Kathleen Woodiwiss didn’t invent the romance novel; Harlequin and Mills and Boon were publishing romances before Woodiwiss’ first book appeared in 1972. She didn’t invent the sweeping historical melodrama; Forever Amber, published in 1944, featured a feisty heroine and, according to Wikipedia, “70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men,” as well as the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and detailed depictions of life in Restoration England.
But Woodiwiss synthesized the two forms, thereby inventing the historical romance as we know it today. And she revolutionized the romance novel itself, permanently altering the market and laying the groundwork for romance to become the mainstay of mass market paperback sales and by far the largest share of the fiction market overall.
In other words, she was the Beatles.
If you’re 35 or under, you may not have read her books. If you’re closer to my age—i.e., the downhill side of 45—she may well have been the first romance author you ever read. And if you didn’t read her, then you probably read the other big names from the seventies and eighties—LaVyrle Spencer, Bertrice Small, Catherine Coulter, Rosemary Rogers, Jude Deveraux, and a handful of others who produced what the Smart Bitches call Old Skool romances. All of them owe something to Kathleen Woodiwiss (especially Spencer, whose first book was published because Woodiwiss passed the manuscript to her Avon editor.)
The manuscript for her first book, The Flame and the Flower (1972), was 600 pages long—romance novels at that time weren’t nearly so long, nor so ambitious in their narrative arcs. The agents and hardback publishers she sent it to all insisted it would have to be cut down. Woodiwiss refused.
She decided to try the paperback publishers instead; Avon was the second one listed in the Writer’s Digest she consulted. Nancy Coffey plucked the brick-sized manuscript from the slush pile, stayed up all night reading it, and told her bosses the next day that they had to publish it. It was an immediate best seller. (We pause here for a moment while all the authors daydream about that scenario for a moment. Sigh. Okay. Let’s move on.)
The Flame and the Flower was the first single-title romance (as opposed to a category) to be published straight to paperback rather than in hardback first. It made Avon the first publisher of the modern historical romance, and the imprint is still considered preeminent in the genre.
The book was also revolutionary in its (comparatively) strong heroine and in the way it tracked the relationship between the hero and the heroine throughout the book. Heather and Brandon were the only two major characters, and there were no subplots. All the big sweeping books with romantic and sexual elements that came before—Forever Amber, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls—featured huge casts and multiple plot threads.
The cover was a break with past romance tradition, as well. I love the original cover art, maybe because it gives me massive ’70s déjà vu:
Note the title, in a bigger font than the other text. Note also how Brandon and Heather are embracing—here’s your original romance cover clinch, which we take so for granted today. Romance covers up until then didn’t feature clinches, or even chaste embraces. The usual cover had a close-up of a woman’s face and maybe the face of a man in the background, or perhaps a man and a woman gazing at each other without touching: see here or here or here or here.
Most significantly, The Flame and The Flower followed its hero and heroine into the bedroom, and it described what they did there in explicit detail. Granted, the prose was purpler and the anatomical descriptions more euphemistic than what we read today, but it was far more graphic than any previous romance literature.
The Flame and The Flower sold millions, as did Woodiwiss’ subsequent books, including Ashes in the Wind, The Wolf and The Dove, and Shanna. And let’s be honest—it was the sexual content that made so many of us so eager to read them. This was amazing, mind blowing, never been read before stuff. To a Baptist girl in junior high, for example, whose mother wasn’t comfortable discussing sex and whose friends didn’t know much about it either, these books were informative and instructional. Don’t laugh—how many young boys first learn about sex in men’s magazines? Romance novels are no less unrealistic. (Okay, so for a long time I thought simultaneous orgasm was a normal feature of intercourse, but I figured out my mistake long before it became practically applicable.)
However, if you haven’t read Woodiwiss in a while, and if you don’t hang out at romance blogs where this topic is a frequent one, you might be a little surprised—disturbed, appalled, amused—at what you’ll find in these books. Women’s rights, civil rights, a deeper understanding of domestic and sexual violence—many people were concerned with these issues in the ’70s and early ’80s, but a lot of romance literature portrayed sexual dynamics and racial or sexual insensitivities that wouldn’t make it past an editor today.
For example: the alphole. The term was coined by Sarah Wendell and Cathy Tan in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. The alphole is the asshole alpha male hero. Now, even today some alpha male heroes start off as assholes, but you can pretty much bet that by the end of the book, they will have been sensitized, reformed, or at least forced to do some serious groveling before the heroines allow them their HEAs. In many Old Skool romances (and in many of the tamer romances that came before), the assholishness was a feature, not a bug, of the hero.
The hero of the Old Skool romance is frequently described as forbidding, intimidating, even cruel. His kisses are punishing or bruising. He crushes the heroine’s lips to his or imprisons her in his iron embrace. There’s a lot of “your lips say no no but your eyes say yes yes” and “you spurn me now but soon you’ll beg for my caresses” nonsense.
He’s often a misogynist, usually because a wife or lover or mother wounded him deeply. The alphole hero spends much of the book treating the heroine like dirt. Sometimes she runs away, or tries to. Just as often, though, she tolerates the treatment because she knows how badly he’s been hurt before, or because she’s determined to show him that he can trust her, or because he’s chained her to the bed.
Take Wulfgar, a Norman soldier under William the Conqueror in Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove (1974). He’s a valiant fighter, a leader of men, but he’s also illegitimate. His mother hated him, and so do his sister and his brother.
So we have to forgive the way his men invade the gorgeous Saxon Aislinn’s castle, kill her father, and beat and rape her mother. And the way he claims Aislinn as his personal slave, and chains her to his bed every night, and rapes her a few times and allows his men to grope her (this one features honest-to God-bodice ripping, and poor Aislinn has to mend a lot of bodices) and—what’s that? Did I say he raped her? I did. Some readers will argue with me, but—chains, beating, fear of death. For me, that adds up to rape.
Aislinn gets pregnant, and she’s tired of being treated like a whore, and she keeps nagging Wulfgar to marry her, and he won’t do it. So she quits having fun in bed—oh, they still have sex, because it’s not like she has a choice. But she’s not responsive anymore. Wulfgar finally deigns to marry her. Then yeehaw, boy howdy, Aislinn turns into a lil’ tiger in the sack, and he’s thrilled and amazed at the effect a wedding vow has had on her libido.
Can you imagine this being written, let alone published, in 2011?