Victoria Holt and Reading Like an English Major

When you have a PhD in English it can be embarrassing to admit to what you really read. If you walk through my house (which I dearly hope you don’t considering I’m currently taking messiness to whole new levels), you’ll see shelves and shelves of books. Poetry, classical novels, works of literary and cultural theory, award winning contemporary novels, anthologies of various natures, biographies, and so forth.

Philip Larkin said that he put his most boring books out where people could see them and kept the ones he didn’t want people to borrow held back. Maybe he was just talking about the girly magazines he was posthumously taken to task for, but I still like the idea.

At the Eudora Welty House, there are shelves and shelves of great books, and there are stacks of paperbacks sitting around hither and yon. She loved Agatha Christie, and she once won an award from the Mystery Writers Association for being their “Reader of the Year.” At the time of her death, she had her Pulitzer Prize in a box in the closet, but her tacky ceramic raven for being a famous reader of mysteries was on display in an upstairs bedroom.

My point being…Eudora Welty read everything. She wasn’t a reading snob, and neither did she shy away from difficult works. She was a consummate consumer of the written word.

This is also how I would define myself. The stuff I don’t mind anyone knowing I’ve read is out on the shelves, but poke around in closets and such, and there are boxes and bags of books I hope I don’t ever have to own up to. It’s embarrassing, but I really will read anything. I think that only makes me a stronger reader and a stronger writer.

I became a journalism major in college because I loved to write. I became an English major because I loved to read. I was in graduate school before writing became as important as reading to my life as an English major, but all the way through school I balanced the two, identifying myself as both a writer and a reader.

I could say I was led to thinking of myself in this way by the set of Reader’s Digest junior classics that I read my way through around the age of 12. I did enjoy them. There’s no doubt. But I waited breathlessly each week for the arrival of the book mobile and its fascinating jumble of paperbacks. It wasn’t Shakespeare, and it wasn’t Faulkner that made me want to devote my life to words. At least not entirely. I have to also give a little nod to Victoria Holt for the pleasure.

There’s nothing quite like a 1970s version of Gothic romance. Recently, I’ve rediscovered that as St. Martin’s has been slowly re-releasing titles by Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert who wrote under the names Victoria Holt, Philippa Carr, and Jean Plaidy. In addition to romantic suspense, she wrote historical fiction, and I can thank her for excelling in many a history essay exam. I never cared much about memorizing dates and facts in history classes, but I understood historical concepts easily because I already had narratives and characters in my head telling me their stories.

If you were ever the kid who told the book mobile lady you were checking out grown up books for your mother and then stayed up late at night reading under the covers with a flashlight (not admitting to anything personally, Mom), take a swing through the book section at Target from time to time looking for the newly re-released Victoria Holt paperbacks.

These do not have the explicit romantic scenes that today’s variety of historical romantic suspense has (not that I read that trash to even know what it’s like, Mom). They’re actually safe for a 12-year-old to read.

What they do have is quietly measured prose weaving intricate story lines in a manner that slowly but surely builds real tension. And, okay, they also have the requisite moments of slight melodrama built in, but let she who has never watched a daytime TV show cast the first stone.

I love Victoria Holt books, and I’m willing to admit it. They aren’t high art, but they are more solid works than most of what is sold for quick paperback reads today.

English degrees, especially graduate degrees, do somewhat tend to engender literary elitism. If I could filter out other people with English degrees from reading my confession to loving Gothic romance, maybe I would. It’s my contention, however, that the best readers and the best writers are not those who have read the most impressive books, but those who have devoured the biggest variety of books. It’s the consumption of a wide range of styles, genres, moods, voices, and subjects that teaches you how to really live among words.

If you don’t buy that particular theory of mine, that’s okay. It was good enough for Eudora, so it’s good enough for me.