Big Fat Book: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

  • Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor - 1st ed, Macmillian, 1944Title: Forever Amber
  • Author: Kathleen Winsor
  • Published: Macmillan, January 1944
  • Source: Purchased (in hardcover, paperback and digital)
  • Length: 976
  • Tropes: Everything you could possibly think of
  • Quick blurb: And you thought Scarlett O’Hara was bad….
  • Quick review: The ultimate anti-heroine in all her gaudy, garish glory.
  • Grade: A

“Madame,” he said finally, “your future is of singular interest. You were born with Venus in separating square aspect to Mars in the Fifth House.” Amber solemnly absorbed that, too impressed at first even to wonder what it meant. Then, as she was about to ask, he continued, having reached his conclusions as much by looking at her as at his charts: “Hence you are inclined, madame, to over-ardent affections and to rash impulsive attractions to the opposite sex. This can cause you serious trouble, madame. You are also too much inclined to indulge yourself in pleasure — and hence must suffer the attendant difficulties.”

Forever Amber is…”a bawdy bestseller”…”a torrid potboiler”…”a bawdy, lusty costume epic”…”a crude and superficial glorification of a courtesan”…”a big, fat tombstone of a bestseller”…”a naughty literary relic”…”a preposterously long and sumptuously naughty book”…”a love story of immense driving force and a magnificent, all-inclusive picture of an era”…”swoony with ill-defined sex”…”a glamorization of immorality and licentiousness”…”a colorful picture of Restoration England in all its immoral finery”…”Moll Flanders with, as it were, knobs on”…”a splendidly evocative guide to the events and mores of the time.”

Also:

…”the story of a slut’s progress.”

And, my favorite:

…”Opium on a gigantic scale.”

Every one of those descriptions is accurate. Set in Restoration England, Amber St. Clare’s story begins in 1660 with our 16-year-old heroine throwing herself at a Returning Cavalier, and ends (heh) 10 years later with our heroine throwing herself at the Jilting Cavalier.
In between, our heroine…

…Runs off to London with Cavalier. Gets pregnant. Gets scammed into marriage with a fortune hunter. Gets thrown into Newgate for debt. Escapes with infamous highwayman. Becomes con artist. Escapes a con-gone-wrong, winds up with impoverished second-son aristo, charms her way onto the stage. Sleeps with the king. Steals rival’s protector, then goads him into a fatal duel with the Returning Cavalier.

At this point, we’re only a third of the way through the book.

…Duel makes her more popular, sleeps with the king again, gets preggo again, gets abortion. Goes to Tunbridge Wells to recuperate and seduces filthy rich aging widower with 14 children. Resumes affair with Returning Cavalier (again), gets pregnant (again), finds out Cavalier also got 16-year-old stepdaughter pregnant. Husband dies, cavalier returns (again).

…THE PLAGUE. (this deserves a paragraph by itself)

Halfway done. Hang in there with me.

…Cavalier still refuses to marry her, she marries Evil Earl in revenge to gain title and access to Court. Evil Earl drags her off to the country, where she seduces his son in revenge. Evil Earl discovers them, poisons his own son.

…GREAT FIRE OF LONDON.

We’re now at page 666. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

…Finagles a post in queen’s bedchamber, sleeps her way through the courtiers. Gets pregnant by the king; he makes her marry a nobody. Various intrigues with courtiers. King makes her a duchess. Builds ridiculous mansion. Goes ballistic when Jilting Cavalier returns with new wife. Dresses as half-naked Venus at ball for spite. Fakes duel letter from cuckolded husband. Affair with Cavalier resumes (AGAIN), more hissy fits. Confronts Cavalier’s wife; he (finally!) throws her out.

And then…

…BEST UNRESOLVED CLIFFHANGER EVER.

I’m not kidding.  This was a one-hit wonder of a book, and a much-discussed sequel never appeared, so poor Amber is left perpetually chasing after her One True Love.

IT’S GLORIOUS.

It’s a swashbuckling melodrama stuffed with fashion and poverty porn. It’s a sex-positive feminist manifesto.  It’s a full-blown and blowsy historical soap opera that unapologetically dismantles every “heroine” trope while coating it all in the glossy-yet-sleazy veneer of Restoration England.

Scarlett O’Hara and Becky Sharp can just take a seat. The gleefully amoral Amber St. Clare is the ultimate antiheroine.

This book is EPIC…. All I will say is that after finishing this book, I called my mother in a rage, and she said, “For lord’s sake, read Kathleen Woodiwiss and call me in the morning.”

~ Maria (Maya) Rodale, “Romance Novels 101: The Infamous Book List That Changed My Life,” Huffington Post, May 27, 2015

Forever Amber as historical fiction

…Take a dash of “Moll Flanders,” add a cupful of Fielding and Smollett, flavor with Pepys, stir in plenty of Congreve, strengthen the mixture with liberal quantities of Restoration memoirs – and there you have Miss Winsor’s salty dish.

~ Arthur D. Smith, “Kathleen Winsor’s Salty Dish.” Saturday Review, October 14, 1944

I’ve read Forever Amber numerous times, and not once have I skipped a page or even a paragraph. The world-building is phenomenal. It’s loaded with vivid, lurid detail, but never info-dumping; every description has a narrative or expository purpose. It’s a three-dimensional landscape, with what I can only call “texture.”

And by all accounts, the historical accuracy is flawless, thanks to the author’s five years and 300+ books of research. There’s no better novel about Restoration England. The city of London is a vibrant, violent secondary character:

…The walled City was a pot-pourri of the centuries, old and ugly, stinking and full of rottenness, but full of colour too and picturesqueness and a decayed sort of beauty.

…Amber felt that she had come home and she fell in love with it, as she had with Lord Carlton, at first sight. The intense violent energy and aliveness found a response in her strongest and deepest emotions. This city was a challenge, a provocation, daring everything—promising even more. She felt instinctively, as a good Londoner should, that now she had seen all there was to see. No other place on earth could stand in comparison.

…LONDON HAD GROWN as hysterical as a girl with the green-sickness. Her life these last years had been too full of excitement and tragedy, too turbulent and too convulsive, and now she was uneasy, nervous, in a constant state of worry and fear. No prospect was too dismal, no possibility too remote—anything might happen, and probably would.

Amber’s adventures include both the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Author Kathleen Winsor uses these tragedies to deliberately — and very, very memorably — give Amber a chance to redeem her wicked ways and become the noble, self-sacrificing heroine that World War II audiences had come to expect.

But lucky for us, once the dangers have passed, Winsor let Amber unbutton her bodice and continue on her own path of destruction.

Forever Amber as romance

Often credited with initiating the modem romance genre, Winsor’s book does what popular fiction perhaps does best: coalesce a distanced, illusory world complete and perfect in its points of glamour and fantasy, while exploring the dilemmas of its own moment through the then newly shameless mechanisms of narrative sublimation and commodity fetishism.

~ The Censor’s Library, Nicole Moore, Univ. of Queensland Press, January 2012

Amber has been called the first “bodice-ripper” – I have no difficulties with that description, but is it a romance? It sure as hell doesn’t qualify by our current standard of having an HEA. It’s ten years of endless lusting, and they never ever learn their lesson.

“Never, Bruce! Oh, darling, you can’t do this to me! I need you as much as she does—I love you as much as she does! If all the rest of your life belongs to her you can give me a little of it now—She’d never even know, and if she didn’t know she couldn’t be hurt! You can’t be here in London all these next six months and never see me—I’d die if you did that to me! Oh, Bruce, you can’t do it! You can’t!”

She threw herself against him, pounding her fists softly on his chest, sobbing with quiet, desperate, mournful little sobs. For a long while he sat, his arms hanging at his sides, not touching her; and then at last he drew her close against him between his legs, his mouth crushing down on hers with a kind of angry hunger. “Oh, you little bitch,” he muttered. “Someday I’ll forget you—someday I’ll—”

Amber is a shameless attention whore. Bruce the Cavalier is a complete and utter asshole. Their relationship is entirely illicit and self-indulgent. The ending is ambiguous.

Not a romance. But who the hell cares, it’s GLORIOUS.

I believe that every woman in love with a cad should read Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.

Glenda Cooper, “Trivial? No – it’s the stuff of dreams,” The Telegraph, March 21,  2007

Amber as anti-heroine

…“That Amber St. Clare!” muttered the eldest girl with a furious toss of her long blonde hair. “If ever there’s a man about, you may be sure she’ll come along! I think she can smell ’em out!”

Why, he’s mad in love with me already! thought Amber delightedly, and had an image of herself parading him into the tiring-room tomorrow like a tame monkey on a chain.

Amber’s eyes lowered. “Thank you, sir.” Someday, she was thinking, I’ll slit your gullet, you damned old cannibal.

…For the first time since she had begun her affair with Philip Mortimer Amber felt a kind of shame. But it did not last long.

…”I’m the Duchess of Ravenspur — I’m somebody now, and I won’t be driven around in hackneys or met at lodging-houses any longer! And I mean it! D’ye understand me?”

…Amber was beyond either disgust or fastidiousness—she did what was necessary as well as she could, and without thinking about it.

“You’re a hard-hearted little bitch,” he said. “I pity the men who love you.”

Amber is the 17th-century version of Scarlett O’Hara and Becky Sharp: Deceitful, vain, self-absorbed, ambitious, resilient, and wildly temperamental.  But I’m going so far as to say that Amber is the ultimate anti-heroine.

Scarlett has a conscience (thanks to her Catholic guilt and Mammy’s hovering presence), and an inner integrity that drives her to protect her superficial reputation as a lady. Amber has zero scruples. None. The only thing Amber does not do is commit murder with her own hands.

Scarlett has a “nice girl” foil in Melanie (as does Becky with Amelia) who compels her to be a better person. Amber risks her own life to care of Bruce during the plague, but would she have put herself in danger to care for his wife? Not. A. Chance.  Amber would have hastened the noble wife’s death and blamed it on a random bystander.

The fun part is trying to figure out where and when and how Amber crosses the line to completely and utterly irredeemable. Is it stealing a lover from a rival and then deliberately goading him into a fatal duel? Is it seducing her stepson and taunting his father into poisoning him? Is it the final showdown with Bruce’s wife? Such much wretched wickedness to choose from….*~*happysigh*~*

Amber is narcissistic, selfish, shallow and transparent, and there isn’t a page where we don’t root for the devious little bitch.

~ Charles Taylor, “The bed-hopping novel that shocked America,” Salon.com, May 31, 2003

Forever Amber the movie

Yeah. I wouldn’t advise actually watching it. A shirtless Cornel Wilde is always acceptable, and George Sanders slithers all over the place as Charles II, but the stunningly beautiful Linda Darnell is painfully miscast, and God bless her, a terrible, terrible actress.

But the posters, lobby cards and costume stills are worth ogling over.

The film runs for two hours and twenty minutes, which is just about an hour too long considering its repetitious nature and the fact that it is pretty trashy stuff. But Amber thrived on repetition. So maybe it will, too.

~ Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, October 23, 1947

Forever Amber as obscenity

Slut-shamed worldwide. For decades. Amber St. Clare would be so proud. She’d print out every article and review and judge’s decree and doctoral dissertation and roll around in them naked.

Forever Amber was indeed “banned in Boston.”

The Massachusetts Attorney General went through the book and catalogued all the so-called illicit scenes and references, and came up with this fine list: 70 sexual intercourses references, 39 pregnancies out of wedlock, 7 abortions and 10 instances of women disrobing in front of dudes.

~ Jake Goldman, “10 Books that Stood Trial,” The Airship

But alas, the AG’s careful cataloging was futile:

…this court determined that the book as a whole was a real attempt to portray life in England at the court of Charles II, the stage, and costumes of the period, and that, although it abounded in sexual episodes to the point of tedium, a full reading of it left a paramount impression merely of an unfortunate country and its people with its great city ravaged by disaster and by disease, and of individual characters forming an unattractive, hedonistic group whose course of conduct was abhorrent and whose mode of living could be neither emulated nor envied.

ATTORNEY GENERAL vs. THE BOOK NAMED “FOREVER AMBER” & others , 323 Mass. 302, March 2, 1948 – October 11, 1948

Which led to an unexpected champion…

Its morals on trial under Massachusetts censorship law, “Forever Amber” found a stout defender yesterday in the person of Howard Mumford Jones, professor of English, who stated that the book did not “corrupt or deprave” him. Appearing as star witness for the defense in the current trial of Kathleen Winsor’s risque best-seller, Professor Jones testified that the book “bored” his wife, and left his own moral standards unsullied.

~ “Jones Claims ‘Amber’ Fails To Move Him,” The Harvard Crimson, March 4, 1947

Those prudes in Australia didn’t like it either.

…”The Board’s view and my view of this book was that it had no particular literary merit, but was mainly a collection of bawdiness, amounting to sex obsession, and with little appeal apart from that.”

The West Australian, August 1, 1945

…”I considered it was an undesirable book and not an acquisition to the literature of the Commonwealth,” said Senator Keane. “The Almighty did not give people eyes to read that rubbish.”

~ From Banned: From the National Archives of Australia

More great stuff about Forever Amber

God, I love the internet.

My Pinterest boards:

Must-reads:

Academia:

Antiheroines:

Author Kathleen Winsor:

“Amber, my darling, I love you—But you’re an unprincipled calculating adventuress.”

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Big Fat Book: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

Leave a Reply

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s