The Flame And The Flower
by Kathleen E Woodiwiss, historical (1997, reissue)
Avon, $3.99, ISBN 0-380-00525-5
The Flame And The Flower catapulted Kathleen E Woodiwiss into the annals of romance as one of the first generation authors who pioneered what some would call the Golden Age of Romance. First published in 1972, this story reflects the mores of romance novels of that time. On one hand, we have lush scenery, detailed descriptions of every minute detail in a scene, and plenty of fiery passion that manifests in the form of heaving bosoms and gnashed teeth. On the other hand, we have a story heavily reliant on the two main characters behaving like magnificently stupid children, cartoon brutes determined to violate every orifice of our heroine, and psychotic evil ex-girlfriends.
Heather Simmons is impressive in that, after so many decades since the publication of this book, she still manages to remain a strong contender for the title of the most stupid romance heroine in existence ever. Like so many particularly imbecilic female characters in the genre, Heather tries to make up for her braindead state of mind by being a paragon of Mary Sue wretches everywhere. She is 18, but the story will repeatedly mention that she looks much younger, barely over 14 at one point, and that's actually supposed to be a compliment to our heroine. Her father is a loser gambler, and Heather is under the care of an obese aunt who takes delight in working Heather to the bone, making her do all the housework, when evil Aunt Fanny isn't taking pleasure in flogging our heroine and reminding her that, being the daughter of a Scottish woman, Heather is an inferior human being. Despite being worked to the bone and flogged left and right, Heather remains pure and beautiful, her innocence actually radiating through the grime and dirt, because every man in this book will try to rape her.
Brandon Birmingham, being our hero, actually gets to rape her, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Aunt Fanny's darling brother, William Court, comes down for a visit one day. We know he's evil too because he's also fat, although not as fat as Aunt Fanny. Fat people are evil in this book, along with big-breasted women who like sex. Anyway, William takes Heather to London, supposedly to find her a good job, and gullible Heather learns too late that William only wants to rape her before making her an employee in his brothel. She struggles and knocks him unconscious, and then wanders the streets of London in a confused haze until Brandon's friends decide that she's a streetwalker and drag her onto his ship, where he then proceeds to jolly roger her with gusto. Heather, being a virgin, is like, "No! No! No! I hate him now! But cor, he's hot!"
Yes, there's one rape scene here, but it's actually pretty mild unlike, say, those rape scenes by Rosemary Rogers, and for the rest of the story, Brandon is actually quite kind to her. But first, let's go back to the post-rape morning after. Brandon, seeing all that blood on the sheets, comes to a reasonable conclusion that he... no, no, he doesn't think that he hurt her when he raped her, don't be silly. He realizes that Heather was a virgin! And, of course, this means that she is a decent lady, as no virgins will sell themselves on the streets. Seriously, that's his rationale in this story. Thinking is clearly not his strongest virtue. At any rate, Brandon offers to set Heather up as his mistress, promising her a life of wealth and ease.
Now, any sane person in Heather's shoes will realize that she has had a lucky break as this is her best chance to escape a life with an abusive aunt. But what does Heather do? She runs back to her aunt so that she can continue being Aunt Fanny's punching bag! When Aunt Fanny realizes that Heather is pregnant and forces the name of the father out of Heather, she drags Heather to Brandon, hoping to profit from the event. Unfortunately for Aunt Fanny, Brandon gives her the finger and shoves her off while marrying Heather and generally being a surprisingly agreeable husband after that. Of course, he's also dense in that he angrily vows to never have sex with Heather again after they exchange words one time too many, but he doesn't beat Heather or subject her to brutal schemes of revenge. He actually protects her from those who want to cut her down, including his crazy ex-girlfriend, which is something I don't always come across in romance heroes from those days. Even more astonishingly, he remains faithful to Heather despite her not letting him shag her for about a year.
It is Heather who spends almost the whole book acting like the biggest bitch ever. When Brandon wants to set her up at a comfortable inn instead of making her stay on his ship, for example, she shrieks that he wants to abandon her and his son so that he can have his fun on his ship. Whenever someone, not just Brandon, compliments her on her beauty, she would complain that she is being treated like a whore. When she is not overreacting to everything, she refuses to let her husband touch her while running around in ballrooms and getting cozy with other guys in full view of her husband. When her husband even looks at his ex-girlfriend for a second, she flies into jealous rage, but she doesn't understand why the husband gets angry when she dances with other guys and runs off with them into dark corners of the garden. Really, she doesn't, because she's really that stupid. If she is doing all this just to get back at Brandon for raping her, I may understand and even respect her for her antics, but Heather is really that stupid, and that's really tragic. Needless to say, because every man in this book wants to rape her, Brandon always has to come to her rescue. You can imagine how he feels, I'm sure. It is only in the last quarter of this book or so that Heather finally gets an epiphany and starts playing nicer with the husband. By that point, I'm starting to believe that poor Brandon, despite his bluster and constantly gritted teeth, is actually badly whipped by the wife.
Curiously enough, I actually find the "romance" here pretty believable. Brandon is so whipped by Heather that they may actually be all right together. She has behaved her worst, and still he managed to stay by her side without getting any on the side or acting cruel. That's not to say that he is a prize himself, since he is often as stubborn and immovable as Heather. But he is actually quite nice to her considering the things she has put him through, and they both seem to be a bit wiser by the last page. Thus, this is one of the few books from that era where the fun doesn't solely arise from the titillation of the rape scenes - the romance is actually quite... plausible.
But that's not the only reason why I find this book unexpectedly readable. This book is pure crack: it's unintentionally hilarious and occasionally brilliant from start to finish. The Madonna/Whore overtones, the cartoon villains with grotesque look and body shape, the heroine's relentless stupidity and contradictory behavior, and the way she keeps doing stupid things that will make even the most masochistic Mary Balogh heroine wince... all these and more make this book a really fun campy read. But there are also some moments of brilliance that stems mostly from unexpectedly elegant prose. The later books by this author tend to be dripping in purple prose, but in this one, the author displays a knack for making a scene come alive.
Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside, it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet. The hot sweltering air was motionless; dust hung above the road, still reminding the restless of a coach that had passed several hours before.
Not that the author doesn't dip into excess - a particularly memorable example will be the villain's epic monologue to the heroine, which stretches over three pages and comes complete with cackles and other displays of hammy behavior. Still, the appeal of the book is so much enriched when the narrative is just begging to be read in a stiff-lipped posh English accent. There is nothing more hilariously macabre than reading a scene of Heather nearly being raped once again in Judi Dench's voice in my head.
The Flame And The Flower is, in many ways, a cringe-inducing romance story because it is impossible to take all that ham and cheese seriously. At the same time, though, this one does have its charm, even if much of it comes in the form of unintentional comedy. Most notable is how this book subverts as many stereotypes about bodice-ripper romance novels as it perpetuates them. This book may not have aged well, but it remains a readable book for reasons right or wrong. Perhaps that's why this book is a classic. It just keeps giving after all these years!
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