Like many of you, I was heartbroken to learn of the death of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss this week. She died after a valiant battle with cancer, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy to the romance genre and all of her adoring readers.
In her honor and memory, I'm reprinting the blog I wrote on THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER in December of 2006.
In 1972, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss did what every writer dreams of doing—she wrote a classic novel with her very first book. The Flame and the Flower had it all—passion, conflict, adventure, drama, a setting that sweeps us from Georgian England to a plantation in the Carolinas, and unforgettable characters. She broke all the conventional rules of historical fiction by making the sexual relationship between her hero and heroine a vital component of their emotional relationship and in doing so, gave birth to the modern genre of the historical romance.
I was ten years old when The Flame and the Flower was first published, fifteen the first time I read it. Although I read it numerous times after that, I hadn't picked it up in years. So when I started re-reading the book a few months ago, I told myself I'd treat it like an assignment and just read for an hour at a time. The prose was denser and much more detailed than what we've become accustomed to, but after only a few pages, I found myself thoroughly captivated. Before I knew it, three hours had passed and I still couldn't bear to put the book down. Thirty years after it's publication, The Flame and the Flower is still a deliciously readable novel, a quality it shares with another timeless classic, Gone with the Wind.
I was also struck all over again by what a fine writer Kathleen E. Woodiwiss is. To enter her world is to enter a time machine that transports you back to 1799, where Heather Simmons, our Georgian Cinderella, is being held captive by her aunt's cruelty until sea captain Brandon Birmingham comes storming into her life to sweep her away. Although Woodiwiss's descriptions are lush and detailed, her prose is never purple. By setting her own standards so high, Woodiwiss challenged every romance writer who came after her to strive for excellence in their craft.
One of the criteria of an enduring classic is that it should be the first to do something, and in The Flame and the Flower, Woodiwiss succeeds on every count. So many of her innovations would go on to become the bedrock conventions upon which the historical romance genre would be grounded. Although her settings and secondary characters are vividly drawn, the relationship between Heather and Brandon always remains at the core of the plot. Many scenes that might seem clichéd now were sparkling and new thirty years ago: the heroine assisting the hero with his bath; the hero walking in on the heroine as she bathes; the hero nursing the heroine through a near fatal illness caused by his own insensitivity. Woodiwiss gives the hero a loveable wise-quipping brother, a loyal manservant, and a witchy ex-fiancée. Every man who meets Heather falls a little bit in love with her and in an eerily prescient twist, there's even a suspense sub-plot involving a brutal killer that drives the book to a heart-jolting climax.
Although less politically correct then some would prefer, the book is probably more historically accurate than many of the romances written today where all the young misses are feisty and all the gents are enlightened as to the rights of women. Yes, seventeen-year-old Heather is essentially a passive victim in the beginning and thirty-five-year-old Brandon is perfectly capable of being an arrogant jerk, but they both fulfill that essential criteria of good fiction—they experience personal growth and transformation during the course of the story. Heather finds her spirit while Brandon loses his heart.
You can't discuss this book or Heather and Brandon's first sexual encounter without waging the same debate that's been raging ever since Rhett carried a resisting Scarlet up those long, winding stairs in Gone with the Wind. The controversy arises when, during their first meeting, a drunken Brandon mistakes Heather for a wharf prostitute. Both her explanations and her struggles are so weak and ineffectual that one can almost forgive him the mistake. He's quite remorseful when he realizes he's deflowered an innocent, but that doesn't stop him from taking her once more before she makes her escape. Is this shocking and wicked? Oh yes! But still stirring in this era where our deepest and most primal sexual fantasies have been sanitized and the definition of "feminism" seems to be have been extended to the area of censoring other women's fantasies. When Brandon tells Heather, "I've found with you, sweet, that when I want you badly enough I can overlook being a gentleman," my heart beats a little faster as I imagine him with the devilish glint of a marauding Errol Flynn or Clark Gable in his eye.
This is no forced seduction where Heather is made to experience pleasure against her will. Woodiwiss never once glamorizes rape. Heather despises it the two times Brandon has his way with her when she is resistive. It's not until he learns to show her tenderness and consideration after a lo-o-o-o-ong period of enforced abstinence that she comes to enjoy their lovemaking.
The scene that fueled my own adolescent fantasies is the one where Brandon first learns that Heather is carrying his child. After her vicious aunt slaps her and rips her ragged dress from her body, revealing her pregnant nakedness to everyone in the room, Brandon comes storming out of the shadows and sweeps his cloak around her. In that one thrilling and protective gesture, we see a shadow of the hero he will become.
Although Brandon can be a bit of a bully when crossed, from the very beginning of the novel he demonstrates a capacity for humor and irresistible kindness. He resents being forced into marriage, yet he buys Heather beautiful clothes, covers her when she is cold, has a tub brought on board his ship because he knows she cherishes her baths, and orders a special pair of long johns made to help her endure the bitter winter weather at sea. He also fulfills another crucial female fantasy that would go on to become a staple of our genre—once he lays eyes on Heather, he never wants or touches another woman.
Since The Flame and the Flower gave women their first chance to read about sex outside of the context of male pornography, I was amazed to realize how few sex scenes there actually are in the book. After Heather and Brandon's initial encounter, they don't make love again until near the very end of the novel. During the long sea voyage, we watch them slowly becoming husband and wife—denying each other sexual comforts, yet strengthening their emotional bond. We enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching them fall in love, not just in lust. By the end of the book, you actually believe that these two could build a happy life together—built not only on physical attraction, but on mutual respect and love.
While Brandon is becoming a hero worth having, Heather completes her own satisfying personal journey. Her fiery confrontations with her husband don't defeat her, but strengthen her. No longer a passive victim, late in the book she even vanquishes a lecherous villain. A fuming Brandon arrives, but Heather no longer needs him to rescue her. She has completed her journey from girl to woman and is now fully his equal and his match.
Both the power and pleasure of The Flame and the Flower are rooted in its retelling of the primal myths that reside in our collective unconsciousness. In the snippet of poetry that prefaces the book, it is not the flame that consumes the flower, but the flower that triumphs by re-emerging after being scorched by the flame. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss didn't just understand the "Beauty and the Beast" mythology on an intellectual level. She internalized it to such a degree that it infuses every word of both this story and her follow-up classic, The Wolf and the Dove.
And in Brandon Birmingham, Woodiwiss delivers a beast worthy of the taming. In recent years there has been a tendency for romance writers to "defang" their beasts much too early in our stories. We're so determined to make our protagonists "heroic" from the very first page (possibly to stave off criticism of the ultra-Alpha male?) that there's very little room left for the personal growth that makes this book so satisfying and enduring.
And it is enduring. 144 reader reviews on Amazon.com prove that. As I scrolled through them, I was amazed by how many of them were written by girls who were around the same age I was when I first discovered the book. It seemed these young women could relate to both Heather's age and her coming-of-age journey during the story. Perhaps the best way to win a romance reader's heart for life is to win it while it's still young and tender.
Whether you love The Flame and the Flower or hate it, we're still talking about it thirty years later. How many other romances will be able to make that claim? As I turned the last page of the book with a wistful sigh, I was humbled all over again by what a tremendous debt of gratitude we all owe Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. Brandon Birmingham and Heather Simmons are truly the grandparents of all the historical heroes and heroines who came after them. At the end of the book, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss shouldn't have written The End, but The Beginning.