Mar 22 2011 3:00pm

Kathleen Woodiwiss: The Beatles of Historical Romance Pt. 2

The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen E. WoodiwissContinuing from “Kathleen Woodiwiss: The Beatles of Historical Romance, Part 1”:

As for the rapey-rapey aspects of the story—it’s not unique to The Wolf and the Dove, or to Kathleen Woodiwiss. Lots of the Old Skool novels featured near-rape or forced seduction or dubious consent or whatever you want to call it. (Anybody remember all the books with the creams?)

I’m not judging, mind you. The whole issue of rape fantasies is a controversial one, but I firmly believe you have a right to read whatever you want and it’s no one’s business what appeals to you or turns you on. I’m just saying—there’s lots of it’s-so-close-to-rape-let’s-just-call-it-rape going on in these books. Sure, the heroine always ends up loving it, but it starts out with a terrified virgin screaming and kicking and fighting and begging. (And there’s another bit of misinformation if you got your sexual education from romance novels. What’s with all the Old Skool heroines having an orgasm their very first time out of the chute?)

The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. WoodiwissIn The Flame and the Flower, the pretty and penurious orphan Heather Simmons is dragged aboard dark and manly Brandon Birmingham’s ship (long story). He mistakenly assumes she’s the prostitute he ordered. She doesn’t want to have sex with him, but he’s not going to let her protestations stop him, because everyone knows you can’t rape a whore. He figures out his mistake soon enough, and when Heather winds up pregnant, he very grudgingly marries her. They continue to hate each other for a few hundred more pages, but this doesn’t stop them from having sex. It was on Goodreads, I think, where someone used the term “daytime hatin’, nighttime matin’” for this dynamic. It’s very common in Old Skool.

There’s a non-sex scene in The Flame and the Flower that makes me cringe to read it now—I honestly don’t remember if I realized how icky it was when I read it as a 12-year-old.

’My dear Tory [Brandon’s brother says to Heather], you simply must learn to drawl like a Yankee.’ [This is 18th century America, so a Yankee is just an American.]

She acknowledged his comment with a nod of her head and mimicked the best drawl she knew. ’Why, yassah, Misser Jeff.’

The two brothers roared with laughter and she glanced between them, a bit confused at this response. Then she realized she had used a servant’s drawl, one quite different from those smooth, lazy voices of the women she had heard this morning, and she joined their hilarity, laughing at herself.

Um, yeah. Those “servants” were slaves (one reader has objected to the Disneyfication of plantation life in this book, and she’s right), and this passage is not at all funny. The black characters in the book are very one-dimensional. I don’t know if this attracted much attention in the ’70s. And just as I won’t judge anyone as to the content or the context of the romances they read, neither will I judge an author writing in a time far removed from our own, in zeitgeist as well as in years.

A lot of the sex in Woodiwiss’ and other Old Skool authors’ books is, in my opinion, just plain weird. There’s a scene near the end of Ashes in the Wind (1979) where Alaina and Cole, the heroine and hero, are imprisoned by the bad guys. They have their baby daughter with them, and she’s hungry.

When presented, the familiar nipple was latched onto with a lusty eagerness, and Glynis immediately quieted and, in relaxing contentment, kneaded the soft, white breast.

Cole watched with his usual fascination for bare bosoms, little daunted by their plight of the moment.

All three of them are in immediate danger from a psycho, but Cole can’t quit ogling Alaina’s breasts. While she’s feeding their child. I just find this scene . . . odd.

Then again, ideas about sex, and what’s sexy and what’s not, change over time. The ’70s sexual zeitgeist was kind of bizarre. Remember that Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex was published the same year as The Flame and The Flower. It was a cultural milestone, both a herald and a product of the sexual revolution. Its cheerfully candid celebration of human sexuality helped millions of people learn to think and talk about sex without shame, and that’s all to the good. But the original edition (it’s recently been revised) is quite dated, and parts of it are very offensive. The rear entry position is referred to as “La Negresse.” Comfort says that lesbians are women who’ve given up on men after kissing too many frogs, and he calls homosexuality a major sex problem.

Zeitgeist. Context. I’m not going to judge Woodiwiss and the Old Skool pioneers for being products of their time.

In explaining why Kathleen Woodiwiss was such a huge influence on romance literature, it seems like I’ve spent more than 2,000 words (sorry, H&H editors!) warning you about all the objectionable stuff you’ll find in her work. You might be left with the impression that I’m not a fan of Ms. Woodiwiss’ work—but that’s not the case. It’s true that I’m not generally a reader of big sweeping historical romances, and her writing style is not my thing. But even if the Beatles aren’t your cup of tea, if you like rock and roll, you have them to thank for it.

Woodiwiss wrote strong, spirited heroines at a time when the standard was passive. She wrote women who defended themselves, actively pursued their dreams and their loves, and didn’t let adversity or other people defeat them. She wrote passionate women who enjoyed sex and weren’t punished for it. She wrote frank and lusty sex scenes filled with tenderness and passion. Men had long had access to stories filled with action and sex; Woodiwiss’ books were far superior to that pulp. Woodiwiss’ books, and those of the Old Skool authors who followed her, implicitly invited women to read what they wanted without embarrassment or the need to justify their taste and choices to anyone else.

And even if Woodiwiss is not entirely to your taste, there’s no question that she was a good writer. Her plots were sprawling yet tightly plotted. Her characters were three-dimensional, their conflicts and motivations believable. Her prose was purple—again, a product of its time—but also smooth and readable. She took years to write each book, and it showed—the research was exhaustive, the historical settings accurate to the last detail.

The lady knew how to tell a story. Know how I know? I haven’t read The Flame and the Flower or The Wolf and the Dove or Ashes in the Wind in 35 years—at least. Yet I remembered every scene and plot point I discussed here. (I consulted the books, and a friend, to make sure I was remembering everything correctly.) When a story sticks with you for that long, it was well told.

Once someone does something for the first time, lots of people assume it was inevitable, that someone would’ve done it sooner or later. If there hadn’t been the Beatles, there would still have been the Rolling Stones. But the Rolling Stones weren’t the Beatles, and they didn’t do what the Beatles did. The Beatles were sui generis. And if Kathleen Woodiwiss hadn’t been convinced that her doorstop of a manuscript could find an audience as is, if she hadn’t had the gumption to send it straight to a paperback publisher, maybe someone, sometime later, would’ve done something similar. But Woodiwiss, like the Beatles, was sui generis. And whatever your preferred romance genre—contemporary, paranormal, erotic, historical—when you read it, you’re following the offshoot of a trail blazed by Kathleen Woodiwiss.


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

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Virginia Campbell
1. VirginiaCampbell
The subject of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and her work is too wide in its scope to be fully covered in this blog space. I will never support any writer who denigrates women, and I don't believe that Ms. Woodiwiss ever wrote a heroine who was "too stupid to live". I have a very strong opinion about rape. A close family member of mine was raped at knife-point when she in her early twenties. She had gone to a club with friends to listen to music. When her friends left her alone at the table, a man slid into the booth and pressed a knife into her ribs. He told her not to make a sound because if she did, he would cut her open and no one would notice right away in the dark, crowded, noisy nightclub. He forced her to leave the club with him and later raped her repeatedly, holding the knife to her throat. He told her that he would find her and kill her if she reported him to the police. This crime occurred in the mid-fifties, and out of shame, and fear that her family would find out, the lady did not report the crime.

I was almost raped by a family friend who made numerous advances toward me, but he was always careful not to be seen by anyone. To the public, and to my own family and friends, he was a "good guy". One day when I was about twenty and home alone while my mom was at work, our "friend" paid a visit. Mom and I had just bought a house together, and the friend said he just stopped by to see the house. It was the middle of the day, in a very populated neighborhood, and I was grubby from unpacking and working on the house. I never thought about him attacking me, but that's what he did! I am a big, tall woman, but he was taller and so much stronger than I was. He pinned my arms behind me, and my clothes tore, and he laughed at me. We struggled and struggled, and I started crying. I kept asking him why he was hurting me, and he said that he had always wanted me, that I was on his mind. I was terrified and I was so sick inside that I thought I was going to black out. Finally, he let me go and ran out of the house. I told my mom what happened, and the first thing she said was: "Why did you let him in when you were there by yourself?". I never told anyone else what happened, and I never let the man back in the house. He came back many, many times when I was there alone, but I never answered the door. All these years later, he is still a creep. Not long ago, he saw me in the grocery store and before I could get away, he came up and hugged me and pushed himself against me. God--I felt like I was twenty years old again!

As far as the writing of Ms. Woodiwiss, her the quality of her overall body of work far outshines anything negative in the collective content of her work. One of the things that I love most about "Ashes in the Wind" is how she portrayed the true horrors of the Civil War. While the hero was not a perfect man, he was a man of great compassion who did not see the blue or the gray. He was a surgeon who saw wounded human beings in need of skilled and caring medical treatment.

Over the last two years, I have really tried to stretch my reading muscles, and I have purchased some highly-hyped, heavily marketed "romance books" which unfortunately did not live up to their publicity. Hype may sell books, but it does not give a writer skill or worth as a storyteller. Many of these books were denigrating to women in sexual content, and the language was ludicrous. There are so many expressive words in the English language that are not profane.

A final word on the "against her will" issue. Both the book and the film version of "Gone With the Wind" are considered classics, and they set the standard for many books and films which have followed their release. One of the most memorable scenes from the film involves Rhett sweeping Scarlett off her feet at the bottom of the stairs and then carrying her up that long staircase to their bedroom. She pummeled him and protested all the way, but the next morning she was glowing and singing in her bedroom. The way she first looked at Rhett that morning was the look of a woman sexually in thrall with a man. We all know how that story ended! There are many other things about the book and film versions of "Gone With the Wind" that people may find offensive, and they may be well justified. People repeat the same patterns of behavior over and over again throughout history. The only way to learn from our mistakes is to recognize why we persist in bad behavior that is hurtful to others, and that is one of the reasons why I love historical romance. People never have been, and never will be, perfect--not the characters in the books, or the people who write about the characters in the books. Read and learn.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
@VirginiaC You share some powerful stuff here, and I bet everybody has encountered some sort of sexual violence or harassment in some way. It's, unfortunately, a fact of life. But as you say, nobody is perfect, and fiction isn't necessarily the place to be perfect. We all identify more with imperfect characters than perfect (and I like @KinseyHolley's take on Woodiwiss's writing als0, so thanks, Kinsey).
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