Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A history lesson, and today's challenge -- 9,310

There was a discussion the other day at Dear Author about the impact that the late Kathleen E. Woodiwiss had on the genre of historical romance.  That discussion covers the facts about the publication of Woodiwiss's first two novels, The Flame and the Flower (1972) and The Wolf and the Dove (1974) in sufficient detail that they need not be repeated here.

But once again I'm somewhat surprised at the way this one author and one book are treated as if they were without precedent, either in the publishing and literary world or in the wider popular culture, that they just popped up like fairy mushrooms after a rain.

The genre of "historical romance" -- defined as a love story set in an era prior to the author's -- had been around for a good long time.  Shakespeare wrote of Romeo and Juliet, Dumas pere of Edmond Dantes and Mercedes, Dickens of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette.  Rafael Sabatini gave us Captain Blood and Scaramouche.  Through the 20th Century we had movies and radio programs and television programs set in the lavishly costumed past.  Nothing was more popular on American television than westerns, and even if Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp and Paladin didn't have their own HEA endings each week, there was usually someone else in the episode who did.

Writers tend also to be readers, and there was plenty of popular historical fiction out there for writers like Woodiwiss and her early colleagues to read.

While most of the historical fiction was written by men and featured male main protagonists, there were some very notable exceptions.  Two of the most popular historical novels of the first half of the twentieth century were written by women and featured unconventional female protagonists:  Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1938) and Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber (1944).

GWTW became a beloved classic, both the book and the movie, but the lusty Restoration wench Amber raised controversy.  She was "banned in Boston" and the movie version had to be tamed down to mollify the Catholic Church.  I read both books as a teen-ager and never again since, but the enduring popularity of GWTW the movie, as well as its inclusion in so many "most romantic" lists, has kept it fresher in my mind than Forever Amber.  Even though the latter was enormously popular in its day, it did not receive quite the cult status Mitchell's nostalgic look at the Civil War did.  (How much Mitchell's perspective influenced 20th Century popular attitudes toward the South, the War, and even slavery will have to be left for another time.)

The Winsor book, of course, featured the sexual exploits of the heroine as much as the history, and that's what gave it a notoriety that GWTW never achieved; Scarlett kept her bedroom exploits safely and discreetly within the bounds of reasonably conventional marriages.

What I think a lot of analysts forget, however, is that between Forever Amber  of 1944 and The Flame and the Flower of 1972, there had been a sea change in American attitudes toward sex and toward women.  Woodiwiss lived through that change and could not have failed to be influenced by it, regardless which way she went.  Did the relaxing of restrictions on women's sexuality offend her and make her long for a time when good girls didn't unless bad (but not too bad) boys made them?  Or was she looking to celebrate, through her novel, women's growing freedom of sexual expression?

Her personal position on the changing sexual environment is less important than the fact that she engaged in the discussion.  But it was not a discussion that she herself started.  The years between 1944 and 1972 had seen the establishment of acceptable mainstream male pornography in the form of Playboy magazine.  Grace Metalious's novel Peyton Place hit the best-seller list with its tale of sex and incest and small town nastiness, then was made into a movie and even a television evening soap opera, bringing if not sexual acts at least their consequences into the American living room in prime time.  The 1950s and 1960s saw high-profile mainstream movies such as From Here to Eternity and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and Last Tango in Paris and dozens more bring sexuality into the popular culture.  The Beatles and and Woodstock all predated The Flame and the Flower.

So did another book, and it might have been more of an influence on how and why Avon editor Nancy Coffey put the power of her marketing department behind Woodiwiss's book. 

In 1969, Joan Garity wrote The Sensuous WomanThe Kinsey Reports (1948 and 1953) and Masters and Johnson's Human Sexual Response  (1966) took sex out of the bedroom (or the back seat) and into the arena of public discussion, but these were clinical studies of anonymous individuals or groups of individuals.  They were not descriptions of techniques for sexual pleasure.  Garity, known only as "J" on the book, detailed how a woman could learn to enjoy physical sexual fulfillment.

That was the cultural background in which Woodiwiss wrote, but it was also the cultural background in which Coffey edited.  And because that cultural environment had changed since 1944 when Forever Amber was published, The Flame and the Flower began a trend rather than being a lone success, not because it was something altogether new and different, but because it was the natural evolution of a literary form that developed within a social -- and sexual -- context.

The Flame and the Flower was not a test-tube baby.   We'll never know how many other sexy historical romances were in Nancy Coffey's slush pile.  We'll never know how many others she rejected before that happy day when she picked up that particular manuscript and couldn't put it down.  We'll probably never know what other editors thought when they rejected Woodiwiss's book or others like it.

Woodiwiss, as some have said, just happened to be extraordinarily lucky.  And for many of the rest of us who followed in her footsteps, we're glad she was.

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