Books Emeralds on the home front It caused outrage at the time, but Forever Amber - whose adventurous, highly sexed heroine raised the spirits of women in wartime Britain - is a modern classic, says Elaine Showalter Elaine Showalter Published on Sat 10 Aug I knew immediately that it was contraband and I should keep my find a secret. My reading experience was shared by many girls, including Barbara Taylor Bradford, who recalls in her foreword to the new Penguin edition that as a teenager she "could not put it down. In banning the book, the Massachusetts attorney general had listed 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions, 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men, and 49 "miscellaneous objectionable passages". But what mesmerised me was not the sex, but the bubonic plague.
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Books Emeralds on the home front It caused outrage at the time, but Forever Amber - whose adventurous, highly sexed heroine raised the spirits of women in wartime Britain - is a modern classic, says Elaine Showalter Elaine Showalter Published on Sat 10 Aug I knew immediately that it was contraband and I should keep my find a secret. My reading experience was shared by many girls, including Barbara Taylor Bradford, who recalls in her foreword to the new Penguin edition that as a teenager she "could not put it down.
In banning the book, the Massachusetts attorney general had listed 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions, 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men, and 49 "miscellaneous objectionable passages". But what mesmerised me was not the sex, but the bubonic plague. Nursing her lover through his vomiting, sweating, delirium, and bloody carbuncles, Amber ignores her own safety, and, what is more, her appearance.
In the background, London falls silent except for the tolling of bells and the cries of "Bring out your dead! 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.
The novel came out in England in Forever Amber was published at a time of social upheaval in Britain, the beginnings of the welfare state and the erosion of an ethic of social and marital deference. Divorce petitions skyrocketed during the war, rising from 9, in to 24, in The great fire of London would have seemed familiar to those who had had lived through the blitz.
The random nature of plague would ring true for those who had lived with the constant fear of buzzbombs and V2 rockets. Her glamour gave women on the home front an intoxicating sense of adventure and action. The novel is a celebration of London - "London," Winsor writes, "stinking dirty noisy brawling colourful - was the heart of England, and its citizens ruled the nation.
Astonishingly, Kathleen Winsor was an American from the Midwest who had never been to London and had recreated the panorama of Restoration England from heroic research. Her first husband, Robert Herwig, whom she married as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, had done his senior thesis on Charles II, and for five years, while he was away serving as a marine lieutenant, she studied the period, read books, and wrote six drafts of her novel, running to almost 13, pages.
The book itself is pages long. Forever Amber has obvious plot similarities to Gone with the Wind - a civil war, a dashing blockade runner, a tigerish heroine named for a colour, the contrast between a corrupt society and its slaves and servants. She showed her understanding of these metaphors in the way she allowed her life to be associated with that of her heroine. A beautiful brunette, whose looks, rival novelist Taylor Caldwell lamented, played too large a role in her literary promotion, Winsor married early and often.
After a divorce from Herwig in , she wed the celebrity band leader Artie Shaw and then two other husbands, both lawyers. Amber St Clare, the illegitimate offspring of nobility who is raised as a village girl by adoptive parents, is a heroine of enormous intelligence and resourcefulness, as well as beauty and sexual force - what Winsor calls "a kind of warm luxuriance, something immediately suggestive of pleasurable fulfilment".
From her village days in Marygreen, where she is seduced by her great love, the Cavalier Lord Bruce Carlton, to her triumphant rise to fortune as the Duchess of Ravenspur, Amber takes full advantage of every circumstance open to women of the period to rise out of poverty and find independence, love and success.
At 16, pregnant and deserted in London by Carlton and swindled of the money he has left her, Amber ends up in Newgate prison where she is taken under the wing of the pirate Black Jack Mallard. He gets her out of prison and sets her up with the bawd Mother Red Cap in Whitefriars, who arranges for her baby to be farmed out, and launches her as an actress. When Black Jack is hanged, Amber soon finds a rich new keeper, Rex Morgan, and when he dies in a duel, she marries an elderly city merchant, Samuel Dangerfield.
Meanwhile, Carlton has become a privateer, sailing between London and Jamaica, and he returns to tell her that he plans to settle in Virginia. Part IV, when he returns, is the heart of the book, and the section I remember most vividly.
It is the end of June , and the largest and last epidemic of the plague has hit London. Here we meet the grotesque Mrs Spong and the "ghoulish" Mrs Maggot, parasites who rob and poison their patients. Like Camus, who published his existential novel The Plague in , making the pestilence a metaphor for fascism, Winsor highlights the relation of the plague to the corruption, cruelty, decadence and exploitation of Restoration London.
Amber displays dedication, compassion and self-sacrifice. But the sickness of class and inherited patriarchal status succeeds in defeating her where the plague cannot.
For the rest of the novel, Amber is an increasingly reckless survivor, who has her fling with King Charles and sells herself cynically to other men until she becomes a duchess. Bruce marries an exquisite Jamaican heiress, Corinna; but at the end of the novel, tricked by her enemies at court into believing her rival is dead, Amber sets sail for the New World to find him once again. Winsor may have intended to write a sequel - Amber in America - but she never did. In , however, she published a sharp autobiographical novel, Star Money , about her experience of best-sellerdom.
As she shrewdly noted, readers "like to read about the past because it has no threats for them".
Plot[ edit ] Judith Marsh has been engaged since birth to her neighbor, John Mainwaring, heir to the Earl of Rosswood. In , she has her engagement broken off when her family and the Mainwarings find themselves on opposing sides of the English Civil War. During a break in the fighting, John visits Judith and the two consummate their relationship. There, she ends up staying with farmer Matthew Goodegroome and his wife Sarah. In , Amber, now a flirtatious teenager, is being raised by the Goodegroomes in ignorance of her origins.
Emeralds on the home front