Phyllis A. Whitney, Gothic Writer Supreme
Today we mark the passing of a remarkable romance writer, Phyllis A. Whitney, at age 104. Ms. Whitney had a long and distinguished writing career, finally retiring when she was in her nineties. This included being named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1988. Had there been an organization devoted to romance writing during the heyday of her career, no doubt she would have been awarded its highest honor as well. For although she was the author of numerous books for adults, teens, and children, many of which could be called mysteries, her biggest success and influence was as a writer of Gothic romances. No history of mid-20th century romances would be complete without her.
I first read Phyllis A. Whitney when I was a kid stuck in the hospital. It was one of her children’s mysteries, either Mystery of the Black Diamonds or Mystery on the Isle of Skye, both excellent stories for the young set. It wasn’t long before I graduated to her books for adults, which were a mix of period Gothic romances and modern romantic suspense. I think I started with Thunder Heights, an evocative tale of a young woman who comes as a long-estranged relative to a Hudson River mansion, then The Trembling Hills, happening during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Skye Cameron, about old New Orleans, and my favorite, which I’ve posted about before (including the cover), The Quicksilver Pool.
The setting of The Quicksilver Pool is Staten Island during the Civil War. It’s a memorable story of a new bride making a place for herself in an unfamiliar and somewhat hostile family during difficult times. I admired this heroine above all of Whitney’s, because although there was a romance, a lot of the book was about a woman improving the lives of her new family, righting wrongs, giving people new hope, and by doing so, causing people to love and respect her. Quite an achievement for a young woman without the help of a husband in love with her (it was a wartime marriage of convenience), or beauty, money, connections, or even a clean emotional slate. This heroine worked hard for her happy ending. Even the mystery’s solution had a certain element of human folly (hoop skirts, those heavy iron contraptions, play a key role) that made the truth believable while still having that edge of glamor so much a part of a Gothic romance.
Whitney was a master at utilizing all the most evocative elements of a Gothic novel. Her books took place in glamorous settings all over the world: New York, Japan, New Orleans’ Garden District, Nob Hill in San Francisco, South Africa, Greece, and even Istanbul, to name a few. Usually, they centered around the fancy mansions and estates of the wealthy. Family secrets and estrangements between spouses played a large role in her stories. She was brilliant at creating portrayals of strong and not-so-strong women of varying generations and backgrounds, not just naive young heroines and their beautiful romantic rivals. Additionally, she didn’t avoid controversial realities about her settings. The Quicksilver Pool has a subplot involving slavery issues, and Blue Fire comments on apartheid even while the main plot involves glamorous (and controversial) diamond mining struggles. Daring topics for a writer of supposedly escapist fiction.
For years, I eagerly read each new book by Phyllis A. Whitney. I even searched out and read her older books. I’ve read her first book, for instance, A Place for Ann, a young adult novel published in 1941. I am not sure why I grew away from her writing. I know that by the time I read The Stone Bull, I was impatient with a young heroine who seemed never to get in a word edgewise, who was overawed by the powerful and much older people she encountered in the rarefied air of a wealthy estate. Yet, even though I had turned my back on Whitney, she continued to write the kind of book she always did. And she continued to sell well and to receive excellent reviews. It’s easy to tell the difference between a kind review and an enthusiastic one, and she received genuinely admiring reviews even of her late-in-life books.
Phyllis A. Whitney led a life full of achievement. That’s a lot to say about anyone.