Mar 21 2011 9:00am

Kathleen Woodiwiss: The Beatles of Historical Romance Pt. 1

The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. WoodiwissKathleen 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.

The Flame and the Flower Original CoverIf 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.

Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen E. WoodiwissThe 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.

The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen E. WoodiwissTake 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?

Continued in Part 2 . . .


Kinsey W. Holley can be found at her own website, is published with, is at Twitter @kinseyholley and blogs at

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Virginia Campbell
1. VirginiaCampbell
The fairy tales did it. They were the earliest contact that many of us had with the romance and adventure of earlier times. Beautifully illustrated books with wondrous fables of a fair maiden swept away into happiness by a handsome prince! Then came Disney. Animated movie magic with a singing fair maiden and her equally vocally gifted handsome prince! Ahhh, then things got juicier...romance books replaced the fairy tales. The fairy godmothers were replaced by Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, Barbara Cartland and Jane Austen. Childhood whimsy turned into a young girl's fancy! Then the girl became a young woman, and she was visited by the beneficent "Good Fairy", also known as Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. This "Good Fairy" of romance reads brought color and light, heart and heat, and hope for a true "happily ever after". Eyes were opened wide, a heart set afire, an imagination ignited, and a soul was touched by beauty.

My favorite work of romantic fiction is “Ashes in the Wind” by the late, great Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. “Ashes” is a soaring Civil War love story which shows the humanity and the tragedy of both sides of the conflict. Cole Latimer is a Yankee surgeon whose compassionate nature and strong physician’s ethics benefit both “the blue and the gray”. Alaina MacGaren is a beautiful young Southern woman forced to pose as a young boy in order to survive. In her disguise as “Al”, the young cleaning boy at the military hospital, she comes to know Dr. Latimer. The beginning of their relationship is that of sparring partners who form a tentative friendship. Once they finally face each other as man and woman, a deep, abiding love begins to grow. Their passion overcomes many doubts and obstacles and finally reaches full bloom. Both of these characters went through a personal growth process as the horror of the War Between the States and its lasting aftermath unfolded. Cole’s disgust and frustration when he was unable to save a life due to military interference was deeply felt. Alaina’s desire to be seen as a lovely young woman instead of a ragged boy was palpable. An unforgettable love story.
2. IvyD
Oh how I loved these books....I have to agree w/ Virigina C. My fave is Ashes in the Wind. I still have it. Another is Moonstruck Madness, the heroine was a Highwayman ~ I LOVED that.
The rape/love thing was big then. Anybody remember Luke & Laura, the club, the flashing disco ball? He raped her @ the club & they became one of the biggest love stories ever...hang even guys were rushing home from school to watch General Hospital. Hello Scorpio, he was gorgeous! They even made a campy movie about it. A young Demi Moore & John Stamos, Rick Springfield, gracious.
3. Katesel
I just reread "Ashes in the Wind". But "The Flame and the Flower" was my first. And how mind blowing it was. I had read "Jane Eyre" and "Rebecca" by then, but nothing prepared me for that. I am going on a long trip this summer, many hours in a plane and I plan on down loading "F and the F"on to my Kindle before I go. YAHOO!
4. Donna Watson
Thanks for introducing me to this fab author!!! Had never read anything of hers before reading this article and have now downloaded the "Wolf and the Dove" and The Flame and the Flower", and can't stop reading!

The first ever romance I read that had the notorious "rape" scenes in it was a Johanna Lindsey novel "Prisoner of my Desire" although the rape was of the hero to start with, but he soon turned the tables on the heroine! Got me hooked though :)
5. ms bookjunkie
My favorite Woodiwiss is PETALS ON THE RIVER. The hero is not at all rape-y or alpholish. In fact, he's really good with his hands…he's a carpenter. *g*
Megan Frampton
6. MFrampton
You guys, I have never read Woodiwiss.

I feel better, having confessed.

Carry on.
Kinsey Holley
7. KinseyHolley
Megan, I tweeted this to you, but I think after 30 it would be very hard to like Woodiwiss. I mean, she's definitely of her time, and that Old Skool template of the tough-bordering-on-cruel hero and the dubious consent and the heroine who endures all the angst and's really difficult to read if you have even an ounce of feminist sensibility. I mean, I like my heroes alpha and tormented and borderline asshole -- hi Vishous! Kiss kiss! -- but the Woodiwiss books are just too much. Or at least, that's my opinion. YMMV.
8. Lz123
Hi i'm new to this website and I have never read this author before seriously considering now, but i have to say for anyone who hasn't read "whitney, my love" by Judith McNaught it's a must read!
Skylar Kade
9. skylarkade
Hey Kinsey, great post! I didn't grow up with Woodwiss, but one of my
first romances was an older Catherine Coulter. No rape-y alpholes, and
the heroine impressed me with her strength and independence.

I'll have to dig into my languishing collection of Old Skool romances (whose covers are framed in my office!) and find a good one to read.
10. Marietta Davis
I think Kathleen was the first romance you ever gave me to read! I'm frantically digging around in my "old school" pile for Ashes in the Wind.
11. Mayra Vargas
The Wolf And The Dove was the first romance novel that I read and I've been hooked ever since!
12. cabepfir
thank you for this highly informative piece!
I'm reading my first Woodiwiss now - A Rose in Winter - and it's so much fun, even if I prefer Stuart to Christopher (and I know how the plot ends). I have noted the assholishness as well, and that was the issue which most perplexed me (how can the heroine stays with a man who deceived her like that? Answer: because he's too good in bed to miss). I'm glad to learn that it was a distinctive trope of the genre (I'm very new to romance fiction).
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