Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Woodiwiss is often credited with creating the first bodice ripper or the first "modern historical romance novel." I would actually disagree with both of those remarks - especially since they mean very different things. I wouldn't actually classify bodice-rippers as "romance" novels; they're more like anti-romance novels. The hero in these types of books is usually very similar to the villain, distinguishable only by a very thin and wavering thread of morality that usually ties into a sense of obligation and ownership of the (virginal) heroine & his (usually forced) deflowering of her.

If we're going to talk bodice-rippers, I believe they were heavily influenced by the smutty, exploitative pulp fiction of the 50s and 60s that influenced Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Christopher Nicole, author of the Caribee of the Hiltons series, is one of these authors, and so is Lance Horner, author of the Falconhurst series. The most famous in this genre is probably MANDINGO, and that is the book that comes to mind first and foremost when I think of the first bodice ripper, although Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND would be a close second. If we're going to talk about modern historical romance novels, I think FOREVER AMBER or GONE WITH THE WIND are better examples, since both still have a very modern feel & have similar formulas to that of many romance novels that are still being published today. If that's not modern, what is? Anya Seton and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro are other authors whose romance novels transcend time and who also preceded Kathleen Woodiwiss by decades.

**Warning: SPOILERS**

Regardless of its alleged feats of being the first of its kind (or not, depending on how you feel about it), I don't feel that THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER survives the times it was written very well. Our heroine, Heather, is under the care of a fat and abusive aunt (because fat and ugly people = villains in this book) and a thoroughly hen-pecked uncle whose dusty balls lie forgotten in the depths of one of Wicked Aunt's purses. The aunt has sold all her niece's clothes & belongings, and she wonders around in clothes "twelve times too large" that gape open to reveal her amazing bosom. It is worth noting that Heather's amazing breasts have more agency than she does, thrusting desperately against clothing as they seek out male attention, declaring their arousal on behalf of Heather (who, you know, just sits there passively and chastely, relying on her breasts to act as liaison with sexual partners) and constantly threatening to pour out of her clothes; Heather's breasts are the true main characters in this book, and it is sad when a heroine's body parts seem to receive more narrative description and action verbs than she does.

Her Aunt is tired of having Heather around and sends her off to be with her brother, who has plans to rape Heather and then, when he's tired of her, it is implied that he will give her to a Madam. Again, since this Uncle character is evil, he is fat and ugly. Heather manages to escape with her virginity intact (by making Uncle William "fall on a knife" dead), still clad in the revealing gown he put her in, and the servant to a rich and arrogant sailor spies her fleeing around the docks. Thinking her to be a prostitute, he kidnaps her and presents her to his master, who he assumes will be pleased. The master, who of course is the hero, since he is the only good-looking in this entire book universe we've encountered so far, is very pleased, and proceeds to rape Heather. The fact that she is a virgin surprises him, but he assumes that she just has her Whore Training Wheels™ on and he was the lucky gent who got to ride the bicycle first. When he finds out the truth, he does a lot of posturing and villainous laughing, basically telling Heather that if she didn't want to be raped, she should have tried to enjoy it more, before raping her a few more times. He then tells her that he intends to make her his mistress, and she should be pleased.

Heather ends up getting pregnant right away from Brandon's efforts, and when she returns home, her Aunt does not shirk on the opportunity to decry Heather's heritage (not only is she Irish and a Tory, but she's also a slut). Heather's well-meaning friends host an intervention where they blackmail Brandon into marrying Heather and taking responsibility for what he's done. Brandon does not take kindly to being told what to do, and drops a bunch of threats about how miserable he's going to make Heather, and oh, by the way, NO SEX, EVER. I have to admit, I laughed. How arrogant do you have to be to imagine that depriving the woman you raped of your magnificent Penis Magic™ is the worst possible punishment you can deliver, ever? If you just said "Gee, seems like the only person that would hurt is him," you would be right, and Brandon spends the next three hundred pages ruing this decision as he quickly comes down with the world's most serious case of blue balls.

After the two are married, Brandon decides to sell his ship and take Heather to his plantation. Here we meet the sexually autonomous, villainous Other Woman, a cringe-worthy Mammy stereotype, the heroine's brother (an updated version of the hero that's still in beta-testing), and all of the jealous, spurned women and their mothers who were vying for Brandon's hand and are bitterly resentful that this girl - who doesn't even go here - somehow managed to snatch him up for herself and get impregnated with his child. The next two hundred pages consist of OW, Louisa, getting into verbal catfights with Heather while trying to seduce Brandon; Heather crying and flinching and seething in a froth of vindication and traitorous lust; and Brandon, who is starting to realize how ineffective his "punishment" is and concocts a new, ingenious plan to win her back that quickly goes awry because the last thing that most women want to do in the late stages of pregnancy and then immediately afterwards is have rough, passionate sex. Brandon abandons this plan, too, and announces that the two of them henceforth are going to have sex every night, whether he has to rape her to get it or not, because damn it, he has needs. Heather goes for this, puts on a sheer blue nightie to seduce him, and after this it's a whole bunch of "I love you" "No, I love you, Pooky-Kins" nonsense, and since Heather is breast-feeding that means that her breasts are always out and everyone, from the hero to his brother to the other woman, has to stare at them in admiration/jealousy and comment on them. The last twenty-five pages attempts to cram in another plot line, introducing a partially-realized murder mystery. It's pretty obvious who the villain is, and this only serves as an excuse for yet another man to lose himself to mad passion and attempt to rape Heather (I think this is rape attempt #5 if we're counting based on unique perpetrators and not actual attempts, in which case it would be closer to rape attempt #20).

This book is ridiculous. One of my friends called this a handbook to having a relationship full of domestic violence, and I have to say that I agree with that sentiment. I don't normally mind reading about rape, but the way it was romanticized in this book made me really uncomfortable. I don't really want to read about all these pastoral scenes of domestic bliss if all the sexual interactions between them border on (or in some cases are actually blatant acts of) rape. This goes away towards the end of the book, but only after the heroine realizes that it's pointless to resist him further.

Heather is definitely a wish fulfillment fantasy and I could see why she might have persisted throughout time. Every man who sees her wants her. Every woman who sees her is jealous of her. She's beautiful no matter what she wears, whether it's rags or a beautiful gown, and her rapist husband is constantly buying her gowns and presenting her with jewelry (when he's not yelling at her, making her cringe, throwing things, or threatening to beat up men for looking at her). When she gives birth she loses her baby bump immediately and the author is quick to reassure us that there are no stretchmarks or unsightly skin folds, either. When she's not making people cream themselves in jealousy or sexual lust, they're falling over in their charmed admiration of her & doing everything they can to make her life better. Heather is the ultimate woman, and doesn't have to lift a finger to achieve it, because expending any more effort than it would take to stomp a foot far is too intimidating in a heroine.

Other things that made me wince/side-eye this book:

-In an attempt to woo the hero, Louisa slathers her nipples in rouge and wears a see-through copy of the gown Brandon raped Heather in

-Lots of uses of the word "Negress" and stereotypical portrayals of the happy slave

-One of the rape attempts occurs because a man visiting Brandon's plantation sees a dirt- and soot-covered Heather and assumes that she's black and a slave (winces)

-When going into labor, the heroine refuses to go anywhere until her husband changes her into a blue gown, because she's sure she's going to have a boy and the baby has to match her gown!

-Dresses tear like tissue paper in this book. It inspired me to make a new shelf on Goodreads for heroines with clothes that tear like wet Kleenex.

Honestly, this book is pretty formulaic, and with the exception of a few odd details (see the above) it follows the usual bodice ripper plot to a T. I've read and enjoyed another book of Woodiwiss's (COME LOVE A STRANGER), so I know she can write better, but this first, unfettered attempt was not my cup of tea at all. If you're going to read it, read it for science: observe it impassively, without any expectations, with the intention of reporting back your findings to others. Otherwise, it might just make a foot-stomper out of you, too.

1 out of 5 stars.

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