Friday, April 29, 2011

Bad Novels: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor


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.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

hi, i was reading this and thinking, what is a proverbial harlot? or in fact, what is a proverb harlot with a capital P? i finally realised you must be referring to some biblical concept, possibly old testament. well, i've frequently come across this title, "forever amber", in secondhand bookshops, usually when my eyes were playing tricks on me and i thought i had discovered another title by eric AMBLER. in all these years, i'd never bothered to pick up the AMBER book and check it out, as female romance fiction is not quite my cup of tea. but your review has stirred my curiosity. i'm curious now to see whether the novel is actually such LITERARY trash, as you seem to imply, or whether it's just your gauge that's out of kilter...

Anonymous said...

I loved the hell out of this book because Amber and Bruce were such flawed human beings. It's refreshing to have main characters that are self serving and ignorant because real people are. Also I think you need to consider the time period and how people were behaving. If you were a man you were expected to have a mistress or else you would be mocked and wantonness was encouraged in women (hence why main people were cruel towards Francis Stewart). Bruce and Amber were a product of their time. I also like the relationship between Amber and Bruce because it's good to have historical fiction that doesn't end happily.

She fell completely in love with Bruce when she was a naive country girl and she never stopped loving him with the same slavish devotion. He just used her for sex yet she couldn't help hoping that he would fall in love with her. It's a really sad and obsessive unrequited relationship but it's also very real and I see happening a lot to my single friends. Amber is beautiful and witty and rich and still the man she loves doesn't give a damn about her. She also uses many people and lovers, who did really care for her, as a means to get Bruce's attention. She could have been happy yet she was so fixated on Bruce she ruined everything for herself. And I like that after striving to have wealth and title she's still miserable and rejected.

Kerry said...

I couldn't have said it any better than the person above as I loved the hell out of this book as well. I first read it when I was sixteen and it has been my favourite book since then (almost 50 years). Apart from loving the plot (and even loving the "evil" Amber and Bruce), I love how it sticks very close to the true history of those times, portraying the restoration and reign of Charles II, the plague and the great fire of London. A great historical novel. I think that most of the wealthy and powerful people in those days were immoral and selfish (not much different than today really) and it is quite easy to believe that these characters of Kathleen Windsor's could have existed. Wonderful novel!.

Kerry said...

I just wanted to add something that I really should have mentioned in my earlier comment. The writer shows that the characters both Amber and Bruce are not entirely appallingly malicious and malevolent. When most people who could, were leaving London because of the plague, Amber waits for Bruce’s ship to arrive. When it does arrive and she discovers that he has symptoms of the plague, she stays behind with him and risks the plague to, alone, nurse him through the illness, which she does. When he finally starts to recover they make plans to again get out of London but unfortunately Amber then catches the plague and Bruce out of gratitude (not love) stays behind and looks after her.

Anonymous said...

The initial reviewer sounds to me like a puritanical religious fanatic... the type that loved to see people of opposite beliefs burned at the stake back in those days. I suggest you stick to reviewing biblical historical fiction so that I will be unlikely to stumble across another off your reviews. I can't say that I "loved the heel out of this book", it had its flaws, but those harped on weren't flaws, they were a portrait (albeit somewhat embellished) of the real immorality of King Charles ll's court. His own immorality is well documented, and it was common for the King's court to follow his example.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, please forgive the typos, my phone misrepresented my typing and I wasn't wearing my glasses. "Heel" = hell and off = of.

Suzannah said...

Done! I'll even forgive your comments on my character and tastes in public entertainment!

Speaking of entertainment, I'm often amused by the furor this post generates. Folks, cool it. I understand if you love this book. Well, actually, I don't understand why you would love THIS book, but I understand, as a general thing, loving a book. Some of you have made interesting comments about why it isn't as horrible as I found it, and wisdom comes from a multitude of counsellors (there's another Proverb for you) so please do continue making such comments--and see comment policy on the sidebar at the right.

All this said, y'all seem to have the idea that I must not know anything about Restoration history to be so disgusted by this book. Just to clear things up, I am in fact well acquainted with the basic facts of the period, including the gaudy excesses up to which Charles and his merry crew regularly got. Still, the fact that the Restoration court frequently wallowed in the gutter is no reason why I should join them there. The fact that those people were depraved doesn't bother me and doesn't even particularly surprise me (I've read enough history to name off the top of my head about twenty people who make Charles II look like a choirboy--try reading Suetonius's TWELVE CAESARS or Paul Johnson's INTELLECTUALS sometime)--what makes this book such a waste of time is the fact that Katherine Winsor clearly thinks I should leap into the mud right along with them, and will peer at me over her little horn-rimmed spectacles in disapproval and contempt if I don't.

And so, in a friendly way, I would just like to say--

To Hell with that!

Anonymous said...

AMBER is the best book about unrequited love I have ever read. Only someone who has never loved and lost would fail to understand the heroine's actions and underlying emotions.
This book was considered racy and immoral in my grandmother's day.

Laurie M. Scott said...

My favorite book. I do know that time period. It really takes you there, truly. It was decadent then. Women like Amber with no social station would have been a housekeeper at best - wench at her village if she stayed. She had no good options. Plus she represents the inner bloodline that she felt in her bones. She was a fish out of water in Hicksville. She liked bad boys...which is her mistake! Bad boys want good girls. When the two met, Amber knew that she climbed a ladder only to look down and her competition standing firmly on the ground. Her insecurity was apparent from that altitude. But she never wasted one second being a statue like her Virginian rival. In Amber's mind Bruce wanted her because she demonstrated her love. She made his decision easy. But she had outgrown him. She had a different view atop the ladder. Still she didn't do all that for nothing. She would possess his heart or die trying. The reason the book appealed to women is that she thought like a man armed with the tools of a woman. That combination can only have short-term rewards in that era. By Quaker era, England thought women were too dumb. In America they were not. As Americans, we don't understand how different it was for women there...then. We are transported to her world her quick decision-making. We would crumble in debtors prison! Who are we kidding. She survives! So this book allows to get the thrills without the consequences.

Anonymous said...

O, I really enjoy this book.I could not put it down!

Calulu said...

I just finished reading this pile of excrement and I have to agree with you on many points. The Kindle version also has a pile of misspellings and mistakes that apparently no one on the editorial team caught.

To me the most shocking thing about the book is that any woman existing in the 2000s could find this book good or romantic. The anti-heroine Amber only exhibits decent behavior once or twice. She loves her children, just as long as she doesn't has to actually take care of them and she selflessly cares for Bruce when he contracts the plague.

I'd hate for anyone to ever think her social climbing/riches complying via her vagina is how any woman should ever behave. After a while the cycle of screw-marry-manipulate-screw Bruce-bear a child becomes dull, like watching the annual childbearing of your neighborhood fundamentalist. Ugh.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes... Amber was extremely naive. Having been drugged by the first man and taken to a hospital, she ran from him. Not wanting to be with him. Driven crazy by them and made to look real bad. There was no instruction manual and she can't fix anything. After 3 years of her torture, she finally sees the truth. How does she stop it? When she finally realizes their romance is not what it is about. She kept her children at a distance because she fears for them. I think she may have thought she was just delusional. Anyways, the characters if a movie were made would be look alikes and it would be poorly made. If only this book was not poorly written... I see it as a chance for an author to steer plot lines into untrue to character and life actions. It is not true to life. Bad character manipulation... and no idea how to fix the problem. How could such a delusional book ever be reality, right?

Anonymous said...

I just saw the (late-night)'47 movie...came to the 'puter to google "Amber", since I didn't remember that name among the mistresses of Charles 2, from my memories from a long ago English History class.
Anyhow, figured out it was romantic fiction pretty quick.
From your description,I don't think I'll be rushing out to find it to read....sounds too much like Gone With The Wind...and I never considered "ole Scarlett" much of a true heroin, considering HER appalling behavior, and the other similarities therein.
Thanks for the heads-up...Both of these so-called "heroins" are presented like narcissistic idiots...and such people, real or imagined, BORE me.

Anonymous said...

This review is sad. Women back then were not allowed to do anything, they were allowed to be nothing making it hard for a woman in that time era to advance in the world so many used what they had and knew would get them advancements in the world; their body. It's entirely relatable even in today's century, there are many famous women who though they don't have sex for advancements (though some still do), they do exploit their own beauty and sexuality which is what Amber did. She knew she was pretty and used that to reach things she thought would make her happy or safe in a world dominated and controlled by men. Women still do that today, you may not like her as a character but despite her unpleasant attitude and being selfish in nature, she is 100% human, true to herself and that's what makes the book so great. Humans are flawed, humans are selfish, we want what we want when we want it and not everyone but most will do what it takes to have it especially when one is young and in love. It's easy to judge a character in a book, to point out the flaws and say this book is trash until you look past your distaste and understand how women must have felt back then, that those women made mistakes, the same mistakes we still make today. You make not like her but at some point in your life you have been her character, we all lie, we've all used someone else in someway to get ahead even if it's not drastic. I think the people who don't like to read this book see too much of themselves in Amber or they're too focused on the sexuality of the book and can't delve deeper into why she took such actions in the first place. She's human, she represents low self-esteem, loving someone who will not love you back the way you need them to and making terrible life decisions because of that love and constantly seeking attention and approval. There's more to the story than oh she's just a whore who uses people and lies...

Suzannah said...

> Women back then were not allowed to do anything, they were allowed to be nothing

No. No. I'm sorry, my comment policy extends to letting people explain why they loved this horrible book, but not to rampant ignorance or wilful misinformation. Not allowed to do anything, not allowed to be anything? Please learn some history.

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