Review: Kathleen Woodiwiss & Her Books

The first romance novel I ever read was Shanna by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. This was years ago and long after her first novel The Flame and The Flower, published by Avon in 1972, had become an instant NYT Bestseller. By the time I discovered Shanna, Kathleen Woodiwiss had already been proclaimed as the "Founding Mother of the Modern Romance Novel."

I wanted to post a photograph of Ms. Woodiwiss, who died in 2007 after a long struggle with cancer. The one used on just about every blog and website is her official Harper Collins author portrait. It's shown at left.

Ms. Woodiwiss wrote only 13 novels in her career, the first five of which are usually listed as seminal works in the romance genre. I'll admit to being disappointed in her later works, but I think I know now why they weren't as masterfully written as her first works:

The Flame and The Flower
Shanna
A Rose In Winter
The Wolf and The Dove
Ashes in the Wind.

In reading an interview she gave, I wasn't surprised to learn that she was constantly pressured by her publisher to hurry, hurry, hurry. She was not a fast writer, preferring to take as long as 5 years to perfect her books, and this constant time-pressure affected her work and her health. She suffered burnout and lost her zeal for storytelling. Some of the books show that. I think all writers can relate to that.

Back To The Beginning

Since I've spent more than a month being sick with the sinus infection from hell, bronchitis, etc., I've spent a lot of time reading. One morning, I decided to go back and re-read the early romances that made me want to write in that genre. All of us romance novelists owe our careers to Ms. Woodiwiss.

As is my custom when I review ebooks, I give the Kindle Buy Link because I read most books on my Kindle. However, I'm certain every book I review is available at the other ebook sellers so look for them on the platforms that match your ebook reading device. (Want your own Kindle? Click here.)

Although I have all of Ms. Woodiwiss's books in print, I decided to buy the Kindle editions of the ones I love best. Since it had been years since I had read them, I wanted to see if I still found them captivating -- after I've published several books and have had success with my own romance novels. Of course, if you read my books, you know I write contemporary romance, not historical romance as she did.

I did not begin with The Flame and The Flower, acclaimed by critics and readers as one of the best historical romances ever written. Frankly, I never liked that book because I could not get beyond the scene at the beginning when the hero and heroine meet, and he rapes her. That never has, and never will be, my idea of romance or the way a hero behaves.

Yes, I know that the story rather accurately reflects the mores of that time era. Yes, I know that the rape fantasy is popular with many women. Yes, I know that many readers say the hero redeems himself. None of those reasons make me like that story. Fortunately, I don't judge Woodiwiss's body of work by that one book, and you shouldn't either.

Let me tell you about Shanna and A Rose In Winter, two of the masterpieces by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

Shanna

From the Amazon Book Page: "A pact is sealed in secret behind the foreboding walls of Newgate Prison. In return for a night of unparalleled pleasure, a dashing condemned criminal consents to wed a beautiful heiress, thereby rescuing her with his name from an impending and abhorred arranged union. But in the fading echoes of hollow wedding vows, a solemn promise is broken, as a sensuous free spirit takes flight to a lush Caribbean paradise, abandoning the stranger she married to face the gallows unfulfilled.

"But Ruark Beauchamp's destiny is now eternally intertwined with that of the tempestuous, intoxicating Shanna. He will be free . . . and he will find her. For no iron ever forged can imprison his resolute passion. And no hangman's noose will deny Ruark the ecstasy that is rightfully his."

A Rose In Winter

I have to show your the cover of the original printing of A Rose In Winter because I think it depicted the spirit of that book -- not because it realistically portrays the characters but because it resembles a painting from the Romantic Era and shows the turbulent passion and epic nature of the larger than life story. For the most part, the covers of her books were mundane with this one being exceptional.

From the Amazon Book Page: "The fairest flower in Mawbry is Erienne Fleming, the enchanting, raven-haired daughter of the village mayor. Charming, spirited and exquisitely lovely, she is beset on all sides by suitors, any one of whom would pay a king's fortune for a place in her heart. But Erienne has eyes for only one: the dashing and witty young Yankee, Christopher Seton.

"But marriage for love is not to be, for her irresponsible and unscrupulous father, crippled by gambling debts, is intent on auctioning off his beautiful daughter to the highest bidder. And in the end, Erienne is devastated to find it is the strange and secretive Lord Saxton who has purchased her—a mysterious, tragic figure who wears a mask and a cloak at all times to hide disfiguring scars gained in a terrible fire some years back.

"But in the passing days, Saxton's true nature is revealed to her. A gentle and adoring soul, he treats his new bride with warmth and abiding tenderness, yet appears to her only by daylight. She, in turn, vows to be a good and loyal wife to him. And then Christopher Seton reenters Erienne's world Conflicted by emotions she cannot suppress, Erienne valiantly attempts to remain honorable to her elusive, enigmatic husband but feels herself irresistibly drawn to Seton's passion, his fire, and his secrets. Entangled in intrigues she doesn't yet understand, Erienne Fleming will soon have to make a devastating choice: between love and honor . . . between her duty and her heart."

Recurring Theme

In many of Woodiwiss's novels, there is a recurring theme of masquerade. In Shanna, Ruark dons the persona of a bondsman, a slave, as he woos his secret wife.

In A Rose In Winter, the hero masquerades as a crippled, scarred burn victim as he courts his wife -- making her feel caught between her desire for two men.

In another Woodiwiss novel, Ashes In The Wind which I'm not reviewing here, the heroine is in full-on masquerade when she meets the hero.

In her other books, this plot device can be seen with some variations.

My Take

After more than 30 years since I read her novels for the first time, what's my take on these books now? They are sweeping epics with larger than life characters. They are still page turners. You won't forget the hero and heroine nor the somewhat improbable -- to us in contemporary times -- story lines. They will captivate you, thrill you, and stir you even though they are tame compared to today's graphic depictions of sexuality.

When her books first were published, they were ground-breaking because they were the first "to [follow] the principals into the bedroom." Although they did that, there were no realistic descriptions of body parts or love making. Instead, the hero "warmed" when he saw a "rosy crest" revealed by a low neckline.

You might laugh at this, but if you read the books, you'll find yourself swept along by the passion of the hero and heroine. The euphemisms and formal language aren't off-putting. The long descriptions set the scenes perfectly without boring the reader.

In today's world, I wonder if books like this would get accepted by publishers. I like to think if she published them independently, that readers would have embraced them still. In 1972, Woodiwiss was initially rejected by publishers and agents because of the length of her books -- more than 600 pages. (The Kindle edition shows more than 10,000 for the file size for Shanna.) Luckily, she believed in her stories and refused to cut the length.

More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Yes, they are flawed with heroines whose actions range from bratty tantrums to impassioned desire for the heroes they married -- those men who ended up teaching them the way of passion. Yet, those heroines don't invite your dislike or scorn. There is still something about them that makes you root for them.

Although Ms. Woodiwiss described her heroines as "strong-willed," I'd describe them as willful. A Woodiwiss heroine is usually a woman who wants what she wants, regardless of the consequences. They cling to their opinions, even though circumstances show that they are wrong to do so, until overwhelming evidence to the contrary makes them finally grow up and accept the truth. I see her heroines as cast in the mold of Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara.

The heroes are supermen -- physically strong beyond belief -- and as handsome and intelligent as they are strong. Each is a masterful lover anxious to "take their ease" as is the phrase of bygone eras with the woman who attracts them more than any other woman of their acquaintance. The Woodiwiss hero is patient with the heroine's emotional storms and understanding. He is the kind of man every woman would welcome in her bedchamber.

To my amazement, I found the novels rife with viewpoints that change from sentence to sentence within paragraphs. That's the dreaded label of "head hopping." When I first read these books, as a reader, not as a writer familiar with narrative skills, I never picked up on that

Take everything together -- the good and the bad -- and you end up with a book greater than the sum of its parts.  Reading these wonderful novels again, I found myself glued to the ebook page, turning each as swiftly as I could -- even though I knew exactly what was going to happen and how it would all work out in the end.

Takeaway Truth

If you haven't read, Shanna and A Rose In Winter, remedy that immediately. Hie thee to Ye Olde Kindle Shoppe or the store of your choice and download two of the books that were responsible for creating an entire genre for women.

2 comments:

  1. I was so happy to read this. These two (and The Flame and the Flower, minus the raper scene)are my favorites of hers. I haven't read them, as you said, in years. Maybe it's time. I still like euphemisms, after all. :-)

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  2. Hello, Liz! It's really interesting to go back and read these old books. With 20+ years in the biz behind me, I can readily see the narrative goofs as well as what made the books so compelling -- and still makes them compelling today.

    Now I'm re-reading all of SEP's older books.

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