From the desk of Pamela Mingle:
When I was a young girl, I found a copy of Forever Amber on my aunt’s bookcase. I’d heard about its scandalous reputation and asked if I could borrow it. Written by Kathleen Winsor and published in 1944, the book became famous for its racy and bawdy storyline. It was banned in Massachusetts and subsequently in several other states. Preachers railed against it from their pulpits. Despite all that, Forever Amber was the bestselling book of the 1940s, and by 1947 the movie, a very condensed version of the book, starring Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde, was released.
As a teenager, the frenetic passion between the two main characters, Amber St. Clare and Bruce, Lord Carlton, was all I cared about. The heady feeling of experiencing a great romance through a literary character stuck with me through the years. Although explicit sex is kept behind closed doors, the underlying desire between Amber and Bruce is always there, simmering beneath the surface.
The setting for the book is the Restoration (1660-1688), which begins with the return of Charles II to the English throne after the collapse of the Commonwealth. Winsor, an American, read over 350 books about the period while writing Forever Amber, which was published when she was only twenty-four.
Amber is the illegitimate daughter of a gentlewoman and a nobleman. They never married because their families were divided by the English Civil War. After her mother dies in childbirth, Amber is given to a local woman to be raised. In her small village of Marygreen, Amber is a beautiful and voluptuous sixteen-year-old, who catches the eye of Bruce, Lord Carlton, a Cavalier traveling to London. Desperate for a more exciting life, Amber begs him to take her with him, which he does.
Amber is passionately in love with Bruce, but the feeling is not mutual. From the beginning, he tells her marriage is impossible. Inevitably, Amber is left alone and pregnant, soon to fall prey to a villainous pair, Luke Channel and Mrs. Goodman. Luke is described as having “…a kind of slippery green moss growing along the edges of his gums.” That she ends up marrying him speaks to her desperation. Amber is soon betrayed by the two and ends up in Newgate Prison for her debts. Here she meets Black Jack Mallard, who becomes her protector and manages her escape. He himself dies at the end of a hangman’s rope.
Besides getting Bruce to marry her, Amber’s driving ambition is to become rich and powerful. She manages, with the help of many along the way, to gain some talents that sustain her. Eventually, she becomes an actress, where she meets another protector, Captain Rex Morgan, perhaps the kindest man in the book, and the only one who truly loves her. Alas, he’s killed by Bruce in a duel. What follows is a succession of lovers and husbands, each of whom leaves her more wealthy than the last. But when Bruce is in town, he always takes precedence.
One of the most memorable and powerful parts of the book is the account of the Great Plague of London–the carts coming around, the attendants calling, “Bring out your dead!” Bruce has just arrived back in London, having caught the plague from a sailor onboard one of his ships. When he arrives at Amber’s home, he’s already sick and virtually helpless. This showcases the best of Amber, who nurses him until she’s exhausted. No sooner does Bruce recover than she falls ill, and he, along with some feckless nurses, sees her through the illness.
Following this wrenching ordeal, which in Amber’s view sealed their love forever, Amber is sure Bruce will change his mind about marrying her. But he does not. Instead, he marries a lovely young English woman named Corinna whom he meets in Jamaica. This marks the end of any rational thought Amber ever possessed regarding Bruce. She had always trod a fine line between desperation and self-control when it came to him, but she’s no longer able to do so.
The historical detail in Forever Amber is remarkable in its specificity, vibrancy, and authenticity. Restoration London comes alive, from life in Newgate (where heads to be put on spikes are pickled) to Court, where the nobility is seldom bothered by paltry problems like debt or hunger or illness. We learn much about the political machinations of the time, about the cruel dismissiveness and backbiting that went on at Court, and about the casual attitudes toward marriage vows, sex, and even abortion. In the midst of this decadence, Amber is a risk-taker and willing to do whatever is necessary to survive and prosper. She’s rightly been compared to Scarlett O’Hara for possessing these qualities, as well as for her single-minded pursuit of one man. Amber can have moments of generosity and unselfishness, but she lacks a moral compass. She is headstrong, thoughtless, self-absorbed, and rarely feels shame or guilt. Her desperate attempts to ensnare Bruce grow annoying, and her declarations of love grate.
Men are attracted to Amber’s great beauty and use her for pleasure or other purposes. She, in turn, does the same with them, and from a more mature reader standpoint, I found her hard to like. The author says about her creation, “…Her morals were dictated rather by the expediency of the moment than by any abstract formula of honor.”
But for the sheer pleasure of experiencing a great love that makes your heart race and your stomach flip, Forever Amber sets a high standard. Bertrice Small, the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Romance Writers of America in 2014, said of it: “The first real historical romance. This is the book that started it all.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
4 out of 5 Stars
Forever Amber (Rediscovered Classics) by Kathleen Winsor, with a foreword by Barbara Taylor Bradford
Chicago Review Press; Reprint (2000)
Trade paperback & eBook (976) pages
Cover image courtesy of Chicago Review Press © 2000; text Pamela Mingle © 2020, Austenprose.com