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    Sunday, July 08, 2007

    Saying Goodbye to a Romance Icon

    Dear Friends,
    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.

    15 comments:

    Julie said...

    Kathleen E. Woodiwiss shall definitely be missed.

    Teresa, your Blog makes a very Beautiful eulogy.
    As I read your final words,

    "At the end of the book, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss shouldn't have written The End, but The Beginning…."

    I am struck by the thought that a Book is like a Life.
    Both “stories’ will reach their final chapter…The last page.
    A Conclusion.
    But not a “The End”.
    No. The “story’ lives on in our memories. In our hearts.

    And
    For myself, I take comfort in the belief that death is not

    “ The End, but The Beginning.” of a new story.


    My deepest sympathies to Ms.Woodiwiss’ family…her friends…her admirers …and her fans.

    I wish all of you Peace.

    julie D.

    Ladytink_534 said...

    I hate it when people die. I hate it even more when someone dies and I'm not familiar with their work, epecially since I've been meaning to pick up one of her books for about a year now.

    You aren't the only one mourning her today. The Goddess Blogs are too.
    http://thegoddessblogs.com/

    Teresa Medeiros said...

    Lovely sentiment, Julie, and ladytink, I'll definitely pop over to the Goddesses today to check out their blog.

    PJ said...

    What a lovely tribute, Teresa. She is a giant talent that will surely be missed.

    Keira Soleore said...

    Teresa, what a marvelous paean to Kathleen. I cannot imagine the romance world without her in it. She defined it and made it into the industry it is today. Thanks to her, we readers are blessed with such wonderful stories written by so many different writers.

    Santa said...

    Like so many others, Kathleen Woodiwiss was one of the first romance writers I read. Her work stood out to me as being wonderfully dense and complex. I was excited to learn her earlier works are being rereleased and that she was working on a new book, only to find out a day later that she had passed away.

    Kathleen Woodiwiss' gift will be sorely missed.

    J Perry Stone said...

    the truth is, KEW deflowered me (romance innocent that I was at 14).

    I truly heartbroken and had been hoping, one of these days, to run into her at Nationals.

    Alas, her books will still be with us.

    My favorite was A Rose in Winter and Shanna

    Jaci Burton said...

    One of my favorite books of all time. And the first romance I ever read. It remains on my keeper shelf, along with many KEW books.

    She will be missed.

    And what a beautiful writeup about her, Teresa!

    Karen H in NC said...

    I find it very ironic that Kathleen's last, but as yet unpublished, book is titled 'Everlasting'...did she know back then that this would be her last?

    Teresa, your touching synopsis of 'The Flame and the Flower' inspired me to want to re-read this book. When I looked at my bookshelf I didcovered I had all of the books in the Birmingham family series EXCEPT 'TFATF. I quickly bought it just now on half.com, so I will have the complete set.

    She will be missed.

    Lady Willow said...

    Kathleen E. Woodiwiss was what started me on my journey to historical romance novels. I was living in Dyersburg, TN. And I went to the library and they were having a sale and I purchased one of her books and I've never been the same since. Since then, I've read all of her books and her work and I've gone on to read over 50 historical romance novels and now I'm an aspiring novelist. Because of her. My only regret is that I never got the chance to meet her. But her work was already treasured before, and now it's priceless to me. I love that you paid tribute to her this way with that great summary of her work. Great job~! Very moving~! To Kathleen E. Woodiwiss~! May you still live on through your work.

    twolilhahas said...

    I had "The Flame and the Flower" in my hand today and put it down. It just wasn't a day I could part with the $3.50, but man, I wanted it so badly! I couldn't get the last two Teresa books I haven't read, either, and that was painful! I needed them with the same violent need a Teresa hero has for a Teresa heroine, but alas, circumstances prevented it...this time. I know how the story will end, though, a prolonged tragedy such as this can only end in utter bliss when I am to be finally united with my one (or two) true loves! lol

    Anonymous said...

    I still have my original copy of Flame and the Flower. I've read it so many times, I'm surprised it hasn't fallen apart.
    One of my favorite stories...one of my favorite writers.
    She will be missed!!!

    Cheryl
    St. Augustine, FL

    Lisa H said...

    KEW was and is my all time favorite writer, and Shanna is my all time favorite novel. Rose in the Winter is number 2 for me as well, J.Perry.

    Teresa thank you for remembering her to all of us. I have read everything she has ever written, falling into her stories with total abandon and wanting to stay there always.

    She is an inspiration to me of all that is romantic, beautiful and passionate.

    fj695 said...

    Like you Teresa, I was only 10 yrs old also when Ms. Woodiwiss published The Flame and the Flower. It was the 2nd or 3rd novel I had read when I was 16yrs old. My mother and her friends read alot of romance novels. My mother was not crazy about me reading romance. The reason, the difference between fantasy/fiction
    and reality. At 45 years old, I understand her reason. Men are not like Brandon! I re-read TFATF, at least every few years. Wow. Ms. Woodiwiss is great. It would be great to write like her. She will be MISSED! And to Teresa, great tribute!

    photoquest said...

    I have never read this book can you believe it? I have heard of it and am definatley putting that on my list of books to order. I've been a reader of 2 years so i don't have all the books on my shelves i'd like to have but i'm tring to get it there.