I’ve heard very mixed reviews about Jean Plaidy and her historical novels. Some claim that she is their favorite historical fiction author EVER. Some complain that she is a terrible writer.
Jean Plaidy (real name Eleanor Hibbert) was an extremely prolific author who published scores of books throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Her historical novels were very popular with the reading public, and she dealt with many time periods and dynasties including the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Georgians.
For my first foray into Jean Plaidy, I selected the first volume of her fourteen-book Plantagenet Saga entitled The Plantagenet Prelude. Part I tells the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, her marriage to Louis of France, her dissatisfaction with him and her notorious love affairs, and her subsequent marriage to Henry Plantagenet. Part II relates the growing estrangement between Eleanor and Henry but also focuses on the rocky relationship between Henry and the Archbishop Thomas Becket.
One commonly touted rule of writing is, “Show, don’t tell.” This rule is not something that Jean Plaidy adhered to. Throughout the book, she constantly tells us what we should think about the characters, sometimes reiterating the same thing multiple times over the course of a few chapters. Eleanor is “sensual.” Matilda is a “virago.” Sometimes her assessments fail to jive with the few anecdotes that she reveals about the characters. Even though she continually tells us that Thomas Becket, as chancellor, is very “amusing” he seems much more of a bore than an entertaining fellow.
As I was reading the first part of the book, I found myself frequently wondering about the historical accuracy of some of the events. I was willing to accept the fact that Eleanor might have had an affair with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, since I had read elsewhere that there were rumors to that effect. But when Eleanor struck up a liaison with Saladin the Turk, my skepticism got the better of me. Looking up the facts, I learned that Saladin would have been eleven years old at the time Eleanor was in the Holy Land. Hmmm. However, I also learned that Jean Plaidy did not manufacture the story out of thin air. A medieval romance, written at least a century after Saladin’s life, painted a love interest between the two, and it is on this source that Plaidy draws to spin her spurious yarn.
The second half of the story, Henry’s conflict with Thomas Becket, was one that I was quite familiar with (see The Life and Death of Saint Thomas Becket), so I was in a better position to evaluate Plaidy and her historicity. In this section I found that Plaidy adhered to the primary source material (almost to a fault), many times quoting directly from the medieval chroniclers. This sometimes created an odd discontinuity between the pieces of dialogue she invented and the pieces of dialogue she lifted from source material. Once again, I discovered that Plaidy was indiscriminate in the use of her sources, intermingling apocryphal stories from a later period (like the tale that claimed Becket’s mother was a Saracen princess) with eyewitness accounts of Becket’s life.
Although it may seem that I am complaining about Plaidy’s choice of sources, all in all, she was far more accurate than many other historical fiction writers are. That said, I must acknowledge that her writing style is somewhat tedious. I doubt that I will be able to make my way much further through her massive Plantagenet Saga. But at the same time, I have no regrets about finishing The Plantagenet Prelude. It’s always good to know what’s out there in the realm of historical fiction.