The Flame and the Flower: An Experiment Gone Awry
So, the year is 1799 and there’s this almost-eighteen-year-old girl Heather who is relegated to living with her poor relations because of her father’s gambling and subsequent death (her mother died in childbirth). Her aunt is horrible – makes her do all the nasty chores and her uncle is a cuckold, so Heather has little to look forward to in life. But then the aunt’s well-to-do brother comes calling one day and whisks Heather away from the horridness of near poverty with the promise of a job as teacher at ‘Lady Cabot’s finishing school’.
Well, needless to say, Heather is a little naïve. She’s not all that confident in her own beauty (nasty aunty kept her in big ugly clothes and didn’t allow her to have a mirror) and really, up until two years ago she’s been accustomed to a higher level of lifestyle when her father was alive. Anyway, whisked off to bustling London, creepy uncle feeds Heather and gives her a ‘special’ dress to wear – kindof the equivalent of a flesh-toned bodysuit in dress form, which, of course, Heather being the inexperienced virginal young woman that she is – thinks is absolutely beautiful.
I won’t spoil the book by telling you all the details, but Heather somehow manages to find herself in the clutches of thirty-five year old American Captain Brandon Birmingham down in the seedy docksides of London. Herded into his cabin aboard his merchant ship the Fleetwood the Captain mistakes her for a prostitute and rapes her – repeatedly. Needless to say, she is no longer a virgin and Brandon is confused as to why she didn’t barter with him for a larger sum of money for her virginity (apparently a commodity).
Now, when he rapes her again the next morning – and the rape scenes are graphic and unmistakable in violence – Brandon’s like hey, what’s going on here? You don’t seem like the typical hooker. And Heather’s like, uh yeah buddy, ‘cause I’m not, I was lost in the city and not peddling my wares. And he’s like well, do you have any parents? Anyone I have to worry about? And she’s like, no. So then he’s like, well problem solved, you’ll be my whore on the side (oh, sorry, I believe the author used the word ‘paramour’), and you better get used to it ‘cause baby I’m going to want you again and again and again. Well, Heather is not impressed and escapes the first chance she gets.
And where does little ‘ruined’ Heather go? But back to her nasty aunty and pitiful uncle in the countryside. Back to scullery drudgery. Now, Heather likes her baths and about a month later when she’s having one, good ol’ aunty notices that her belly is a little rounded where it wasn’t before. Oh yikes, the shit has hit the fan. Brandon’s sperm has proven to be mighty little swimmers and before anyone could say Bob’s yer uncle Heather is married to her rapist and set to sail to Charleston where they’ll live on his plantation.
Okay, seriously, this story goes on for another three hundred pages and I’m not about to go further into the ridiculousness of this really outrageous ditty but, I will tell you this . . . what is a romance novel without love? I know, I know, I shouldn’t spoil the ending but as improbable and disgusting as it sounds Heather and Brandon do fall in love and live happily ever after.
Why? Oh why did I read this tome do you ask? Well, Kathleen Woodiwiss made news with her recent death at the young age of 68 and as I read the articles outlining her ‘trailblazing’ career I was intrigued when they made mention that she is credited with inventing the modern historical romance novel. And because I work in a library in a department where many of our patrons read authors such as Woodiwiss I thought “Ger, you should read this in homage to genre-busting author Kathleen”. Ohmygod, well, I will not relive that experience ever. The Flame and the Flower was first published in 1972 and went on to become a giant bestseller, selling over two million copies in its first four years in print. I don’t know how or why especially considering the time period it would have sold so many copies. My only consolation is that I borrowed the book from my library and didn’t buy it. Hah. It’s the small things, you know?