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Forever FOREVER AMBER: Revisiting Kathleen Winsor’s Racy Romance Classic

Long before E.L. James was burning up bestseller lists with her spicy 50 Shades novels, another book’s rumored bawdiness had readers flocking to their local bookstores and libraries in desperate hopes that they, too, might be able to get their hands on a copy. That book was Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. Published in 1944 by Macmillan, Forever Amber was an immediate sensation, selling over 100,000 copies its first week out. It would spend 75 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and would eventually sell more than 3 million copies. Even today, those who might recognize the title seem to link the popularity of Forever Amber with its rumored salacious content. But the truth of the matter is that there is so much more to Kathleen Winsor’s novel than a few racy bits.

Winsome Author Kathleen Winsor

Winsor, who worked part-time as both a journalist and a receptionist for the Oakland Tribune, was inspired to write Forever Amber while living with her husband, University of California football coach Robert John Herwig, who was working on his senior thesis on Charles II at the time. When the United States entered into World War II, Robert joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was sent overseas to fight. Meanwhile, back home, Winsor had become fascinated by the subject of her husband’s thesis and began reading everything she could find on the Restoration period. Winsor eventually claimed to have read 356 different titles about 17th-century England before she began writing her debut novel about tempestuous Amber St. Claire and her hopelessly star-crossed love for nobleman Bruce Carlton.

Forever Amber opens with 16-year-old Amber meeting Bruce as he rides through the small village of Marygreen, where she lives. After Bruce claims her virtue, Amber convinces him to let her accompany him to London, but once there, Bruce abandons a now pregnant Amber, leaving her to fend for herself. Using the only tools she has at her disposal—her wits and her body—Amber escapes from debtor’s prison to become one of Charles II’s many mistresses. Along the way, Amber enters into several marriages, gaining a fortune and a title in the process. Despite the number of men with whom Amber has dallied, she continues to yearn for the one man she can never have: Bruce.

“Adultery is not a crime, it is an amusement,” quips Amber. The fact that Amber was willing to trade her favors freely for commercial gain (among other things) did not go unnoticed by many readers with strong views on morality. The state of Massachusetts banned Forever Amber in 1945 for being “obscene, indecent, and impure” (or, in other words, a trifecta of literary naughtiness). The novel would eventually be censored in 14 different states, a move that, much to the consternation of the straight-laced guardians of the nation’s morality, only created even more of a demand for the book. Legal battles over the public morality of Forever Amber ended on March 10, 1947, when a judge in the Superior Court of Boston ruled that the novel was not obscene, stating that “the book by its very repetitions of Amber’s adventures in sex acts as a soporific rather than an aphrodisiac.”

Adding to the buzz was the furor around potential plans to make a movie based on the best-selling novel. Even before the first copy of Forever Amber hit the shelves, the influential Hays Office condemned the notorious novel, which only created even more of a demand for the book in Tinsel Town. 20th Century Fox ultimately won the rights to Forever Amber, paying a record $200,000, but the problem soon became how to get a screenplay past the censors, since the number of men with whom Amber kept company totaled far too many for the censors to permit. Eventually, the movie reduced Amber’s gentlemen callers to a more respectable (but still shocking) four, but even this was not enough to ensure that moviegoers understood exactly how wicked a lady Amber was. A prologue had to be added to the movie which informed viewers that “the wages of sin were death” (harsh much?). In the movie’s epilogue, Bruce laments to Amber, who had asked if she could run away with him, that they had already caused enough unhappiness between them, then begged God to forgive their sins. When the movie finally did come out in 1947, it proved to be a commercial (if not critical) success, thus proving the old Hollywood adage, “sex sells.”

Linda Darnell as the licentious Amber St. Clair

Despite how hot and bothered some readers have gotten about the book’s matter-of-fact approach to sex, anyone focusing solely on the sensual steaminess (which, compared to some of today’s books, seems lukewarm at best) ignores the real reason why Forever Amber became an immediate best-seller, and why it still sells today: It’s a darn good read. Winsor took everything she learned while inhaling untold volumes about Restoration England and used it to create a vividly detailed, sumptuously rich setting for her book. Then Winsor gifted readers with one of the most memorable heroines in 20th century literature. From the dark alleys of London to the glittering (and licentious) court of the Merry Monarch, Winsor puts the reader right there with Amber St. Claire as she struts the stages of England or nurses her true love through the Plague. Bold, impetuous, driven, courageous, and cunning, Amber (who was often compared to another memorable heroine of the time, Scarlett O’Hara) is a woman who seizes life with both hands.

In the introduction to the latest edition of Forever Amber, novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford (who, let’s be fair, is no slouch herself when it comes to creating compulsively readable doorstops) calls Forever Amber “a genuine page-turner.” In the end, isn’t this exactly what any reader wants? By all counts, this is exactly what Kathleen Winsor’s magnificently entertaining debut novel delivers.

 

 

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About the Author:

The Romance Writers of America 2002 Librarian of the Year, Charles has been reviewing romances for Booklist since 1999 and is the author of Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance. After working for the Scottsdale Public Library System for 30 years, Charles retired and went to work for Scottsdale's independent bookstore the Poisoned Pen, where he still gets to push books but has to deal with far fewer computer questions.

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