Purple Prose and a Rapist ‘Hero’: The Original Bodice Ripper: Review of ‘The Flame and the Flower’ by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Mummy Porn cover

Marty-Stu rapes Mary-Sue and then they find a love so true…
I am so glad that I have finished this (by the way, I read it for research: honestly!). I detested reading it; and it was epic length. The only reason I am not giving it one star is because an online friend of mine said that it had helped her in dealing with memories of sexual abuse.
It has been argued that the whole ‘rape to love’ theme so beloved of the Bodice Rippers of the 1970’s developed from the fact that the US was many decades behind the UK and parts of Europe in accepting a woman’s right to sexual pleasure; this being so, readers of this age group were attracted by the comforting fantasy of a man who is at first a sexual aggressor coming to love and treat the object of his lust with tenderness and respect.
This being so, I will give it two stars. This is the most acid review that I have written about any book. As I have often said, I don’t like giving low star, savage reviews and only award them for novels which romanticise rapist so-called heroes or the brutalisation of women.
Even so,being a softy, I doubt I would have been able to bring myself to write it, had the author still been alive.
This story seems to be a verison of Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’ meets Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’.
From ‘Devil’s Cub’ there is the abduction on a ship by a seemingly wicked man who misunderstands the female lead’s purpose and mistakes her for ‘a light woman’, the male lead making a rape attempt (in this case, after earlier successful ones) with the words: ‘Be damned, I’ll take you’ , the male lead’s murderously violent temper, his showing unexpected kindness to the female lead when she is seasick, etc.
Birmingham is also as a sea captain from Charleston, like Rhett Butler from ‘Gone With the Wind’, though Rhett Butler has the ability to laugh at himself that this ‘hero’ does not, and is far likable and intelligent generally. Birmingham’s late mother and the female lead are obviously based upon Scarlett O’Hara’s mother Ellen; the countless other similarities include a version of the sharp-tongued Grandma Fontaine, who in this case becomes one of a chorus devoted to singing the female lead’s praises and running down other women.
I have to find some positive things to say about this. I suppose the writing can be described as vivid; in some passages, it is even striking if overburdened with adjectives and adverbs. For instance, this description of a storm: –
‘Horse and rider entered a forest gone wild. Once lazy branches lashed and stung and whipped and clawed. The trees bent and swayed in what seemed a frenzied determination to snatch her from the horse and failing, moaned their frustration to the wind.’
In its day, it was a phenomenal success.
Views about rapist ‘heroes’ have changed, and I am frankly disturbed that it still receives glowing reviews.
On the writing style, unfortunately, this is far more typical:–
‘To her he appeared as some splendid, godlike being. Murmuring her love to him, she slid her arms about his neck, pressing her soft breasts into the mat of hair that covered his chest …’
For someone who is supposed to be devout, the female lead doesn’t seem very troubled by the First Commandment. Elizabeth Gaskell would have pointed the moral to that.
Purpose prose abounds. Such tautologies as ‘He laughed at her with mirth, throwing his splendid head up high’ are typical. I felt that if I read once more about her, ‘looking up at him timidly’ or the muscle in his jaw ‘twitching spasmodically in his anger’, or ‘the elderly ******* grinning from ear to ear’ I would turn into a dung beetle. Sometimes, the ‘hero’s’ eyes are like ‘flames of fire’ or ‘burning with passion’s fire’. At other times, he ‘chuckles softly’. He is very fond of doing that.
I lost count of the number of times the allure of these ‘soft breasts’ is mentioned, or of descriptions of Heather’s ‘ flowing dark tresses’, or her other charms. Possibly more often than we hear about his ‘dark, handsome face’.
There is no man who meets Heather who doesn’t fall for her, and all the women long for Brandon Birmingham, which surely qualifies the pair as fully paid up, card-holding members of the Mary-Sue and Marty-Stu club .
All men are seized by violent desire the minute they set eyes on Heather. Fat, repulsive ones are stimulated to unusual athleticism in trying to rape her, and as a result are thrown out of windows or knocked flying into bushes by the male lead.
Interestingly, fat people in this are invariably evil, with the exception of Hatti , rightly described in a Goodreads review as a ‘Cringeworthy Mammy stereotype.’

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And after all, she is merely, ‘ample’. She is the black domestic tyrant slave wholly devoted to the interests of her white owners. A typical speech from her is: – ‘Oh Lordy, Master Bran, we done thought something bad had happened to you.’
Interestingly, by contrast, none of the black men in this are given any personality or indeed, any sort of distinguishing personal characteristics at all.
At least, the racism of Margaret Mitchell in ‘Gone With The Wind’ had the excuse that was published in 1936, and begun ten years earlier. This novel was published in 1972, long after the Civil Rights movement. Yes, of course there was slavery in the US of 1799; but should it have been portrayed wholly uncritically?
Everyone regards the ‘hero’ with admiration, even those who suspect the rape, though a couple express misgivings over it . All the single local women swoon over this fellow. In fact, his jilted former fiancée continues to pursue him shamelessly. Just why everyone admires him, when he is depicted as being as callow and insensitive as a boy of fourteen at the age of thirty-five or six, isn’t explained, except by his being handsome and rich and something of a bully. Neither does he have the excuse of having lost his mother early; she died when he was twenty-five.

KEW
*Warning: spoilers follow*
This fiancée is understandably humiliated when the ‘hero’ turns up with a bride at the port where she comes to greet him back to the US. Here, one wonders at his total lack of social graces. Even given that overseas post would be disrupted by the French Revolutionary Wars, he might have had the sense to send one of his men with a note ahead of him before coming ashore, asking his brother to get his former fiancée out of the way. No, such delicacy is beyond him, and all of a piece with his performance as a rapist.
This rejected fiancée makes a point of aiming cruel barbs at the poor, helpless Heather (her late nineteenth century name being one anachronism among many concerning the late eighteenth century UK).
This woman, Louisa, is referred to as a ‘blonde bitch’ (off topic: as one born with light coloured hair, I find the way two terms are commonly casually linked in light novels to be wholly unfair).Strangely enough, the ludicrously named ‘Brandon Birmingham’ -it may be that the author had never taken note of what an unromantic city the Birmingham in England is- though he is portrayed as a macho man, shows a feminine streak of spite in his replies to these taunts.
For instance, this exchange, when the ‘hero’ is seen by his ex- fiancée carrying the now heavily pregnant Heather upstairs, is typical:
‘”Do you do this every night, Brandon?” she enquired jeeringly, with a raised eyebrow. “It surely must put a strain upon your back, darling…’
‘His face was expressionless as he made his reply, “I’ve lifted heavier women in my life, including you…’
Louisa keeps walking into these put-downs as if she can’t see them coming, though she is supposed to be so socially confident. In fact, she is, like most of the characters, wholly unbelievable.
Credible characters can make a wholly incredible plot seem believable, but these are as unreal as the events in the story. These characters are caricatures.
Though the story begins in England, the author shows a remarkably blasé attitude towards the need for any familiarity with the topography, language or customs of the UK of the late eighteenth century.
In fact, the action begins in ‘the English countryside’, with no county specified. The description is apparantly much admired, and is certainly striking, but it is set in a geographically impossible location of moorland which is nevertheless within a day’s journey of London on the appalling roads of 1799. Also, here, there is apparently a climate so dry that on a hot summer’s day dust hangs continually in the air. Even when roads were only partly paved, there could be no place in England, even in a prolonged drought, dry and hot enough to create that effect.
These anachronisms are so numerous that it is not worth listing more than a couple.
Heather presumably has lived through the terrible winter of 1794-5, when birds fell dead out of the trees, and in fact, even the mildest winter in the UK is decidedly cold and damp. Despite this, she does not think to order any flannel petticoats or warm underwear to take with her on a winter’s voyage across the Atlantic. This gives the male lead an opportunity to show he cares by having fashioned for her some quilted underwear.
Then, why does Brandon Birmingham (whose father was apparently ‘an English aristocrat’ who during the American War of Independence renounced his citizenship and therefore, any title he had, though we are never told exactly what his was) think that he would be entitled to ‘the axe’ for rape and abduction? It would have been a short drop hanging for him along with the hoi polloi.
There are myriad misunderstandings following on not, it seems, from Birmingham’s raping Heather three times on board the ship, or for his Dominic Alistair impersonation in the inn. No, none of that matters; what does come between them is that Birmingham has told Heather that as he suspects she was in the plot along with her aunt and the others to force him to marry her. Accordingly, he vows to punish her by treating her as an upper servant, allowing her no money, and refusing to consummate the marriage.
For months, he is tormented by desire for her soft breasts and firm youthful body, and finally he resolves on another rape as a way of solving their problems. This, however, proves unnecessary. Heather is already waiting for him in a provocative nightdress of the sort they definitely did not wear in the late eighteenth century.
This, apparently, is very romantic and exciting.
I think what outraged me most is that the rapes that take place when first they meet are recalled by both as finally a good thing, a fit subject for joking, and even a topic for sentimental recollection (by the by, Heather has no ambiguous feelings, no distaste, about having a pregnancy as the result of the rape).
For instance, Heather reflects at once point that she ought to be grateful to him for ravishing her, as her life was so hard before with her abusive (and naturally, obese) aunt. At another time she says, ‘I was nothing before he met me.’
He is sentimentally attached to the dress that she was wearing when he first raped her – regarding it as ‘Their Dress’. He sternly admonishes her for bartering it for some cloth which she uses to make him a Christmas present. She sheds tears and apologises.
At the end, before a wholly improbable piece of love making – though the ‘hero’ is pale from blood loss from a shooting, he can always rise to the occasion – he and Heather have this exchange. He says of one of the many would-be rapists in her life: –
‘”He got what he deserved for trying to rape you.”
She looked at him slyly. “You were the one who raped me. What were your just deserts?”
He grinned leisurly. “I got my just deserts when I had to marry a cocky wench like you.”’
He then threatens to spank her. The timid Heather shows some apprehension. Then he reassures her smugly, ‘”Madam, you amaze me. Never once have I laid a hand to you and yet you still act as if you expect me to.”’
As a critic said of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: ‘It is sentimental and obscene. The obscenity lies in the sentimentality.’