This week has been a sort of harrowing of literary hells. We have just one more hell to turn out—the deepest, the blackest, of all; this is the worst book I have ever read in a lifetime of reading indiscriminately, and once more, I can offer no excuses for hashing through all 800 pages of it. And once more, I'm putting this review behind a cut, with awful warnings not to venture on--mature themes and lots of indignation from me lie ahead.
There is a continuity in the history of fiction, and in the last week we have had a look at one small section of it. First came the romantic fiction of Ethel M Dell, which enthroned passion and emotions above nearly everything else; and then came EM Hull with The Sheik, in which she suggested that no indignity was too much in the service of passion; and then came Kathleen Winsor with Forever Amber and the idea that no evil was too much in the service of passion.
I should have known. I should have checked Wikipedia. I should have stopped reading after the first ten pages, or fifty. At least this book was not at all subtle—I knew immediately how bad it was, and why.
The heroine, Amber St Clare, is the orphan daughter of a runaway heiress of some description. She's brought up in a rural village in the Puritan Commonwealth by people she believes to be her relations, and by the age of seventeen is hated by all the other girls in the village for being prettier and more chased by the boys than they are. Then comes the restoration of the monarchy and a group of Cavaliers, newly arrived from France, travel through on the way to London. They stay a night or two at the village and Amber falls hard for one of them—one Bruce, Lord Carlton.
Yes, it's a book set in 1660 featuring characters named Amber and Bruce.
Amber is pretty, wilful, and totally uninhibited, so she begs Carlton to take her with him to London. He does so, promising that he will not marry her and that she should remember this in future days. She does not. Eventually business calls him away and he leaves her alone and pregnant in London, where she becomes ripe picking for a pair of fortune-hunters and winds up in debtor's prison. She gets out of prison by attaching herself to a highwayman, and soon finds that she can earn a living on the stage and by certain other means. Amber wants nothing so much as Lord Carlton, but she's no less ambitious for money and power as she coldly schemes, sleeps, and marries her way to the very top—to the rank of Countess. But even then, though he's glad to take advantage of her every time he visits London, Bruce Carlton is not at all interested in marrying Amber, and she is not at all put off.
That's a simple sketch of the 800-page plot. I might take a moment to add that the novel was originally much longer. Not half as long again; not twice as long; but five times longer before it was edited into shape. Ugh!
The task of explaining why this book is so extremely detestable is difficult because it is detestable in almost every way—and I don't want to recap the whole vile book to you. The heroine is awful. So is the hero. Oddly enough, the only halfway nice character is an old Puritan gentleman whom Amber dupes into marrying her, and whose family is horrible. Any other halfway nice characters are either killed or cuckolded. And any characters who you thought were nice, from your historical studies? Really contemptible scoundrels like everyone else.
But let me take a stab at it, in point form.
- First, the book is really immoral. Amber's aim is basically to prostitute herself to wealthier and wealthier men until she attains financial security. And a whole bunch of others along the way too.
- Along the way, she indirectly causes several deaths, and murders many of her unborn children and one of her husbands.
- That particular husband was the one whose son she seduced because she was bored, by the way.
- She's demoniacally deceptive, lying to everyone about everything. She literally tricks an old, wealthy Puritan man into marrying her, then spends half their marriage cheating on him with Lord Carlton and on tenterhooks in case he should die after changing his will to exclude her—all she wants is his money, and he's actually the nicest person in the book.
- The 'hero' Lord Carlton is a disgusting goat, using Amber at every opportunity, among many, many others. Did I mention he's married?
- Amber is personally shrill, petty, cruel, cold, backbiting, calculating and wholly repulsive in every possible way. She's the best picture of the Proverbs harlot you've ever seen.
- Neither Bruce nor Amber mature throughout 800 pages and twelve years. They just go on being dishonourable, selfish, and scheming.
- All devout Christian people—except possibly the nice Puritan gentleman, who is just stupid—would actually love to be as gorgeous and promiscuous as Amber, but because they're ugly or not very clever or simply repressed by morality, they settle for being jealous and mean instead.
- All women are jealous and petty and backbiting, and hate Amber because she is just so much more alluring than all the other harlots.
- Well, of course the theatre is for displaying semi-naked women to prospective buyers. How dare the Puritans want to close it down?
- No person of sense or feeling would ever want to get married, because marriage is evil and repressive and is basically a form of living death.
And so on.
One additional thing annoyed me almost beyond bearing. Near the end of the book, Frances Stewart appears as a character. I've had a fondness for Frances since I read a book about her some years ago. Her major claim to fame is that she was the one woman Charles II wanted, that he never had. She appears otherwise to have been a somewhat silly woman, but it's accepted by most historians that she never had the bad sense to give in to the King, the only woman who ever did so. Kathleen Winsor, the author of this awful book, appears to have some sort of grudge against Frances for this and portrays her as contemptible, being “not chaste, but squeamish”. Indeed, no women are chaste in this book—they are either squeamish or ugly.
So why did I stick with it for 800 pages? I regret doing so now, but I need to explain something. The book depicts sin, not in its glamour but in its ugliness. Amber is really, truly, a vicious tart. This is not reading between the lines—it's right there in the text: her spite, her greed, her jealousy; her selfishness, her pettiness, her murderous concupiscence. And as I said, the book is a really good portrait of the harlot of Proverbs. When I was reading it, I kept saying to myself, “This is one of the best sermons against immorality I have ever read.” Because all her vitriol, her scheming, and her promiscuity gets Amber nowhere—wealth and power doesn't satisfy her deepest longings, her evil actions win her countless enemies, she can lose everything she's gained in an instant, and everyone hates her anyway because she's so cold and calculating. Amber spends most of the book being miserable.
I kept reading because I really wanted the book to improve. I thought, “Nobody could really condone all this wickedness—not even a lady novelist from the 1940s.” I hoped for a twist in the last few chapters, where Amber either reaps the consequences of her evil actions or comes to repentance.
Instead, at the end (literally within the last chapter), Amber's enemies concoct a plot to be rid of her. They cause news to come that Lord Carlton's wife has died, and of course Amber is at once up and away to the New World to hunt him down and marry him, as she has always wanted. The book ends abruptly as she leaves Whitehall, happy in the foolish belief that she has a future and leaving not a single person who is sad to see her go.
Now comes the really sad news: this bloated, soul-killing, horrid book was a smash hit upon its publication in 1944. Women everywhere loved it. In a 2002 Elaine Showalter wrote in The Guardian:
I was awed by Amber's courage, daring and strength. Rereading the novel now is no disappointment, and I am also impressed by Winsor's subversive feminism and the scope and ambition of her historical imagination. Like all great best-sellers, Forever Amber revealed its age's secret desires and myths. The headstrong Amber - beautiful, empowered, resilient - represents a rebellion other women identified with, even, like my mother, as they hid the book away in the cupboard.
Sixty, seventy years ago, the women of the Western world read this book—and took it to their hearts. Think about that for a while.