Book Reviews

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor


Some books defy reviews and Forever Amber, written by Kathleen Winsor in 1944, is one of them. Should you read it? Darned if I know. There’s a lot of toxic crap in it, and it features an amoral anti-heroine. There’s also great historical detail, and I cannot tell a lie, I tore through this book as though it was a bag of Cheetos, in that I knew it was bad for me but I couldn’t put it down until it was all gone.

I had to read Forever Amber because of another book, When Books Went To War by Molly Guphill Manning. Forever Amber was banned in several states at the time because of, as the Attorney General of Massachusetts so helpfully counted, “70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men.”

Naturally this meant that soldiers longed to read it. One soldier wrote, “If you’ve ever seen books that were completely worn out by reading, it was the copies of Forever Amber.” 

It was clear that I must investigate this matter. Herein I present my findings.

Basically what we have here is a Resoration-Era Gone With the Wind, with all the good (strong-willed and ambitious women, amazing clothes) the bad (harmful and hurtful tropes including pervasive racism, the portrayal of women as rivals, and rape-as-seduction) and the your-mileage-will-vary (an anti-heroine as protagonist). Unlike Gone With the Wind, which glamorizes the pre-Civil War era in the South, the Restoration Era is not glamorized and the historical detail is meticulous. History buffs will find a LOT to get excited about here.

This book is approximately 1000 pages long in print, covers ten years, and ends on a cliffhanger because the author meant to write a sequel but didn’t get around to it – so you’ve been warned! Also, despite the sexy sexy reputation, there is very little on-page sex. If you think I’m disappointed, imagine the disappointment of the poor soldier stationed in the Aleutian Islands during WWII who wrote “Fellas have a fever to read Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor.”

Amber St. Clare is a sixteen-year-old dazzlingly beautiful orphan who is brought up in a bucolic but boring village in England. When cavaliers come to town, she falls madly in love with one of them, Bruce Carleton, who informs her that he won’t marry her and rapes her in a “rape-as-seduction” scene. Amber convinces him to take her with him to London, where she lives as his mistress and becomes pregnant.

Bruce leaves Amber so that he can be a privateer and she gets married to a chump who jilts her just in time for Amber to end up (still pregnant) at Newgate for debt, where she becomes the lover of Black Jack Mallard, a highwayman. They escape prison together and he teaches her how to seduce and rob people but eventually he is caught and hanged. Amber escapes capture, has the baby, and sets to figuring out how to avoid ever going hungry again.

Since all Amber has for currency is her sex appeal, that is what Amber uses. There’s some slut-shaming in this book, but mostly a sense that Amber is justified in using the only tool that she has. In the process of sleeping with possibly the entire male aristocratic population of England, she lies, cheats, and hurts people, which does not bother her a whit. Amber is portrayed as a bad person primarily because of all the collateral damage she causes and for her utter indifference with regard to the welfare of most people.

Amber’s unending goals are:

  • to establish financial security
  • to convince Bruce to marry her
  • to achieve maximum status and comfort by buying the maximum number of shiny and expensive things.

For Amber, all men are stepping stones on the road to success and all women are obstacles. Fidelity is for losers, the truth is not worth wasting time on when a lie serves one better, time is the worst enemy, and all men pale in comparison to Bruce despite his consistent refusal to marry her or to take her with him on his adventures abroad.

So many things happen in this story that before I even finished the book I ducked back over to Wikipedia to check out the plot outline and realized that I had already forgotten at least half of the events that had already transpired. These events include but are not very much not limited to:

  • Multiple babies
  • Several abortions
  • A duel
  • The Plague
  • The Great Fire of London
  • Various murders
  • Four marriages, including the inevitable and considerable in-law troubles
  • Many, many, many lovers
  • The art of bathing in a tub of milk while entertaining a room full of people
  • The most AMAZING clothes

That’s a lot to pack into ten years, and the story’s pace is incredibly fast. I never felt as though I was reading a long book. Amber’s plot is interwoven with other chapters about what is happening at court, so that’s a whole thing. A lot of historical characters show up including King Charles II. Court life is one big soap opera and the atmosphere is hedonistic, amoral, ambitious, desperate, and venomous.

This book comes with a BIG TW for racism. Historians have spent a lot of time lately explaining to people that England of Yore was not an all-White place, and the rich people in the Restoration LOVED having Black servants and slaves in highly visible positions. It was, I regret to say, trendy. Because these characters are voiceless, I definitely think it could be very painful to read. It doesn’t present racism as justified, nor does it condemn it other than to suggest that the use of human beings for decor is yet another sign of an amoral, hedonistic age. It’s pretty matter of fact: “this is how London looked during the Restoration period, this is how people behaved at the theater, these are the people they used to elevate their own status, this is how they wore their hair.”

If you’re thinking this sounds like an Old Skool romance, some of the hallmarks are there. These include the problematic elements around consent and a plot which features many twists and turns and the heroine’s undying love for an emotionally unavailable man. Old Skool romances rejoiced in heroines who had raven hair or fiery tresses or some other startling and improbable beautiful features. In this case, I give you Amber’s eyes, which are, of course, amber.

If you miss these kinds of books, please look no further than Forever Amber. It’s not actually a romance novel in the sense that:

  1. the heroine is an amoral, cruel, deceitful and destructive dirtbag
  2. the closest thing we have to a hero is an even bigger dirtbag
  3. there’s no HEA

However, the story does have that sweeping dizzy sense that anything might happen at any moment. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six Amber packs in a truly astonishing number of experiences. She is so shallow, narcissistic, and dishonest that one wants her to fail, and so determined and single-minded that one wants her to succeed. The plot is compelling and the writing is vivid. There are some amazing chapters that jump genre entirely, most notably the horrific chapters involving the plague during which Amber turns out to be an amazing nurse and gets surprisingly good at dragging corpses out of her house for carts to pick up. These plague chapters leave the glamorous world of romantic literature behind and plunge headlong into pure horror. They are also the most gripping chapters in the book.

If the measure of a good book is that it keeps one’s attention, well, I can’t lie, I spent the three days it took me to read this either reading the book or thinking about it. I can’t tell you whether or not you might find Forever Amber worth reading. I can tell you that if you do read it, you will be in turns amused, delighted, horrified, and appalled – but you certainly won’t be bored.

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