Recently I read an article on NPR entitled Happily Ever After: 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances. Apparently NPR had taken a poll of readers to discover what romance novels would rank in the top 100. They had to close the poll early because the response was overwhelming. Everybody had an opinion.
On the list was some of my favorite romance novelists, including: Julia Quinn, Diana Gabaldon, Lisa Kleypas, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Rainbow Rowell…I could probably have written the list. But one title was conspicuously missing: The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.
In truth, I’d never read this book but I’m familiar with it because it is widely acknowledged as the first modern romance novel. Published in 1972, Woodiwiss’ novel created the “historical romance” genre. So it was with no small amount of surprise to see that this novel wasn’t included. Why? In a list of a hundred romance novels, how do you leave off not only the undisputed first modern romance novel, but one that was at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list for so long? The answer came a few days later when I read a followup article entitled, Heartbreakers: Why Some Books Didn’t Make The Final Romance List. The article explained that this Grandmother of all Romance Novels was excluded from the list because it “no longer represents the best of the genre.”
Now I was curious. What did that mean, exactly? I had to read the book and make my own comparisons. What I found was a significant difference in the romance novel of 1972 versus those popular today.
- The Heroine: Today’s romance novels feature strong women with no small amount of personality. These women, though living the 19th century, can survive on their own merits if they have to. They’re smart, opinionated and not afraid to stand up to the novel’s hero. Not so with romance novels of old. Woodiwiss’ heroine is meek and easily cowed. She’s sensitive and cries easily. As a strong woman myself, I had a hard time relating to her meekness.
- Age Gap: Woodiwiss’ main characters are a full 17 or more years apart in age. In face, the heroine is only 17 at the opening of this book, while the hero is 35. As a mom of a teenage daughter, I won’t lie — this wigged me out a little bit.
- Rape Culture: This would just not fly today, but it’s a major feature of this novel. In the first few chapters, the heroine is raped by the hero. I have to admit that I was pretty much turned off at that point and had a hard time understanding how a woman could eventually fall in love with her rapist.
Pre-Civil War Life: The main characters live in South Carolina where there was no doubt slavery. In today’s politically correct era, an author would tiptoe around this carefully. Slaves would still be slaves, but somehow the heroes and heroines would think of them as equals to satisfy political correctness. Again, not so in this novel. The slave culture and speak reminded me of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. In fact, Hattie — the “Mammy” of the book could only be modeled after Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy in the movie adaptation of Gone with the Wind. I didn’t find it offensive, though it did make me uncomfortable as I’ve become accustomed to the more politically correct sensitives that wish to forget our ugly history.
- Plot Themes: The overall themes of the romance novel are still the same as introduced by Woodiwiss. You have a young woman who falls in love with a tyrant of a man, who’s always in a black mood. There are no end of misunderstandings and heartbreak on both sides, until finally the two come together at the end and live happily ever after. The only thing I found different in this regard to romance novels of today is how long it took the hero and heroine to come together. It took forever! Though I overall enjoyed the book, after a while I got tired of the constant misunderstandings.
- Sexual Content: This is one area where I’d say the romance novels of today differ greatly. In Woodiwiss’ novel, all sexual content is vague. You know it’s happening because the euphemisms she uses can only be related to the act of sex; but it’s not thrown in your face and obvious. These are the romance novels that our grandmothers grew up with. Today’s romance novels tend to be far more explicit overall, though some more so than others. Woodiwiss leaves a lot to the imagination, while most romance novelists today spell it out in clear language. Whether that’s good or bad is really a personal preference. Both have something to recommend them.
All-in-all, I enjoyed The Flame and the Flower, but found it to be overly long and descriptive. There are parts of it that I never came to terms with, specifically how any modern woman could find a rape scene the least bit titillating; but I do acknowledge that we’ve come a long way as women in the last forty years.
The question that now begs answering is whether I would read more from this author or other authors of this era. The answer is, “probably”; but I far prefer authors like Julia Quinn and Diana Gabaldon, whose female characters tend to be stronger, more independent, wittier, and far less sappy.