Friday, November 12, 2010

Another old book

Talking about Daphne du Maurier's book The King's General put me in mind of another book set in the same time period: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor. Written in 1944, it is frequently called the first historical romance (or bodice-ripper), as well as the first modern blockbuster novel, selling 100,000 copies in its first week after publication (and ultimately more than three million) and earning its author $200,000 for the film rights--riches in the 1940s.

The novel was censored in 14 states for being too risque (although Winsor pointed out the extensive use of ellipses to replace her two truly "sexy passages," and the book is not so much explicit in its details as in its attitudes), but was nonetheless the most-read work of popular fiction in its day. Both its author and its heroine were somewhat notorious; Kathleen Winsor was married four times (and divorced three times), and wrote her opus at the tender age of 24.

Winsor penned other novels, but none of them achieved anything near the success of Forever Amber. The book is often compared to another one-hit wonder, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, because of its historical basis, epic scope, and plucky, somewhat amoral heroine. (It's also more than 900 pages long!)

Amber St. Clare, the naive but intelligent and independent heroine, romps through Restoration England, going from simple country girl to Cavalier's mistress, from wife to jailbird to actress and courtesan. She lives and loves through the English Civil War, the Restoration of the monarchy, and the Plague of London, and it is both her personal story and the vivid historical details that capture the imagination so completely. Winsor paints a picture of Charles II's court with all its warts and foibles, and Amber enters fully and enthusiastically into its fashion, politics, and affairs. This is the perfect narrative for a rainy weekend with nothing much to do, because once you start reading it, you won't be able to accomplish anything else until you're done. Check it out!

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