by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
484 pages, Avon Historical Romance
This year my local New York Romance Writers of America chapter gave their Lifetime Achievement Award to the late Kathleen Woodiwiss and all the talk that night was about The Flame and The Flower, which is considered the genre’s first historical romance novel. Well, wasn’t my face flaming, being a huge historical romance lover and having to admit that I had never read The Flame and The Flower or any Kathleen Woodiwiss novels. I made a vow to do something about it.
So time goes by and finally I picked it up. Now I had been warned by a friend who had not read it that I may have an issue with a rapist hero and that I may not like the book for that reason, but I was determined to read it anyway. Hey, it’s a classic and I couldn’t have all this Flaming and Flowering talk going on around me and me not know what all the fuss was about.
Let’s start with the blurb from Amazon:
Doomed to a life of unending toil, Heather Simmons fears for her innocence--until a shocking, desperate act forces her to flee. . . and to seek refuge in the arms of a virile and dangerous stranger.
A lusty adventurer married to the sea, Captain Brandon Birmingham courts scorn and peril when he abducts the beautiful fugitive from the tumultuous London dockside. But no power on Earth can compel him to relinquish his exquisite prize. For he is determined to make the sapphire-eyed lovely his woman...and to carry her off to far, uncharted realms of sensuous, passionate love.
Well now. There is a sweeping story for you. A big fat story the likes of which you don’t see much of lately. It was first published in 1972, so I tried to take myself out of my 2009 ‘I’m Every Woman’ mind set and put myself in the head of a 1972 housewife or maybe a hip Charlie girl as I read this story. It was not easy.
The story opens with Heather, a beautiful, gentle girl who was once high and is now low. She is an orphan living with her brutal aunt and hapless uncle. Heather is like a sad Cinderella until she is taken away, supposedly to a better life, by her aunt’s brother. Of course not. Life can’t be that good for Heather. But that doesn’t stop her from hoping or being naive.
When she’s attacked (sure, we all saw that one coming) she’s forced to flee for her life and ends up on the docks where she is mistaken for a prostitute and taken back to Captain Brandon Birmingham, our hero.
Now here is where things get dicey. The Captain is slightly drunk, and thinking she’s his evening delight, and Heather is, well, Heather, and thinking he’s the law out to arrest her. On a ship? I know, she doesn’t get out much. Long story short, Brandon mistakenly rapes Heather (um, how’d that happen?) and now has to hold her captive.
I mean, I like my heroes to be alpha, but Brandon went over the top. Once the hero rapes the heroine, it brings the teeth-gnashing term “bodice ripper” to another level. But this is what the book was, a bodice ripper through and through. (All I could think of was the amount of money wasted on fabric. Yeesh.) And Brandon ripped and ripped and was not all that ashamed of it. But Brandon has an excuse in his own mind for each rip. Made me want to throw the book, or better yet him across the room, but I didn’t, I kept reading.
Then there was Heather. Long-suffering Heather. So many times I wanted to shake her or follow her around yelling in her ear like at a bad horror movie actress from the 70’s. “Don’t go there!” “He’s in the closet!” “Stay away from the light!”
Heather had the ability to make me a little bit crazy, but still I ending up rooting for her. And I was thrilled when she would show a glimmer of gumption. Small rebellions and standing up when it counted. I kept turning the pages to see how she would triumph over all her adversities. I also knew I had to get past my own want for her to stand up and fight in certain ways that she could not for that time (both the story time and the time the book was written), and hope it would all work out in the end.
And how did I really want it to work out? Did I really want Heather with Brandon, this ultra alpha who seemed to not have any remorse and was only hell-bent on making her his? I kind of did. Somehow Ms. Woodiwiss wrote a story in such a well-crafted way that I was hooked from the beginning. Flipping the pages faster and faster to try and see how she would get these two together in the end.
How could she redeem Brandon enough to make me want anyone with him, let alone poor Heather? And how could I even like Heather when she did all the things that I or any woman I’ve ever known would never do? Well, she did pull it off.
Somehow, from England to South Carolina, one baby, two years, a few murders and some wild accents later, it all worked out for me and I was left with a story that really touched me. A real classic Bodice Ripper.
Sidebar: Just because the term Bodice Ripper was used here. Please don’t feel free to banter it around with any newer romances that don’t apply. Really folks. That’s plain lazy. Just my opinion.