Fuck you, The Flame and the Flower

Pardon my French. But really, The Flame and the Flower, fuck you.

I was reading snippets of Social Sister’s copy of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, which she got for Christmas, and it mentioned that the romance novel genre was kicked off by this one book, The Flame and the Flower. And I am interested in the ways genres develop, and I read and enjoyed Forever Amber a few years ago, so I decided to read The Flame and the Flower. I told this to Mumsy and she said I wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t believe her. I also had this conversation:

Jenny: I’m going to read The Flame and the Flower. I expect it will be extreeeeeemely rapey but I shall press on.
Captain Hammer: Well, how else would you know who the bad guys are?

I thought Captain Hammer was the naive one in this conversation, for thinking the rapist would be the book’s villain. But in fact I was nearly as naive as he was in my wild underestimation of the rapidity with which the rapeyness would commence. I was swiftly disillusioned. Like, 28 pages swiftly. No lie.

My notes for this post are massively indignant, because as I was reading and jotting down notes, I started noticing more and more things that pissed me off. A third of the way through reading it became clear to me that there wasn’t going to be any actual flames or actual flowers, and that the title in fact referred to the hero and heroine, respectively. That just couldn’t be any worse. In fact many things about this book just couldn’t be any worse.

Apparently Kathleen Woodiwiss gets praised for writing strong heroines? Says Wikipedia? How can that be? Heather, the “heroine” of The Flame and the Flower, decides to help bathe her husband so he won’t rape her quite so hard because she’ll be a dutiful wife or something. And then she’s sad that she’s such a coward. Heather, we are all sad about that. But for, like, five hundred pages. In the first sixty of which, be it said, Heather gets raped like four times and her mean aunt inexplicably rips her clothes off in front of a bunch of people to reveal her nakedness. The book talks about her nakedness a lot. She’s always trying to cover up her breasts because all her clothes are badly fitted and/or translucent so she’s constantly popping out of everything. Oh, and also? The “hero”, Brandon, tells her he’s going to teach her about pleasure, but the book’s from 1972 so he just means, like, nipple-tweaking. Heather’s not that into it but she’s too scared to tell him so because he flexed his jaw muscles and she finds that very frightening. I can’t even begin to tell you how unsexy the sex scenes are.

The cardinal sin, though, is that the whole book’s boring. I will forgive a book many many flaws if it’s got an engaging plot. Forever Amber had many of the same problems with gender issues, and rape specifically, although at least Amber did things on her own initiative and made everyone uncomfortable by wearing too-sexy clothes. But Forever Amber was so over-the-top packed full of plot that I hardly cared. The Flame and the Flower is sooooooooooooooooo boring. Even describing the plot points, predictable and idiotic as they are, makes them sound more interesting than they actually are. Heather gets kidnapped off the streets of London after accidentally killing her uncle, and as I was reading that part I was like, yawn, ho hum, when are we going to get some action up in this book? There’s no reason for that. Really. A murder and a kidnapping in quick succession should not face heavy competition for the reader’s attention from the motionless cows the reader can see out of her car window.

How, how, how is this the book that launched a thousand rapes? How did anybody read this book and say, Wow, this book’s so great it should be a whole genre? It’s so relentlessly boring and awful. It’s awful and it’s boring. Everyone in it is awful and boring. Everyone! If you ever think some character is going to be unawful and unboring you can think again, because I promise you they will turn out to be awful and boring in the end.

If you’re wondering why I bothered carrying on in this ranty way about a book that was published in 1972 in a genre that has moved miles past this rapey bullshit, I will explain that to you right now. It turns out Kathleen Woodiwiss is from Louisiana. Her and her rapey historical romance novels are apparently my state’s fault.



32 thoughts on “Fuck you, The Flame and the Flower

  1. The experience of reading the book may have been bad, but the review is entertaining; I’ve rarely seen someone splutter so effectively. So the man is fire and the woman a flower? Sounds like an inter-species match, doomed from the start because his proximity makes her wilt.

  2. The awfulness makes sense, but you saying boring makes me wonder how the author treated those scenes, I’m guessing as sensationalism in all cases rather than looking at how bad it was. It sounds awful, yes.

  3. Wow. That was quite a review. I’m impressed you got through the book. I don’t read much romance, but your post reminded me that I recently read Elizabeth Peters’ ‘Die For Love’ in which she satirises (specifically historical) romance and its writers. The blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (all about romance novels) occasionally reviews the “old-school” type of books, and is worth a read, since they poke a lot of fun.

    • I didn’t. I got three-quarters of the way through and eventually couldn’t manage to keep going. It wasn’t the rapes that did me in. It was the racism. I just couldn’t handle it. All the loyal black servants were one too many things for me to deal with.

      Die for Love has engendered in me a permanent longing to attend a romance novel writers’ convention. I will realize that dream someday.

  4. Well it WAS 1972. Part of the dubious charm of that particular decade (for me) was a total lack of political correctness. In ‘High Plains Drifter’ – which came out a year later – Clint casually rapes the town’s one prostitute because she gave him some lip. Fully dressed. And she kind of likes it. Of course, she does.

    I don’t know about the book ‘Forever Amber’ but I’ve always loved the film, even if it’s a bit sexist. It’s like ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ – totally of its time, and therein lies its charm.

  5. Oh holy cow, this sounds horribly terrible, and the fact that so many rape scenes exist in one book and are supposed to be “sexy” is almost as terrible as the fact that this tripe was written by a woman WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER!!! I would hate this book. That is a fact, and I will not be reading it.

  6. Apologies if I’m stating something very obvious here, but the “old-school” romance novels which included sex (as opposed to the chaste sort which Barbara Cartland wrote or you’d get in Women’s Weekly or similar magazines, probably before The Flame and the Flower kicked off) couldn’t at the time get away from the “nice girls don’t want sex” sort of idea, which is why the whole rape thing was included. The reasoning went that if the heroine was forced into having sex, then she was not a bad girl, which she would be if she actually was active in seeking sex (which is why Forever Amber was considered so shocking). And if they were portrayed as enjoying it, then it didn’t count against their nice-girl credentials. After all, they were written at a time when marital rape wasn’t considered a crime, either.

    Anyway, you probably know all that anyway! It is more troubling that a romance novel which changed the genre is so boring. Anyway, go visit http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/ for better comments than I can make on the romance genre.

    • No no. I know what you’re saying is right. I’m just resentful that a) that needed to be a thing; and b) Kathleen Woodiwiss declined to buck the trend. I mean Amber from Forever Amber was in love with one guy the whole time, sure, but she was also kind of having sex with whoever she wanted. That was more fun to read about. I know that the times were different etc, but it doesn’t make all the rapeyness any more palatable.

  7. Oh goodness I remember when my best friend in 9th grade started reading her books,like, The Wolf and the Dove (guess which one is the girl) so I tried to like them too….what a waste of life.

    I loved your review!

    • Did she? If I had read this when I was that age, I’d have been mortified to death and wouldn’t have admitted to having read it. I would have hid it under my mattress. :p

  8. My bestie in childhood was totally into romance novels but I just never got into them. I wonder now, seeing how both of our lives have turned out, if it all started there with the books we chose to read.

    • Hahahaha. I’ve never been into them, but I’ve been reading a bunch lately because they are so undemanding. I wish there were more authors who would write romance novels in which the romance isn’t the main point of the book. I have discovered I greatly prefer romance novels in which the protagonists have other things to worry about most of the time.

      • Have you ever read any D.E. Stevenson? Old and English and out of print, but perhaps still in your library…she wrote very undemanding but quite entertaining romancy books in the mid 20th century, some of which make for very fine comfort reading indeed! Such as Miss Buncle’s Book.

  9. I remember reading a bunch of Woodiwiss in my youth (one showed up on a Summer College Reading List, which baffled me even at the time. Yes, it was set in the past, but there was no history involved). But they have all glommed together. Is this the one where he sends his servant out to find a prostitute, and she assumes she’s being arrested and so goes with them meekly, and they have sex on the boat, and then they have to get married?

    If so, I thought it was hilarious. But I was only fifteen.

    • Hahahahaha. YES. That is the exact book you are remembering. And he’s like, Why isn’t she enjoying this more?, and it’s because she’s not a prostitute, she’s a lady. Or whatever.

  10. Oh, I’ve missed reading here! I’m just a big jerk.

    I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages for the very reason you read it. I had Woodiwiss confused in my head with Valerie Sherwood till um, just now. My sister lent me THIS TOWERING PASSION and HER SHINING SPLENDOR (which can only be written in caps because of how EPIC they are), which are pretty terrible. Down to the heroine being raped by her brother-in-law (I think?) and feeling her body “naturally respond.” Ugh. Same time period as Forever Amber, from what I recall but so NOT Forever Amber. (I love Forever Amber 4eva.)

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