I recently commented to a post on Romancing The Blog where the author mentioned some of the first romance novels she’d read. I believe she referenced the term “bodice rippers” and mentioned genius and genre matriarch Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and her book, one of my all time favorites, The Flame And The Flower. It’s considered, I believe, a politically correct way to refer to the book. In my humble and not a’tall revered opinion, the politically correct reference fits Flame as well as a shoe fits a flounder.
Flame starts with power appearing to be firmly in the hand of the hero, Brandon Birmingham. He thinks Heather Simmons is a prostitute when he meets her and takes her aboard his ship on his first night in London. Despite the misconception, what Heather makes Brandon feel compels him to spend the time in London searching for her. He’s determined to set her up as his mistress, even though he’d arrived with the intent that this would be his last voyage. The power has already begun to shift.
When Heather’s vile Aunt and ineffectual Uncle find out she’s pregnant, they transport her from their little village to London. A friend of her late Father’s, a politician with power, seizes Captain Birmingham and threatens to impound his ship and imprison his crew if he doesn’t wed Heather. We never hear him mention that he’s engaged to a woman back home, a fact that might have swayed the politician. Brandon allegedly capitulates to the threat and marries the girl. Of course, any reader who’s been paying attention already knows the Captain not to be the kind of chap to be bullied so easily. Why does he wed Heather? He already knows he can’t lose her and never intended to sail away from her forever. The threat didn’t motivate the marriage, Heather did that, all on her own. The power shifts a little more.
Still, the Captain has a temper and he is, after all, male, so he tells Heather she shall have no more of him than he’s been forced to give already. In other words, they shall not share a bed as man and wife. But Heather’s not the kind of lass a man can wed and forget so easily. Before they leave port to sail for Brandon’s home in Charleston, her allure and beguiling ways challenge his vow. He’s promised never to touch her, intended never to want her, but each minute in her presence sharpens the claws of desire and need and things he can’t admit to yet. The power is shifting fast and furiously.
After the couple is back in Charleston, as Heather settles into her public role as wife, the claws digging into Brandon grow into spurs and then swords. Although the Captain claims Heather will never share his bed, while she is too heavy with child to satisfy him, when he takes a trip up North to sell his ship and staff his mill, strumpets offer to share his bed but Brandon says no. He’s faithful to the wife who doesn’t share his bed. Who’s holding the power at that point?
A sufficient time after Heather bears their son, Brandon “demands” his husbandly rights but Heather turns the tables on him. When the lord of the manor enters the room, he doesn’t see his wife at first, and fears she’s run from him. She hasn’t. In fact, she’s taken control of the encounter just like she’s taken control of their relationship.
Female power differs from male power in as many ways as men differ from women. My next blog post will talk a little more about the essence of female power. But for now, consider that in Flame Ms. Woodiwiss puts all the apparent, all the traditional power in male hands. However, all of the hidden but far stronger REAL power over the relationship, the household and how the couple meets the world ends up in Heather’s feminine hands.
Flame And The Flower may meet some of the P.C. Police’s standards for a bodice ripper in that it does deal with sexual power plays. The problem with the definition and with the P.C. Police generally is a tendency to look only at the surface and to judge the surface armed with “their” labels. In the minds of the P.C. faction, power can only mean one thing and it can only land in the hands of the one who rips the bodice.
Sometimes the real power lies in the hands of the heroine whose bodice got ripped. It may be his game, but she’s gonna play it her way. That means, she won before the first seam got torn.
If you’ve never read The Flame And The Flower (shame on you), then you should pick up a copy today. Like the defining classic of the romance genre it is, it stands the test of time without showing a single wrinkle. It’s had a place on my saver shelf for years and if you buy it today, it’ll be on yours tomorrow.