Jane Aiken Hodge’s Gothic Romances: More Than Just A Girl And Her Castle

In 1971, Time Magazine Arts Editor Martha Duffy made an observation about the increasing sales of romantic fiction. “What sells is the author’s name on the jacket and that illustration showing a girl and a castle.”  

images-2The key part about the above paragraph is the date. 1971

n187091As I read that quote, a flood of memories rushed through me, transporting me back to middle school. It’s there, in between braces, scoliosis checks, and Latin declensions, that I discovered Mary Stewart, Eleanor Hibbert (aka Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, and Philippa Carr), Anya Seton, and Phyllis Whitney. Like my daughter who devours YA paranormal romances and dystopian stories, I was once addicted to romantic suspense and gothic romances.


It’s possible my honestly-acquired addiction to suspense and gothics came from reading Daphne Du Maurier and the Bronte sisters at too young an age, but by the time I was fourteen I had gone through all of the books these women had written up until then and I was desperate.

Unfortunately, in the late seventies and early eighties most of the romance novels were too adult for my tastes. I had no interest in the man actually doing anything with the heroine. I was happy if the hero stayed in the creepy castle, acting broody and threatening.


As my daughter says, “The heroine can think about the boy, see the boy infrequently, and yearn for the boy. She can even talk about the boy with her girlfriends while trying on shoes. But the boy must STAY in the castle in the woods.”

And at that age, not only was I desperate for something to read, I had the same need to keep the boy in the woods.

So bodice-rippers were out.

One day, after another not-so-great math test, I hid in the library. The librarian, who knew me by name, came over. After a few minutes of moaning about stupid math and nothing to read, she took my test and wrote down four names on the back.

  Jane Aiken Hodge

Jill Tattersall

Dorothy Eden

Barbara Michaels

I went on to read every book these women wrote and fell in love with romantic suspense all over again. One of these prolific romantic suspense authors is Jane Aiken Hodge.

UnknownThe daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken and sister to the children’s novelist Joan Aiken, Jane Aiken was born in the U.S., raised in the U.K, read English at Oxford and received a master’s degree from Radcliffe College, Harvard University. She went on to marry twice, but it was her second husband, the poet and journalist Alan Hodge, who encouraged her to write novels.

images-1In 1948, as a young mother, she read film scripts for Warner Brothers and started writing romances. But it wasn’t until her two children were in school that she began seeking publication. After years of rejections, she published her first novel Camilla in 1961 in Ladie’s Home Journal in installments. That serialized story late eventually became the novel Marry in Haste. In 1963, she published her first book Maulever Hall. Maulever Hall is a testament to her admiration of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.

images-8Known for her historical and contemporary romantic suspense stories, contemporary thrillers, and non-fiction work, Jane Aiken Hodge wrote over 40 books between 1961 and 2003. Her novels bore her trademarked pacing and unique mixture of suspense, mystery, and gothic elements. Throughout her career, she wrote books set in what she called the borderland–that line between mystery and romance novel. In her last novels, her mysteries became thrillers. This invisible line–this borderland–made her “gothic romantic suspense” voice unique. Even though she died in 2008 at the age of 92, her contemporaries, historicals, and non-fiction works are still available.

images-6But the two things which made Ms. Hodge stand out in the realm of romance fiction were her heroines and where she set her stories.

In an age of weak, retiring beauties, her heroines took charge of the their situation and tried to change it. Although our standards for kick-butt women have changed, almost impossibly so, fans considered Jane Aiken Hodge a “feminist writer” for her time.

51eb1XGkz-L._SL500_SS500_Her settings were also different. Instead of castles in Cornwall, she wrote about Savannah, GA during the Revolutionary War (Judas Flowering, Savannah Purchase), Russia during the Napoleonic Era (The Adventurers), and modern-day Portugal (The Winding Stair).

imagesJane Aiken Hodge is also known for her three highly-acclaimed non-fiction books about Jane Austen (Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen), Georgette Heyer (The Private World of Georgette Heyer), and the plight of the Regency Woman (Passion and Principle: Loves and Lives of Regency Women). All three are still in print and if you have any interest in Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, or the Regency, I highly recommend them.

But as teenagers grow, so do their tastes. And by the time I was in high school, my love affair with sweet gothics ended. Why is this, you ask? Because when I was sixteen my Aunt Eileen gave me a book for my birthday. Shanna. By Kathleen Woodiwiss. From that moment, the boy came out of the woods and I never looked back.

Now I’d love to know–do you (or did you) read gothic romances? What were your favorites?

About Sharon Wray

Sharon is a librarian who once studied dress design in the couture houses of Paris and is the author of the Amazon bestselling Deadly Force romantic suspense series.

Posted on January 22, 2013, in Author Spotlight, book recommendations, Sharon Wray and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 43 Comments.

  1. Sharon, what an interesting, fun post. I really enjoyed being taken back in time to all those gothic romances. Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt were my favorites, but I can’t remember any specific book titles. I love that when you came out of your ‘gothic phase’ you discovered Kathleen Woodiwiss. I have all of her books on a special shelf in my office. My favorites were Ashes in the Wind and A Rose in Winter.

  2. I still have all of my original Kathleen Woodiwiss novels as well. I LOVED A Rose in Winter. I think it might be my favorite. I tried to get my daughter to read Victoria Holt, but she had a really tough time understanding why the heroines didn’t ask more questions, do more research on google, or pull out her cell phone to call a cab. I thought she was joking, but I truly think she can’t comprehend a world before the Internet or cell phones!

    • HA! Although it’s true. I’m having a harder and harder time reading Sue Grafton because her heroine is stuck in the mid-80’s where a fax machine is the latest-greatest.

    • Oh my gosh, that’s so funny about your daughter!

      • Funny, yes–but can also get annoying in that teenager-knows-all sort of way. But I can’t blame her too much. I sometimes forget what life was like without cellphones and Wi-Fi! 🙂

        • My BIL does not own a cell phone. Brilliant rocket scientist kind of guy and was the first person I knew with an iPad, is a techno-geek etc.

          But has no interest in a cellphone. We were supposed to pick him up at the airport over Christmas and were running late…I had to send an email and hope he looked at his iPad!

          I can’t fathom living without a cellphone! (Even though mine usually isn’t anywhere near me when it rings…)

  3. As a middle schooler, I loved Anya Seton’s books, particularly Green Darkness. Sharon, did you read that one? Not only did it have all the elements of Gothic romances, it also had time travel back to Tudor England.

    • I read Green Darkness so many times the library I borrowed it from told me I had to wait at least a month in between check-outs. I also loved Avalon which was my second favorite. I tried to get my daughter to read Anya Seton, but had no luck. Apparently, the world didn’t get interesting until the year she was born in 1999!

  4. This was a great post! I want to go back and read all Jane’s books. I confess, I never have! And for someone who adores Victoria Holt, that’s a sad thing to confess!!

    I wonder if she’s on Kindle? I’ll definitely check. Thanks, Sharon. And I love your boy-in-the-woods metaphor. So apropos!!!

    • I don’t know if she’s on Kindle. I’m not even sure who owns the rights to those books now that she’s passed. That’s a great question. Most of my copies were the ones I had as a teenager or those I picked up in used bookstores throughout the years. I do know her books sell for quite a lot of money on eBay if they are in good condition.
      I know you’re a Mistress of Mellyn girl, but I know you’d enjoy her as long as you keep in mind what the world was like waaaaaay back then when we were in high school.

      I love that metaphor as well–but I have to give credit to Ellen for voicing it!

    • If she’s not on Kindle the indie bookstore down the street has SHELVES of old paperbacks and hardcovers, ALL suspense, mystery, thriller genre. They ship.

      Store is called: Murder by the Book. We had the marketing mgr on last year. http://www.MurderBooks.com

  5. Yes, they were pretty good

  6. I agree with Lena and Kieran, I was a Victoria Holt fanatic. Have not heard of Jane but her covers/titles immediately conjure up the teenager in me who preferred curling up on the sofa turning to that first page in giddy anticipation.

    Here is my hypothesis: If the younger generation had their own gothic romance writers there would be a lot less black nail polish, inky hair and body piercing. Cuz every girl needs to get her goth out. We just did it escaping into pages. 🙂

    Fun blog, Sharon! Always a treat to talk about novels and life ‘way back when’.

    • I’m always so unsure about writing these posts because I don’t want to make us feel old–but I do love re-visiting these authors I loved so much. I love your hypothesis, too. I agree that maybe if the current crop of Goth girls read Gothic novels instead of acting out Gothic novels there’d be a lot less drama and more lifetime readers.

      As a HUGE Victoria Holt fan, I wouldn’t have known about JAH either if I hadn’t read every VH novel at least three times and had nothing else to read. I think my favorite VH novel is Bride of Pendorric because that’s the first Gothic Romance I ever read.

  7. Love this post, Sharon. I was a big Mary Stewart fan, but didn’t really get into the others. And now, I definitely like the boy to come out of the woods! 😉

    • Yes, I prefer boys out of the woods as well! But it did my mother’s heart good to hear my 13-year old wanting him to stay in the castle. If he stays in the woods until college, I’ll be even happier!

      I know you’d enjoy JAH, but you have to read her older gothics with an understanding of the time in which she wrote. Her later stories definitely have a thrilleresque aspect to them, years before the thriller genre took off. In my humble opinion, that makes her the mother of romantic thrillers (while Mary Stewart is still the mother of RS). It’s nice to know we have so many accomplished women who’ve made the same journey we’re on now!

  8. I just checked Amazon. Bloomsbury Reader began releasing JAH titles in July of 2012. The pricing is a little odd…some are $1.99 and others are $7.99. Five titles are available: Rebel Heiress, Strangers In Company, Leading Lady, A Death in Two Parts, Wide Is The Water.

    Sharon, did you read any of these?

    • I read them all, Krista. If I had to choose one from the above list, I would probably read Rebel Heiress. It’s a historical suspense, but I loved it when I first read it.
      From what I remember, A Death in Two Parts was written later in JAH’s life and had more thriller aspects than RS aspects but I really enjoyed that one too.
      My two absolute favorites were Savannah Purchase and Judas Flowering. Both took place in the south during the Revolutionary War and I can still remember most of the plots because they were love triangles and hidden identities–two of my favorite historical premises.
      I can’t wait to hear what you think after you read JAH!

  9. I devoured these books as soon as they were published. Dorothy Eden was my favorite and I was so sad when she died. same with Helen McIntyre and all the rest that were mentioned. There aren’t alot of authors like in those days. I miss them.

  10. I’m not familiar with Helen McIntyre–I definitely have to check her out. I also loved Dorothy Eden. Winterwood was my absolute favorite book of hers. I miss these authors as well. 🙂

  11. Oh my goodness, did this bring back memories, Sharon! You have the extraordinary gift of bringing me right back to high school and to those days of first exploration. I love these posts where we get to know you so much better.

    My first/favorite book was Victoria Holt’s On the Night of the Seventh Moon. Wow, I thought it was so scandoulous then, but till this day, I cannot part with it. More than the words or story (rather tame by today’s standards) are tied in all these feelings of discovery– a new genre to love, relationships between adult men and women, betrayal in ways that were utterly unimaginable by me (then and even now), and the strength of a woman to make her life better.

    As Bob Hope used to say, thanks for the memories!


  12. It’s so funny you mention Night of the Seventh Moon. I almost chose that one as my favorite Victoria Holt, but had to go with Bride of Pendorric because that was the first one I read. But I was also shocked by the Night of the Seventh Moon. I’d never read a story like that and I still think it’s one of VH’s more scandalous premises. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  13. I read everything Mary Stewart wrote, absolutely fell in love with the Merlin series and still have those original books on my shelf (very tattered and torn). But by then, I was also reading Harlequins and graduated early to Kathleen Woodwiess.

    Great post.

    • I loved that Merlin trilogy as well, Angi. I’m still surprised they were never made into movies. I wish I still had my copies but i doubt my daughter would read it anyway. Too “historical”. LOL 🙂

  14. Sharon, this post is fascinating! And I have to admit, I haven’t read a lot of Gothic romances…or so I thought. I wasn’t really sure what the criteria for Gothic was- so I googled…on my cell phone 🙂

    Jane Eyre and Rebecca are among my all time favorite novels, but here’s something interesting- apparently some of my favorite authors’ works are considered “Southern Gothic” – Harper Lee, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor for example.

    And did you know Louisa May Alcott wrote a gothic pot -boiler?! And Henry James, The Turn of the Screw is a gothic.

    And one of my FAVE authors Magaret Atwood is considered a Southern Ontario Gothic. Who knew?

    So apparently, I do love Gothics. I simply didn’t know what I was reading. I can’t wait to check out your clever librarian’s list of authors!

    Thank heaven for Wiki!

  15. I think it’s so funny you didn’t know you loved gothic romances, especially since Jane Eyre and Rebecca are two of your favorites. I do love the southern gothics and am happy to hear that Bell Books (or maybe Bell Bridge) is publishing a few modern southern gothics like Kimberly Brock’s The River Witch. (great book, btw!).

    I do wonder what you’d think of JAH’s gothics now, though. The world has changed so much since they were written.

    (and I love Wiki too!)

  16. Chiming in late, but both the post and the discussion bring back a lot of memories. I don’t remember Jane Aiken Hodge at all, but I’m sure I read all of Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and Phyllis Whitney (I picked up a few of Whitney’s after she passed at the age of 105, and they’re still good). I remember Helen McInnis’ espionage novels, too. Heck, I even read Mary Roberts Rinehart (famous for “Had I But Known” stories).

    I still read Grafton, with Kinsey stuck in the 80s, as well as Marcia Muller, who has let Sharon McCone sort of time-travel into the present day without comment. Author’s choice, I guess. As someone who remembers well life before cell phones and computers, I can appreciate either approach.

    • Late, but still welcome, Kay. I love writing these posts for the reasons you mentioned above–because talking about these authors make me remember why I became an author to start with.

  17. Thank you for writing about one of my favorite authors of all time, Jane Aiken Hodge. I can still remember the absolute overwhleming delight of finding a new book of hers when I scanned the racks at our local library or store,. I have read and re-read her books so many times that some fell apart, but just reading your article makes me want to read them all over again. I also shared them with my two daughters who love historicals as much as I do and they have become favorites of theirs as well. “Juana, how could you?” is still an inside joke between them.
    When I was able to finally accomplish a lifetime goal of traveling to the U.K., one of the most thrilling moments for my daughter and I was visiting The Mermaid Pub in Rye, England, and finding the Kipling poem “The Smugglers,” from which the title of “Watch the Wall, My Darling” was taken, painted on the back wall of the courtyard, It brought back that swashbuckling sense of adventure I always associated with her stories. I too read all the books you mentioned, and they are still to be found on my “favorites” shelf, along with all the other books mentioned by others as well and, of course, “Shanna” which “brought the boy out of the woods” with a forest fire! Those gothics were so moody and so intense and the emotions so gripping, yet were still “clean” enough to hand to my daughters as they moved into their teens. My daughter recently wrote a blog over her “ten favorite books” and six of the ten date back to this period. Literature today relys way too much on graphic sex and not nearly enough on quality writing. I so miss the subtle turn of a phrase, the clever irony and repartee, and the pure romance of those stories. I was drawn to those sassy characters, who weren’t content with being someone’s doormat, but led active and capable lives of their own. When I write, it is those writers I channel.

  18. MrsRowe1, I so agree with your statements. I also loved Jane Aiken Hodge stories, and was thrilled when I found one I had not read. I began reading them in high school, and I have now collected every story I could find. They are proudly displayed on my book shelf. Even though I am now an older lady, I read them still, because I am constantly disappointed when I see a story that looks interesting, only to be disgusted a few pages in by descriptions of graphic sex. To me, that is not romance, that is “mommy porn”. My favorite was, and continues to be “Watch the Wall My Darling”, probably because it was the first one I read. I also enjoyed Victoria Holt and Georgette Heyer, as well as Dorothy Eden and Phyllis Whitney.

    Thank you, Sharon, for your blog, dealing with this wonderful author.

    • Sherry Bradbury, those were favorite authors of mine as well. I also loved Madeleine Brent, who always had a little different tone, (probably because she was really a man!) Carola Salisbury and Jill Tattersall were also on my list for Gothics. Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels was another author I loved with her range of everything from lighthearted comedy to horror and suspense all mixed with a touch of romance. With the death of Mary Stewart in the news recently, I have been inspired to begin re-reading all of my older novels this summer. I took a short break to read a modern historical by Eloisa James, who is an author I like, but I realized how much more I enjoy those older stories. They were able to convey so many fine nuances in their writing which you rarely see in even the best authors today. They were written long enough ago that they seem more like period stories and don’t feel quite as dated like some authors writing at a slightly later time. I re-read a couple LaVyrle Spencer books and I cringed a little at how dated they were. The world has changed so much, but I am glad I remember what it was like before the days of cell-phones, computers, and all the forms of social media. The students I teach have never know a life without them and have trouble understanding historicals. One modern author I do enjoy is Meredith Duran. She does have sex scenes, but her plots are fresh and her dialogue is reminiscent of those sassy heroines of old. It is a pleasure to reminisce with a fellow book-lover!

  19. I just finished reading Philippa Carr’s Saraband for Two Sisters. I’d had it on my shelf for years and had never read it! I looked up Philippa Carr (and “saraband”–a Spanish dance!) because I thought she was also Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy, which she was. Then I clicked on Jane Aiken Hodge and found this website. I remember all these books being wildly popular and wondered if anyone still reads them. I also loved Barbara Michaels, Dorothy Eden, Phyllis Whitney, Daphne du Maurier, Norah Lofts, and Mary Stewart. Do you remember Frenchmen’s Creek? I can’t remember who wrote it, but I loved it.

    I can see that these books may seem tame to young women today, but since most of them had a historical setting, the lack of cell phones, etc. shouldn’t bother anyone! I do think it’s interesting that Sue Grafton kept her books set in the 80’s, and I would think it would be hard to write that way now that we do have all the technology that would help Kinsey solve her mysteries!

    I don’t know if any of you have read any of the Evan Tanner books by Lawrence Block, but he wrote the Tanner books back in the 60’s or 70’s and evidently got tired of doing it. When he wanted to bring Tanner back around 2000 or so, he woke him from a cryogenic sleep and had him deal with all the changes of the past 40 years or so. Very interesting!

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting discussion. I just looked at the dates, so I’m pretty late getting in on the talk, but still…

  20. Reading your article I realize that it is not surprising kids nowadays have access to all kinds of borderline pornography in schools and libraries–such as Looking for Alaska, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rainbow Party. It seems American kids have been reading without the supervision of their parents for a long time. Tsk, tsk, tsk…

  21. Judith Koveleskie

    I remember reading Camilla in Ladies Home Journal when I was 15. It is a story that I have never forgotten. I tracked down Marry In Haste at a library and re-read it after all these years. Now I plan to read more of her books. Thanks for sharing.

    • I have actually been lucky enough to visit the settings of some of Hodge’s stories in the last few years. I re-read “Savannah Purchase” in Savannah, and scouted around for her inspirations. I stayed in the hotel made from the old Cotton Exchange that Hyde frequented. I just returned from a trip to England which included the fabulous Mermaid Inn in Rye and experienced one of the storms with gales described in “Watch the Wall, my Darling” and an employee took us down to the 9th century cellars and showed us the bricked up door the smugglers would have used to escape. A tour of Nelson’s flagship, “Victory” brought to mind, “Shadow of a Lady”. It was just as wonderfully exciting as I had always imagined when I read those stories as a young teen. My daughters have read them too and we were able to share and reminisce. All of my favorite writers from that time have now passed away and I want to cry when I think I will never read a new book written by one of them again.

  22. Sherry Robbins

    I really enjoyed reading this blog and the comments. I too read Camilla in “Ladies Home Journal” when I was 12 and fell in love with Gothic romances leading to all-time favourite, “Nine Coaches Waiting” by the inimitable Mary Stewart and of course the prototypical Jane Eyre. But the truly scary Gothic I read was Moura by Virginia Coffman. I was babysitting cousins that summer and I had to read the novel holding the two-year-old. I am going to share this with her on Facebook! I only just now realized that Moura was the beginning of a series about Vampires, way before Anne Rice. I wonder if she was influenced by that LHJ serialization. Thank you for writing this blog. It is such a trip down memory lane.

Thrill us with your wit...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: