Title The Flame and the Flower
Series Birmingham #01
Author Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
Genre Historical Romance
Publication Date First published in April 1972
Synopsis: Set in the cusp of Georgian and Regency eras over 1799-1800, the story begins in a dilapidated cottage in England, where the heroine, Heather Simmons lives a life of toil handed by fate when her father dies, leaving his debts behind. The cottage belongs to Heather’s only living blood relatives, a weak paternal uncle and his overbearing and abusive wife, who grudgingly took her in. As Heather plays the slave to her aunt, who takes sadistic pleasure in terrorizing the girl for inheriting her mother’s stunning Irish beauty, she spends moments of reprieve reminiscing about her past of relative luxury in London where she dreams of returning to one day. The opportunity arrives when her aunt’s younger brother, a rich clothier, offers to help her find employment in a ladies’ school. However, once in London, he tries to rape Heather as he discloses his true plans to sell her into a brothel. Heather manages to escape after injuring him, only to be captured by a couple sailors who mistake her as a prostitute and take her to their merchant captain for the night. The captain and hero of the story, Brandon Birmingham proceeds to have his way with Heather, misinterpreting her struggle as coyness and divests her of her virginity. His solution to the injury caused is to turn her into his mistress, albeit an unwilling one. Heather manages to escape and return to her uncle’s cottage and eventually discovers she is pregnant. Her aunt, learning the truth, formulates a plan to profit from the situation by marrying Heather to Brandon, which he does in fear of legal repercussions. Unfortunately, Brandon believes Heather had a full hand in forcing him and decides to punish her by withholding his love and keeping her out of his bed – yet providing her with the necessities to live the life of a wealthy merchant’s wife. Having been traumatized by her sexual initiation, Heather finds this verdict more than welcome at first though eventually realizes the punishment for what it is – rejection. As the story progresses, the newly married couple sail back to South Carolina and settle into Brandon’s family mansion and plantation. The already timid Heather navigates her marriage like a flightless bird while Brandon suffers an irrepressible lust for her, all as their affection and dependency for each other grows.
Experience: I picked up the book when I came upon the title in an article on the history of “sexual revolution” in romance novels. As a romance reader, naturally, I was curious about the book that set the ball in motion to what lines the “Romance” sections in libraries and bookstores today. As an author, I felt it my duty to read up on works by the pioneer who paved the way for paperback romances. And so, it was with somewhat of an awe that I began reading.
I have to admit it took me a while to get into the mood to continue, though, once I got through the first few scenes. Living with the freedoms I enjoy in 2017, it is pretty difficult to relate to Heather Simmons, a meek woman-child who allows herself to be told she only has the weak mind of a woman and shuffles around from one life to another doing others’ biddings – who accidentally falls into a bed and then accidentally impales herself as she struggles to get away from the hero’s raging manhood. Moreover, her relationship with the hero begins with a full-on struggle to stop him from having sex with her but which he takes as foreplay only to later conclude his “mistake” easily redeemable (what we call rape today regardless of which angle you look at it) and moves along to where she admires his attractiveness, prowess and virility while lamenting that he took her virginity by force (as though rape is not rape if the rapist is handsome). Not the stuff of romantic heroes and heroines I am accustomed to – the moral compass gone haywire. But I trudged on, telling myself that I was reading a novel written by a woman who lived in the 70’s about a female character who lived in 1799. Perhaps The Flame and the Flower was the level of cognitive liberty and ethical progress achieved at the time Woodiwiss wrote the novel. She was a brazen feminist instigating a cultural revolution, a quality quite admirable and which I can live by. I am glad I reconciled myself to continue reading.
The book redeems itself to me as I realized the consistency with which Woodiwiss kept both Brandon and Heather’s individual streams of consciousness in chaos throughout the book. Heather keeps oscillating between being pleasantly surprised by the little acts of kindness Brandon displays and terror-stricken when his foul temper bursts forth (which by the way reflects back on her experience under her aunt’s reign); while Brandon’s struggle to keep his lust in check to salve his ego or relenting to a woman he thinks has forced him into marriage is also real. The consistency in the driving traits of each protagonist is what made the book a good read. Though Woodiwiss’s very descriptive narration and passages a bit on the longish side made the reading slow at first, a troupe of varied characters included later in the book pushes the plot along at a quicker pace, making the development of the romance between the hero and heroine enjoyable for Woodiwiss’s audience. Apart from the relatively steamy scenes, of course, which must have been quite refreshing for the women of the 70’s.
Recommendation: If you are well-versed in romance novels, this would be an excellent read to gain some perspective on what life must have been like back then (197o’s/1790’s). And once you adapt yourself to the culture shock, it is actually a pretty well-written novel with an entertaining plot. If you are newly venturing into the world of romance novels and a very impressionable young woman, please put it down and pick it up again a few years later – the material and characters within do not send the liberating messages we, romance authors, want representing us today.
P.S: I’m sorry to be posting my WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS on very early Thursday morning – which is a sad beginning for my first ever blog for the column. But I had picked up The Flame and the Flower as my initiation blog given its historic significance and well, you now know the rest.