Mar 2 2012 9:30am

Forced Seduction in Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind

Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen E. WoodiwissWe’re reading our way across romance at a time. And, to make it even more fun, we’re doing it in order of incorporation into the United States.

Louisiana: Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

I don’t think it has ever taken me so long to finish a book as it took me to at last arrive at the final sentence of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind. I’m talking Classic Russian Literature long. I’m talking James Joyce long. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell long. Long. And I don’t even really know why. I liked it well enough, for the most part, and it was actually pretty exciting, in that I had no idea where next this hectic narrative was going to take us. It just took me a long time to get there.


When I first broached the topic of reading this novel – in honor of Louisiana, the eighteenth state to join the Union, as you may or may not be aware — with my Perfect Unions cohort, the inimitable Kate Nagy, she said she looked forward to my thoughts on it, since it had been all the rage with her classmates in junior high and she wondered how it had held up over the intervening years.

All I can say is, I am mightily impressed with the teenage girls of Topeka, Kansas, back in the day; not only because the fashion among my peers at an equivalent age was Flowers in the Attic and the racier bits of assorted Judy Blume novels, but also because this is one perambulating, frustrating, word-heavy and really, I cannot emphasize this enough, long book, so I have to applaud their tenacity in getting through it at an age at which many—ahem—might have considered Tiger Beat to be of sufficient length.

On the other hand, this does feel like the kind of would-be sweeping historical epic that teenage girls would enjoy. It’s Gone with the Wind Lite (there’s even “wind” in the title—really?), with plenty of those racier bits to titillate the youngsters—but unlike the ones found in Blume’s Forever, there’s corsets and petticoats and more than a little “forcible seduction” involved.


Look, I am no Gone with the Wind fangirl. I dislike the movie, actively detest the book, and have never understood the fascination it has held for so many for so long. But even I found it in me to take exception at some of the glaring…er…compliments to that famous work paid here by Woodiwiss. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?)

Just like in Gone with the Wind, we treat with a bewitching Southern belle and her forthright Yankee suitor during—and after—the U.S. Civil War. Just like in Gone with the Wind, said belle, Alaina McGaren by name, is fiercely attached to her palatial family home, and finds herself in quite desperate straits. I could go on, but won’t, if only because the many ways in which this novel resembles its mighty predecessor are vastly outnumbered by the almost Barbara Cartland-worthy histrionics through which the plot erratically hurtles.

There are so many tropes at work here, I don’t even know where to begin. We have Heroine in Drag. We have not one but two cases of Forced to Marry. We have Mistaken Identity, and Lost Treasure, and Falsely Accused, and Interfering Uncle. There is a nefarious villain who desires our heroine, but who also happens to be involved in every facet of the (exhausting) plot in a peculiarly convenient manner. How to put it in a nutshell for you? Well, it would have to be one hell of a big nut. But here goes…

Disembarking into the port of New Orleans comes a disheveled but plucky young lad, who rapidly attracts the ire of a) a flashily-clad and arrogant brute of whom we are bound to see more anon, and b) a passel of Union soldiers looking for some easy sport in the occupied Confederate city. Fortunately for the lad (and the remainder of the story), he is rescued from their attentions by one Captain Cole Latimer, a doctor at the Army Hospital, who bids the boy join him for something to eat and presses upon him a job scrubbing the wards . Dropping the boy—who calls himself “Al”—off at his uncle’s house, Cole meets the beautiful Roberta, a scheming, self-important young miss who is not nearly as attractive in thought as she is in appearance. And who is quite delighted to see that her young cousin, no mere “Al” but, of course, but spirited, captivating Alaina, is determined to play the part of a boy, and is therefore no feminine competition.

Railing against that “Yankee bluebellies” whenever the occasion offers itself (and it offers itself a lot), Alaina maintains her “Al” masquerade; one she donned to escape the false charges of espionage leveled against her by a Union officer whose advances she had rebuffed. Soon, however, her good name is even more besmirched when it is believed that she aided and abetted a massacre of Confederate soldiers. She dons yet more disguises, including that of wanton hussy—her virtue is ripped from her one night by a drunken Cole, for whom the morning after the night before brings nothing but disaster, as he then believes he is in honor bound to wed the shrewish Roberta.

And seriously, by this point, we’re not even a quarter of the way through the book.

There follow outrageous near-death escapes and the relentless pursuit of Alaina by pretty much every available man in the book, along with some political intrigue and organized crime and a more than occasional willful misunderstanding betwixt our two star-crossed lovers. There is pride humbled and selves sacrificed. About halfway through, we abandon sultry, chaotic New Orleans for the northern reaches of frontier Minnesota, more masquerades are revealed—along with some truly bizarre coincidences for which there is really no excuse, nor even reason—and throughout we are treated to casual racism against former slaves and Native Americans that may be authentic to the period, but still feels really, really icky.

My main problem with this novel, though, is our so-called hero. Major Cole Latimer is probably the whiniest, most mercurial, aggravating and irrational protagonist of any romance novel I have ever read. He’s a weird combination of arrogant and insecure, solicitous and cold, generous and overbearing. He’s irrational, tyrannical, and assuredly not the sharpest bayonet in the armory. He’s a mean drunk. In fact, he’s a mean sober. And he’s not above threatening his second wife, our intrepid Alaina—to whom he had promised a marriage of convenience—with some unwanted husbandly attention. “I am a man and you are my wife. You have no right to deny me,” he tells her. Then he goes on to say: “I cannot promise I will never take you by force. I do not know that I can long endure this way.”

Wow, Cole. You had me at “no right to deny me.”

This was my first visit with the works of Woodiwiss, and I am not suggesting here that I will never again allow her to darken my door with her historical flights of fancy. This book was so busy, so very action-packed, that I find myself very curious to see what possible permutations of plot she has left herself to use in other such stories. Her prose, while at times labored—and her dialogue, at times laborious—is nevertheless quite readable, and I did find myself with a smile on my face as the craziness ended. But I read, wait let me count them…fourteen other books while also persisting with this one, and never has the percentage counter on my Kindle advanced as slowly as it did with Ashes in the Wind. My only theory as to why this might be is that there was just so much going on that I could only process it in small doses.

How disturbing, that Kate’s junior high classmates seem to have had no such trouble.


Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Ha, I think I read this in middle school too. Good times.

In all seriousness, though, it's so interesting to me to read reviews and meta on books I haven't read in years because it opens my eyes to things I did not even notice then. Most of the time I'm horrified, but I'm always surprised at what I missed and/or didn't get at the time.

Like Cole! I'm sure I thought he was swoonworthy back in the day. Now this is my favorite line in your review:
Wow, Cole. You had me at “no right to deny me.”
Great post, Rachel!
Clare 2e
2. clare2e
I've never been great with these kinds of draw-out epics. I have read some, but not very many. In high school, I just looked at the thickness of The Clan of the Cave Bear and decided it wouldn't be worth the trouble. I'm sure I missed out on things, but if we're taking Alaina from disguised youth all the way to second wife, and she and Cole still aren't close to loving each other (just guessing if forcible relations are still on the playlist), I'm reaching for something that takes less patience. Real life takes patience. I can be SO intolerant of needing it in my reading.
3. KatiD
My god I love this book. In an ethereal, "I read it when I was 14", kind of way. I still remember the Cole and Alaina fight over the bathtub. And when she barges into the study to care for him.

The thing that helps me with Woodiwiss's writing, which tends to be flowery beyond understanding AND uses the JRR Tolkein style of writing (why say one word when you can say 52?!), is that many of the romance conventions that are in the book, she originated or brought back to the forefront. She was the queen of secret babies, forced seduction and one of my favorites: secret heroes (A Rose in Winter). She really is a grande dame when it comes to romance, which I think is why I'm so inclined to feel affectionate towards her work. Also, I read her when I was a young teen in the 80s and it felt so different from other romances that were out there.

For the longest time A Rose in Winter was one of my favorite romances. I still have warm feelings about it, but it's definitely ponderous to read.
4. brontëgirl
Didn't notice that style of writing as per Tolkien but oh gracious Henry James is like that too! And Margaret Drabble.
Kiersten Hallie Krum
5. Kiersten
Oh man, remember when the horse steps on his leg, finally discharging the piece of sharpnel? Good times.

Yep, I was a junior-high reader-and lover-of the Woodiweiss oeuvre too and while never ever being at all inclined toward GWTW, loved AitW madly, along with Shanna, the Wolf and Dove and The Rose in Winter, to name another 3 classic Woodiwiss novels. I also devoured John Jakes North and South trilogy and Wouk's Winds of War. The long historical novel was The Thing then.

Her books were traiblazers at the time and I loved them to pieces - literally. I did get to the point where I could skip around the overwriting, so familiar with the books that I jumped to all my favorite parts.

It has been strange, though, having not read any of them for so long, to hear reviews from people new to her books and realize all the icky things I once took for granted, like the forced seduction and the casual racism. The books are still treasures of my young heart for what they meant then, but almost I don't want to jeopardize that memory with my adult eyes.

Great review!
6. rdsangel127117
I just couldn't sit by any longer and not come to the defense of one of my all time favorite authors. It has come to the point that every article I read about Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's novels breaks them down and makes them sound totally like trash, when in fact, if there wasn't a writer like her, today's writers wouldn't have the voice that they do or have license to write it.

I wasn't a teenager when I read her books. She was to many of us the "one and only" writer whose books we never ceased to wait on with bated breath, no matter how long it took. That's saying something. A lot of us, me included, still love that flowery prose and always will. Why didn't you just throw the book down and not read it, instead of ripping her work to shreds? It would have been the nicest thing to do.

Your opinion is just that ... yours and I respect you for it. I can understand you had an article to write, but what a disservice it is to her work. Just give her the credit she deserves, because she earned it. Your generation will never understand the appeal of her books. Why not leave it at that and not dissect them into nothingness to compare them with what's written today. This generation of readers will never have the respect, enthusiasim or understanding of what she wrote or love it as we did and still do. With that being said, her books will remain the treasures they are for me. Each time I re-read one, I'll remember why I love them so and be transported to another time by one of the best romance writers of all time. This article won't even come to mind.
7. Angel301
8. pamelia
I first read Woodiwiss when I was in junior high. Still love her books now that I'm 42. Even though "Ashes In the Wind" was not my favorite of her books (That goes to either "Shanna", "A Rose in Winter" or "The Wolf and the Dove" depending on my mood) I really enjoyed reading it. I also got the heavy "Gone With the Wind" overtones in the beginning, but even moreso this book's last half is "Rebecca" all over again. Gotta love the chutzpa of a mash up of those two books!
9. Irish Granny
Thank You rdsangel127117 for your wonderful and appropriate rebuttal to the tawdry attack on Ms. Woodiwiss' literary genius by an obviously non-writer, Rachel Hyland. It is easy to take a hatchet to a masterpiece if one has little to no knowledge of the potential of the English language. Today's average author has little to do but string together scenes filled with sex, violence, curse words and pass it off as "literature". So sad there is an entire generation missing out on spectacular journeys of the mind and heart. For shame, Ms. Hyland, there are many modern authors who could perhaps benefit and improve as a result of your so-called review, but you should stay away from true classics if you do not have the basic intelligence to understand and appreciate them. I have been reading since I was 8, and now 70+, and am proud to say I own all of Ms. Woodiwiss' works and mourn the fact she died far too young. Her legacy will live on in spite of people like Ms. Hyland.
10. KateNagy
Gotta speak up here.

Disagreeing with Rachel's take on the book? Okay, great, it takes all kinds, etc.

Casting aspersions on her writing ability and most especially her intelligence? Not cool at all.

For shame, indeed.
Megan Frampton
11. MFrampton
For the commenters attacking Rachel's take on the book--it's her take. It's her opinion. Just as your opinion is yours. But attacking Rachel herself is not acceptable, nor is making assumptions about what kind of reader she is.

Please keep all comments focused on the post, not on the post-er.
12. Lege Artis
Bashing Rachel- so not cool.
Vanessa Ouadi
13. Lafka
I'm really shocked, outraged and sad to read a comment such as Irish Granny's. If one disagree with Rachel's opinion of the Woodiwiss's book, it's one thing. To that you can answer almost everything you want _ that you found the plot wonderful and deeply believable, that you thought the characters were lovely and amazing, that Woodiwiss's writing style is inventive and mind-blowing _ anything. But insulting someone's intelligence because she has a divergent opinion from yours is revolting. Infering that someone is a silly average reader who simply can't appreciate litterature with a big L just because she didn't like a book you worship is revolting. And so much pedantic.
Rachel Hyland
14. RachelHyland
Well, this is all very amusing.

@ Everyone Not Currently Plotting My Death Thank you for your kind words and reasoned, cogent opinions. Also, nice defense! The Patriots could have used you guys in the Superbowl.

@ Kiersten

Yeah, don't do it. I recently reread the original novels of The Vampire Diaries, with which I was obsessed as a teenager, and nearly cried. Keep on your rose-colored glasses as long as you can.

@ Pamelia

Yes, totally Rebecca! I knew there was something else I was missing there. Nice one!

@ rdsangel127117 (and Angel301)
"This generation of readers will never have the respect, enthusiasm or understanding of what she wrote or love it as we did and still do."

Um... okay. I guess that's why the works of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy and the aforementioned Rebecca's Daphne du Maurier (to name but a few beloved authors whose work preceded my "generation") will always be so inscrutable to me, and to my peers.

Yes, that was my sarcastic voice.

And now...

@ Irish Granny

I should probably be quite cross with you, and shocked that a member of the Greatest Generation could display such outright discourtesy, but frankly your bizarre little rant reminds me just too adorably much of the sweet old lady who lives across from my house and who is always stopping me in the street to complain about the loud music our college-age neighbors play sometimes until as late as -- gasp! -- ten o'clock at night. "It's not even music," she'll warble shrilly, "it's just noise!" But apparently the raucous marching band music she plays at 8 am on a Sunday morning is perfectly acceptable.

Of course, I could now go on to make some comment about how, as a worshiper of Woodiwiss, it is possible that you missed the subtext of the previous analogy, and lay it all out for you, but I am disposed to give you and your level of intelligence the benefit of the doubt; how strange, that we are all abjured to be respectful of our elders, and yet the reverse is not true at all.
15. Ms T. Garden
I have long enjoyed the works of Ms. Woodiwiss. While I respect the opinion of the author of this post my opion differs greatly from hers as to the worthiness of the book.

I am saddened and dismayed by the writing norms today. Very few books give you a real sense of the character setting. You're not swept away into another world where you can almost taste the food or smell the flowers.

Instead things are pared down to the minimum and the words come across like a collection of Tweets.

If I had to choose between the rich, immersive, enjoyable wordiness of Ms. Woodiwiss and the literary equivalent of buckshot to the eyes, I'll take my purple prose.
16. catherine king
(Ashes in the wind) is my favorite, also love the (Wolf and the Dove). Kathleen Woodiwiss is an excellent romance writer,getting ready to read (The Flame and The Flower).
17. cybergrrl
wow, what a great review! i was merely curious about the headline as i had not heard the term "forced seduction" before (and am still unsure if it is more than an euphemism for rape) - but i found myself extremely well entertained by a review about a book which i would never consider reading. (or maybe now i almost would) which is the greatest compliment i can think of giving for a review :)
18. satinka
I was also one of the ones who read Woodiwiss as a tween. And while I do agree with some of what you said, I can not agree with all of it. It is a good period peice, most of her work is. And the level that she had to research it without the benifit of internet is truly impressive, as is the various prose and the realistic feel of the work. When you are talking about the 'forced seduction' and how Cole is talking to Alaina, it was how things were in those days, read some of the historical letters and papers from those days. And besides that there was really no force, because she actually loved him even then, she was just being stubborn at that point and not ready to give in to the feelings...something that I think most girls can relate to. My youngest is 12 and I just gave her Ashes in the Wind for her historical book report, since her favorite period is the civil war. I think that knowing the time periods that these books are written in helps with an author who actually did research and used it in the book.
19. Roselover
The reviewer is entitled to her opinion and up front I do not agree with her. Kathleen Woodiwiss was one of the great romance writers and her first book made millions and started a trend in Romance books. Authors who followed her did their best to pattern their own writing after Woodiwess. Not many of the modern writers can have that said about them.
20. rdsangel127117
@ Rachel Hyland

Touche in reference to the "my generation" comment. Okay, you got me to a certain extent and I'll capitulate just a little. Yes, I could hear your sarcasm as I read your answering remark. I'll stick with what I said, because I think at times it is hard to understand writing from a certain era. It was meant as only a generalization and not a personal affront to you or your peers. I love too many of the authors writing of today to make that broad a statement.

@All the Kathleen E. Woodiwiss readers

I loved every word you said in reference to her work and I wholeheartedly agree with you. To hear something positive about her work and what it meant to others gladdens my heart and makes me know that I'm not alone in loving her books.
Vanessa Ouadi
21. Lafka
@rdsangel127117 _ I don't know how things go in the US, but here in France, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' books are often reprinted (for instance by Jailu publishings) and sell very well _ at least as well as more recent authors'. I really don't think you're alone loving her books :)
Marian DeVol
22. ladyengineer
I never read Ashes in the Wind, but did read The Wolf and the Dove shortly after it came out in 1974 when I was in college.

I was never into Civil War era literature , possibly because my own family was involved. My great-great grandfather was a captain in the Union army (Mom's family is from West Virginia). His brother stayed out of the war and was thrown out of the Methodist-Episcopal Church for "suspected Southern sympathies". Both of them survived the war and never spoke to each other again.

Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (The Wolf and the Dove), along with Laurie McBain (Devil's Desire), Jan Cox Speas (Bride of the McHugh), and later Rosemary Rogers were guilty pleasures and escapes from the tedium of studying math, physics, and electrical engineering or writing papers for my few humanities classes (e.g. English - Shakespeare's Tragedies and Romances, Classical Studies - Ancient Mythographers, History - History of Science). Their work was the closest exposure I had to erotica at the time - okay, so I was incredibly naive in my late teens/early twenties. ;->

Most of these I haven't read in years with the possible exception of Laurie McBain's Devil's Desire. Not sure what I would think of them now.
23. pamelia
@ladyengineer: "Bride of the MacHugh" holds up really really well. I think it's one of the best romance novels ever and especially one of the best Scottish-set/Jacobean Revolution books. I reread that one about every 2-3 years and it never disappoints. Glad to hear someone else even remembers it! :)
24. Sue Lad
I read all of the Woodiwiss books as a young adult and enjoyed them, but I NEVER understood why Ashes in the Wind was quoted as her best. In my opinion, nothing beats her book SHANNA. I read it many times and have some favorite parts that I go back and read again when I am feeling nostalgic for the romance books from my youth. Perhaps they seemed great books then because there were not so many choices, but I always thought Woodiwiss stood out during the time with Shanna. The long length of the book at the time was great because if you were really immersed into the story, you could savor it until the happy ever after. The book takes place in colonial America and the Caribbean. The basic premise is that stong willed young Shanna tries to outfox her father who is trying to force her to marry to produce an heir. She does this by marrying a man that is falsely in prison and ready to be hanged. Ruark, the man she marries so she can tell her father that she followed his orders, is not hanged after all. He is sold as a bond servant to her father's plantation, and then the fun begins. This is a spicy adventure with descriptive writing and dialogue about the journey of a
spoiled young girl and her strong, magnetic, alpha husband who is not what he appears to be of course. But will he be loved for his character and not his unrevealed wealth and title? Shanna can be unlikeable at times, but she develops into a lovely woman who matures with values and a great love for her husband for himself. And yes there are some great love scenes as well as humor and emotional range. For me the star of the book is really Shanna's hunk of a husband Ruark. We should all be so lucky to have such a strong, supportive, and sexy guy.
Rachel Hyland
25. RachelHyland
@ satinka This portion of your comment, regarding the "forcible seduction" in this book, disturbs me so much I felt I had to respond: And besides that there was really no force, because she actually loved him even then, she was just being stubborn at that point and not ready to give in to the feelings...something that I think most girls can relate to.I now quote directly from the text, when Cole first takes Alaina's virtue without her consent -- not even, by the way, knowing the name of the woman he so desires, the manwhore:
"Captain Latimer, your eagerness astounds me. To the bed, Captain, and have another drink. Rest assured I will fly to you in but a moment's passing. But for now, I must go." A half frown, half smile crossed his face. "I have no knowledge of where your duties call you, girl, but I daresay they will wait. But right now"--Alaina saw the hard, flintlike gleam in his eyes--"I must have you." His arms swooped her up, and in a single lunge, they were on the bed.
Thereafter follows a physical struggle which the diminutive Alaina had no chance of winning. And then:
"Captain, please," Alaina begged, managing to keep her voice from betraying her alarm. "There will be plenty of time later. Let me go just for this moment." Her arm was almost freem abd she took heart. "Rest assured, Milord Yankee," she cajoled in the warmest tones, "I shall return to you as soon as my tasks permit."
The robe slipped. She was free! But so was he!! His arm flashed out, catching her above the elbow with a strength she had not thought possible in those lean, well-scrubbed hands. Though she pried at his fingers, she could not escape, and purposefully he drew her towards him.
That, cybergrrl, is a classic case of "forced seduction", and yes, it's pretty much rape, except in that the focus tends to be more on mutual sexy feelings rather than on violence (though often it incorporates both). Because, satinka, regardless of the time period -- and, indeed, of the female's true feelings towards whichever importunate man may be attempting to physically overcome her maidenly scruples -- "no" damn well means NO.

I don't have a problem with anyone who enjoys this form of purple prose, of course -- I know a few Christine Feehan fans, for example, who love nothing more than to see her strong, independent women debased by the Carpathian vampires'... er... sexual insistence -- but, please, let's call it what it is, and not make excuses for it.

"It wasn't really rape because she really wanted it" has been the defense mounted by frat boys and sports stars for years; it's the old "Well, she said 'no', but her body said 'yes', so I did it anyway, and besides, she's a total slut." Do we really, as women, feel comfortable perpetuating this myth, even in so mild a way as suggesting that Cole did not force himself on Alaina in this book, when plainly, he did?
Elizabeth Halliday
26. Ibbitts
I was reading mostly epics and sagas (Tolstoy, Hugo, Dumas) at 14. How did I miss this one? The only 'romances' I read at that time were the required ones on the academic list: Shakespeare, Austin, Bronte ... which is what probably put me off the regency romance genre to this day. Now I am going to have to read this book so I can find out what all this debate is about and decide for myself. Another instance of this website doing what it was designed to do ... thank you!

Note to RachelHyland -- there are reasons for rants and sarcasm and they are the same: age and environment make a huge differance in one's outlook when describing the same thing. A rant is simply a tool, and is no more disrespectful to those of us who are melanin-challenged that sarcasm is to you young folks. The reason it seems as if respect doesn't work both ways is because the seniors are trying to educate the juniors, even when it is done subconsciously and unintentionally. Experience really does alter perspective.
27. rdsangel127117
@ Pamela
I love Jan Cox Speas "Bride of the McHugh." In fact, I still have it! Love Laurie McBain, Rosemary Rogers and all the ladies who wrote back then.

@Sue Lad
"Ashes in the Wind" is my favorite of hers, but I agree that "Shanna" is her best. Most definitely!

'Experience really does alter perspective.' I so agree!

I have to agree with your deduction. Alaina already loved Cole, before the seduction. He loved her too even though he didn't know her true identity. For me it's all in how you perceive it and I'll never see it as being a forced seduction between them. I didn't then and I don't now. I even pulled out my book and re-read. To me it's still as beautiful as ever. Maybe it's just me, but it just seemed like two people trying to resist their inevitable attraction to each other and they finally lost the fight ... together.
28. RobinSch
I originally read this while a freshman - and totally fell in love with the book. Reading this again 30+ years later still loved the book - but to the reviewers comments - After two ex husbands and one long term partner - Cole is a lot more believable. Men can be real dicks in their need to be in control. But where they are in love they come around to better behavior if they are willing to accept and grow up and the woman has the patience to wait.
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