human events.

Of those old writers who fleshed out Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts and a fair number of French monarchs and their mistresses, the most prolific and, I felt, readable was Eleanor Hibbert, writing under the pseudonym Jean Plaidy. Though she might make a revolution hinge on a warming pan, she didn’t dumb down the language or pretty up the settings of her novels. Characters drank ale because the water was filthy, most of them had pockmarks, their castles were hardly better than their barns, and no one below the rank of duchess ever took a bath.

These stories felt only slightly more fictional than history itself, and I liked to read dialogue that plausibly could have been spoken and events that plausibly could have occurred. Some recent historical novels, like Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright about William Blake, wear their research heavily. In others, it seems odd to read a feminist ethos retroactively introduced into historical events, as in Geraldine Brooks’ novels about the bubonic plague in England or the American Civil War.

But perhaps the stories written in the last century were equally anachronistic, with their emphasis on romantic love among aristocrats who in fact bedded each other either for profit or for policy. Every storyteller, it turns out, is a revisionist.

During the years I read those historical novels, I was too young to appreciate the solidity of Hibbert’s research. I was just amazed that she made us root for Anne Boleyn in one novel and then get on team Katharine of Aragon in the next. She pulled the same switcheroo with Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, or Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. She started from miniatures, medallions and Holbein portraits and boiled them into full-blooded female drama.

The Jean Plaidy novels are still in print, and the appetite for court intrigues and beheadings remains stout.

One writer who is treading that territory with distinction is Philippa Gregory, best known for The Other Boleyn Girl, The White Queen and The Red Queen. I’ve just read her prequel to these last two, The Lady of the Rivers, and so far Gregory seems a worthy successor to my old favourite. But just to make sure I’m not being a revisionist, I’ll have to visit Jean Plaidy’s books again.

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