Forever Amber

It was the evening following a wake for a family friend and the immediate family (including those of us deemed honorary family) was gathered about the kitchen table, talking and watching the number bottles of wine begin to outnumber us. Not normally a crowd to show deference to any one person when it comes to directing the conversation, it seemed like the widow was enjoying this unusual honor and for whatever reason, she led us to Forever Amber. She was explaining just how scandalous this book was when she and her girlfriends read it in their youth; they shared a dog-eared copy and circulated between them to read again and again. The wicked sparkle in her eye told us more than enough (though despite our protests, she went on), and within a week after returning home, I found a stack of Forever Ambers at the Strand -- so I sent one off to all the women who had been part of our conversation as a memento of quite an evening. But once the gifts were sent off, I didn't actually pick up my own copy for quite some time. (It is a little shy of 1000 pages, after all, and even with a book that isn't in hardcover, that's a bit unwieldy for subway reading.) I shelved it, amused by the script on the spine and wondered where it would attract little notice from friends. It was only recently, wishing I had a trashy novel handy with which to spend an afternoon, that I plucked Forever Amber from its tucked away corner on the shelf and found myself with a romance novel that might have been written in the 40s, but had all the feel of a contemporary historical romance epic. Clearly, here was the grandmother (grand madam?) of a literary tradition...

Forever Amber was published in 1944. The published version was Kathleen Windsor's fifth draft of the novel... and those 972 pages represent only ONE FIFTH of the original manuscript. Fourteen states banned the novel, classifying it as pornographic, but sex wasn't the only issue. From the Independent's obit on Kathleen Winsor: "The Attorney-General of Massachusetts, in explaining his reasons for banning the book, said that he had counted 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions, 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men and 49 'miscellaneous objectionable passages'." Of course, this only helped it become a best-seller. In its first week, 100,000 copies were sold, and went on to sell over three million copies.

The novel tells the story of Amber St. Clair, a sexual adventuress who makes her way up the ranks of 17th century English society by using her wits and her... ahem... other endowments. She sleeps with and marries men who can offer increasing amounts of wealth or better titles, ultimately reaching great heights in society, though with a rather sullied reputation. Early in the novel, she has her fortune told and is appalled when it suggests she will have many husbands and several children, for she only loves one man -- Lord Carlton. Lord Carlton is "responsible" for taking her away from her small country town to London (I have to use quotes because really, Amber's the one who's really responsible for it and she begs Lord Carlton to take her), and it is Lord Carlton that Amber loves and loses again and again throughout the novel. He swears from the beginning that he'll never marry her, but this doesn't stop Amber from clinging to her hope that one day, they will be together.

Now, you might suspect that with such a racy novel, perhaps we'll be dealing with a story where our heroine goes on a journey and learns something in life. Well, you'd be wrong. The title is rather indicative of what to expect... because Amber never changes from being a selfish creature who is willing to do anything to get what she wants, but she's unwilling to accept certain facts and realities. From country girl to actress to duchess, Amber is forever Amber.

Throughout this novel, I kept thinking about Gone with the Wind (that "other" historical romance of the late 30s/40s) and, unsurprisingly, it is frequently compared to that novel for many reasons, such as the presence of multiple husbands that are almost entirely being used (as opposed to being married for love or such nonsense) to get back at another man (who she never marries), and an ending that leaves you with a vague "wtf?" feeling. (Though I have a somewhat higher opinion of Scarlett than I do of Amber.) It's not that I feel cheated, necessarily, it's just that the ending made me question whether or not I was supposed to be judging Amber, for such a fate suggests that she's getting her comeuppance. I had never before felt like the book was passing judgment on her, so I felt rather thrown.

Even so, from the first chapter, you can definitely see the origin of every historical romance novel in the pages of Forever Amber. It's easy to see why it caused such a fuss at the time, and, once you set all the scandalous stuff aside, it's an interesting account of various historical events (the plague, the Great Fire of London, etc.). Of course, why would you want to set the scandalous stuff aside?

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