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Back to Old School, Dueling Review

Back to Old School: The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss (1972)

Birmingham, Book #1

Heat Factor: “His warmth and passion” is “led on to his nest.”

Character Chemistry: Is it abuse or is it love? Hard to tell.

Plot: Brandon rapes Heather. They are forced to get married. And then Brandon takes Heather to South Carolina, where shenanigans occur and also they somehow decide they’re in love.

Overall: It’s all totally yikes or totally infuriating and sometimes both!

Please note: This book includes rape, abuse, chattel slavery, and ableism (among other things), which we discuss in this review.

What’s one thing a reader should know before diving into this book?

Erin: 400 pages of not-gripping yikesness, and then apparently the last hundred pages is actually exciting.

Ingrid: This is basically a case study in problematic content. For those who cannot suspend the yuck for problematic content, know that this book has all of it. 

Holly: Woodiwiss uses three times as many adjectives as are necessary, and I don’t think the love story is that well constructed. Heather falling in love is not believable.

Ingrid: Holly, did you miss the part where he has a very hairy chest?

Holly: I was too distracted by her being afraid of him all the time. And then all of a sudden deciding she was in love with him and going to seduce him.

What is the deal with the construction of this book?

Erin: I am not at all sure that the characterization or the storyline were particularly ironed out.

Ingrid: When I started this, perhaps in part because of Holly’s warning about the verbosity of the book, I decided “I am a guest in this country of early bodice ripping romance, and my goodness these customs are strange.” I just found it so odd to sit there face to face with all the stereotypes about what a romance novel will sound and feel and read like…but it was real. So, I was actually pretty fascinated by all the choices being made in the construction of this one.

Holly: There are two parts to this question. There’s the construction of the prose…which, when I accepted that Heather was going to be described as “weary,” “very tired,” and “exhausted” all in one sentence, I decided, “Okay, I can roll with it.” 

Then there’s the construction of the plot, which is a lot more sprawling than books today. It’s one damn thing after the next. Characters would be mentioned like we were supposed to know them after they disappeared for 300 pages. 

Ingrid: I legitimately forgot that Heather thought she killed someone. 

Erin: I just felt like all of it was invented to keep the story going. There were multiple times the story could have been concluded and it would have been a complete story and it…just kept going. I did know that the guy in the beginning and the murder plot was going to have to come back in the end because otherwise, what’s the point? But on the other hand…am I wrong?

Ingrid: It read as three different books to me. The other thing I thought was hilarious about their relationship construction was that they were reminiscing at the end about how their relationship started, and it felt very gaslight-y. Like this might have been two years for these guys, but it all just happened for me, and no, you actually did hate her.

Holly: There’s one point at the very end where Heather was reflecting back on the man she stabbed (who died), and Brandon is like, “I’m glad he’s dead, he got what he deserved for trying to rape you.” And Heather responds, “Well…you raped me…did you get your just desserts?” And Brandon is like, “Yep, I’m married to you, and I totally deserve that.” 

The book knows what it’s doing…but then the self-awareness is just like nope nope, we’re not going to go there.

Ingrid: This is why I thought it was so fascinating. The books that I read that were bodice rippery back in the day would skirt around the rapey bit with excuses or explanations, and this one just flat out was like, “Yup, I raped ya!” The whole book is this poor girl getting raped or almost getting raped or afraid she’s gonna get raped. Like the whole time.

Holly: Until she decides that she wants to sex her husband and then he comes in and is like, “Your boobs are too enticing. I can’t keep my hands off you, so we’re going to have sex again and it’s going to be consensual or it’s going to be rape.” And that pisses her off again. But then she decides it’s going to be consensual because she wants to seduce him.

Ingrid: And then he’s in the other room while she’s mad and he’s like, *sigh* “I guess it’s gonna have to be rape.” It’s that self-awareness. You think he’s gonna be like, “Nope, I can’t rape my wife” or that he’s learned his lesson, but none of that happens. This is why I couldn’t put the book down, because I was like, “How is Woodiwiss going to reconcile this?” It was like watching a trainwreck unfolding. And it kept getting worse. There was no reconciliation.

There’s a lot in this book that became a hallmark of old school bodice rippers. What stood out to you?

Ingrid: I don’t feel like I have a lot of experience with bodice rippers. Erin and I started with the PG ones and you guys went off the deep end with the sexual escapades, but I never did that. So when I started reading this one I was like “I’m going to look at this like a unique experience, are they all like this?” Are bodice rippers all about hazy boundaries and rapey situations? So I did some research and what I noticed is that it’s the innocent young woman and the experienced, controlled-by-my-horniness man who can’t resist her. I’m curious if there’s frequently the older, used-up woman as a foil for the young woman. I’m curious about the constant danger to her virtue. “She’s so innocent, she keeps putting herself in situations with men in dark corners.”

Erin: This book has a lot of content that became the stereotype of a romance novel, as Ingrid mentioned earlier. Like, “Hello, this is a thing that I have seen in a hundred other books.” We have the heroine who is innocent and virginal and so naive but also has a feisty little temper.

Holly: Not only innocent and virginal and so naive and also has a feisty little temper, but also beautiful but doesn’t think she’s beautiful because she doesn’t have the right color hair. 

Ingrid: There was a point when I became more interested not because of the plot, but because we read so many different books, and we can trace all these threads back to this exact kind of plotline. Like, character development-wise, how at the end of the novel Heather’s clearly coming into her own as mistress of the house, but she’s still completely passive. Typically in romance we expect transformation, like the hero might start mean but he has to change and Brandon never actually changes. He just gets a little bit nicer to Heather. They’re not particularly dynamic, which doesn’t really match my definition of romance where they both change. There’s no reconciliation.

Erin: Back to old school hallmark stuff, we have here the trope of: he’s wrong about the innocent woman being a bad woman, but he paints all women with the same brush. And this one doesn’t even have a bad history with his mother or anything!

Ingrid: He really is kind of a flat character. In the beginning he’s like the dark to her light. He’s all anger and oozing sexual violence and petty and vengeful. And then you do get these moments when he eats dinner with the hungry family he’s hiring on at his mill and I think that’s supposed to be evidence of his inherent goodness. But his motivations, his backstory, his fears—they never actually round him out. He’s just a dark man who is now sweet on his wife.

Erin: I mean, since we’ve been talking about dark romance (we’ve got a big discussion piece coming soon), I can see a lot of the tie-ins here considering that he doesn’t change to good, she becomes accepting of her place in the bad man’s world. The thing that’s wild about this book though, is that he’s not really painted as a bad man—he doesn’t want to have slaves at the mill, he’s generous (but with a temper)… It’s interesting.

Holly: Well, and all the other characters, such as his servants, George and Hatti, and his brother, Jeff, are so quick to tell Heather how awesome he is. There’s no evidence of his awesomeness based on his actions within the text, but we do have several character references.

Ingrid: Furthermore, they’re like, “oh, he’s so awesome,” but when Brandon and Heather first get to South Carolina, Brandon himself has to tell Jeff and Hatti that he behaved very badly to his ex-fiancee, and they’re all like, “Nah, it’s fine.” At the same time, I loved that there were things that I have seen in a thousand romances, like the misunderstanding of their first sexual encounter. Check. They get on the boat and then someone gets sick. Check. Beloved childhood nurse figure suddenly treats this guy like he’s not terrifying. Check. There were so many moments where I was like, “Well, there it is. That’s the stereotype and the tools and the beginnings.”

Holly: What was most striking to me was not so much the hallmarks of the bodice rippers but the things that have really changed in historical romance since this was published. For instance in this story nobody’s noble, but it’s not a big deal. In more modern books it’s explicitly stated and examined when people aren’t nobility, but in the old school ones it’s just no big deal. Or when Brandon and Heather get abruptly married, there’s no mention of a special license, which is almost always a thing that characters need to manage in more modern historical romances.

I wonder who the author was who did the research about marriages and introduced how that was supposed to work.

Ingrid: In the books that I have read that I would consider bodice rippers, the relationship is not solidified around the marriage. The relationship is solidified through the sex. The marriage isn’t the part where you’re like, “They made it!” The marriage is the part where they’re like, “Ah shit, that happened.”

Erin: That is interesting. When Bridgerton season two came out, there was an article going around the internets about how, in the show, the removal of the forced marriage actually detracted from the relationship because the marriage in the enemies to lovers part of the book is what forces proximity and then on from that, intimacy. They have to overcome that antipathy so that they’re not miserable. And stuff. But that is 100% not what happened here. 

But! I found it interesting that what did happen here, is that they had sex early on (because he rapes her), forcing the marriage because she gets pregnant, but then they still don’t have sex until almost the end, which is not unusual in a romance, although typically the delay is because of respect and not knowing each other instead of everything Heather and Brandon had going on.

Holly: Except for that first chapter, it almost reads like a slow burn romance. Because they pine and burn for each other for HUNDREDS of pages until she finally has the baby and heals from childbirth (presumably) and (more importantly) gets her figure back. 

Ingrid: She also has to wear a dress where her boobage is spilling out in such away that she is once again nearly raped. Because no one can be expected to control themselves.

One of our goals for this month is to analyze the books based on the social context during which they were written. Given that this book was written in 1972, the purity culture of this book is not surprising. 

Erin: There are really a lot of things that are, like, victim blaming.

Holly: Brandon blames his victim—in his mind, it’s her fault that he can’t control his urges—but the book doesn’t. 

Ingrid: The book doesn’t hold him accountable either.

Erin: The book doesn’t blame Heather, but it also kind of does? It’s understandable that Brandon’s henchmen made the mistake in thinking she was a prostitute because of what she was wearing and where she was when they found her. Plus there was a little bit of “boys will be boys” like of course a woman wearing a skimpy dress is asking for it.

Holly: However, George spends a lot of the book beating himself up because of this error. He says, “I can’t believe I made such a stupid mistake. What have I done to this poor woman? Brandon is treating her so badly.”

Erin: George has one scene where he’s explicit about that and the rest is much more subtle. It’s what the text is or is not saying. We get only so far, but we don’t get the completion of the (progressive) thought—he’s saying, “Oh this is a bad thing and how could I have done that,” but there’s also this underlying idea that Heather put herself in this situation (through no fault of her own) and then…well what would you expect? It doesn’t go as far as: men are perfectly capable of keeping it in their pants, and that’s our baseline expectation.

Ingrid: That’s a big one and I think in a modern book for a mistake of that magnitude you would see serious groveling and an attempt to make it right. Here, Brandon marrying her is supposed to rectify that mistake, rather than further taking away her agency.

Erin: Heather, at least, is aware that her agency is being taken away.

Ingrid: It’s almost comical about how self-aware the book is. Heather says repeatedly that what happens to her is wrong, but the book never makes it right.

I found it interesting because right now, at this time in romance novel history, readers like to see these things made right. But if the story belongs to the characters and they don’t care, does it have to be made right to be ok? It’s just an interesting thing to sit with. Does the underlying violence of their relationship have to be made right for it to be a satisfying romance?

What do you think of Brandon and Heather’s ability / willingness to communicate with each other? 

Holly: This is such an Erin question. Their willingness and ability to communicate with each other is not the point. It’s not the point! It doesn’t matter. It matters that they fall in love.

Erin: How do they fall in love if they never talk to each other?? Argument though—the ridiculous component of this is that they talk through their problems BUT it’s after they’ve already decided they’re in love with each other and have had sex again in a more loving way. And THEN they’re able to actually talk through all their misunderstandings.

Ingrid: It’s almost like a post-mortem, isn’t it?

Holly: The turning point in the book is the parallel scene where Brandon and Heather are separated, and both having an internal monologue about how they’re actually in love. Heather is especially striking. She thinks: 

“I would have never seen this land, this house, these kind and gentle souls I’ve met, had not the fates decreed my maidenhood should be the price! I’ve but to make the best of it.”

She’s like, this is just my destiny. This is where I’m meant to be. 

I understand when Brandon falls in love with Heather—there’s a scene, where he’s with Louisa, and he explains why Heather is superior. And he’s like, sure you have beauty and passion, but here’s what Heather has:

“But also love gentle kind devotion, unquestioning loyalty and a simple honest dignity for my name.”

He loves her because she’s a sub wife. He didn’t know that’s what he wanted and then he got it. All the TikTok videos going around about how to be a good sub wife—Heather’s got it. She’s hot, skinny, gives him a baby, sexually available, and takes care of his house without him knowing she’s doing it.

Erin: I didn’t find it strange that their unwillingness to communicate kept them apart because that’s very Romance. But I did find it striking that it was such a lengthy component of the book, because there were so many times that they were like, well I really want this to work, and then they got mad at each other anyway. And then all of a sudden…that changes.

Holly: It’s that scene where he’s like, “Guess I’m going to have to rape you,” and she throws the ashtray, and then she’s like, “Hang on now Heather. You want him in your bed.”

Erin: What’s the difference between that and every other time they sniped at each other??

Holly: No, she says, “Hang on now Heather, you’re going to spite yourself.” And she makes a conscious decision to react differently—to submit instead of fighting with him. And she learns that if she submits she gets what she really wants. 

Erin: I don’t disagree with that, but I felt like it never built up. She was just flat, flat, flat and then bump, everything is fine now.

Holly: I don’t think Heather’s arc from fear to love was particularly well done. Her feelings changed and what wasn’t fleshed out was why. And I think part of that was that none of us found Brandon to be a particularly attractive hero. 

Ingrid: Understatement.

Holly: But if he were an attractive hero then we might have been there with her. 

Ingrid: His mat of chest hair was not a sufficient enough draw.

Let’s talk about the presentation of slavery in this book. 

Erin: So, this book is set in Charleston in 1799-1801. Charleston is Deep South. It has a gazillion plantations. In the entirety of the Atlantic slave trade, more than 40% of enslaved Africans brought to the US went through Charleston. One article I found said 10% of all slaves in the US lived in South Carolina. Brandon owns a cotton plantation. And I looked up how many plantation owners in the South did not use slave labor, and I did not find anything. Bottom line: a plantation owner in Charleston in 1799 has slaves. 

BUT! The only times that slaves were mentioned were when Louisa’s household was described, and when they were buying the mill from Mr. Bartlett, and in both of those instances, the slave owners were selfish and uncaring people. Mr. Bartlett in particular was explicitly a “bad” slave owner who raped his female slaves.

The other thing I found interesting was when Brandon was talking to the new mill manager, Mr. Webster:

The man looked a little hesitant to speak but then ventured, “There is one thing, sir. I don’t like to work with slaves or convicts.”

Brandon smiled. “You are a man of my own beliefs, Mr. Webster. For good factory labor, paid men are best.”

Brandon does not say anything about slavery in general or about his plantation. He’s specific only about factory labor. And yet, all of the people working in Brandon’s household are referred to as “servants.”

And then you have the characterization of Hatti who is basically a Mammy character, the sassy maternal Black lady who can say whatever she likes because she’s “part of the family.” 

Holly: You say she’s basically a Mammy. She IS. Mammy in Gone with the Wind is played by Hattie McDaniel. It’s overt.

At Christmas, they talk about how the night before Christmas the servants had the night off to celebrate Christmas in “their own happy way.” The way this is phrased is dancing around the subject. Hearing someone celebrate something in their own happy way is dismissive and diminutive. 

I think, though, what the text is trying to do is to have the local color of the sweeping plantation and the dedicated servants who are part of the family—because you wouldn’t have that in England, right?—but she also wants to show that Brandon is a good person, so she doesn’t want to talk about where his wealth comes from. He’s not actively running the plantation, he’s running other business ventures personally, and his underlying wealth is not directly addressed.

Ingrid: I think it’s very telling that Hatti and the other “servants” call Brandon “master.” I don’t think that would be the case—if they were servants they would call him Mr. Birmingham. When he says people work better then they’re paid, he doesn’t reference the people running the house.

Let’s talk about beauty and ugliness in this book. 

Ingrid: With all the problematic content in this book, I was very surprisingly bothered by the beauty and ugliness issue and how it was directly linked to goodness and badness and value. I was flabbergasted by how overt it was. It wasn’t subtle. You knew from the jump that the bad guy was going to be the “crippled” hunchback. The foil to Heather’s happiness was an older, promiscuous woman. And flat-out overtly everyone values Heather because of how young and untouched and innocent and pretty she is. That’s it. That’s her value. And I was so surprised. I would have perhaps expected to see subtle hints of that in modern books that maybe didn’t have a good beta reader? But what I’m seeing now is an unquenchable thirst for real bodies and real characters and I naively expected it to be just as subtle but it was all right there. And I recognize that this has been part of romance novels for ages so I’m not sure why it surprised me so much?

Holly: Adding on to what you said, Ingrid, it’s all the minor characters. Aunt Fanny, page 2, we know she’s bad because she’s fat. Chapter 1, Cousin William, we know he’s bad because he’s fat and he has lips that he licks in a gross way. Sure, Aunt Fanny is a terrible person, but Brandon does things that are just as bad as what Aunt Fanny and Cousin William do, but it’s okay because he’s handsome. 

Ingrid: In the whole first part of the book Heather’s physically terrified of him the entire time, but interspersed in the terror are moments when she’s thinking he’s so handsome.

Holly: “I have a feeling in my stomach! Is it desire or is it fear?”

Ingrid: You could immediately tell if someone was good or bad based solely on what they look like.

Erin: Well, even consider someone like Sybil (a local woman who had been trying to get Brandon’s attention)—she’s plain, and she’s been encouraged by her mother to find a good husband, and the best husband in the neighborhood is Brandon. But Brandon doesn’t want her and thinks little of her because she’s plain. So when he gets married, Sybil’s mom doesn’t care anymore, and Sybil lets loose a little bit, and her flirtatiousness (promiscuity) leads to her death. Or even someone like George! He’s unremarkable looking, described as a gentle, kindly balding man, and his characterization plays out in that exact flat way. He’s worried about the family, happy when the family is happy and upset when things aren’t going well with the family. There’s nothing else to him.

Ingrid: To be fair, what we’re looking at are archetypes. There’s the archetype of the beautiful young virginal handmaiden. And I think we’ve decided as readers now that we want more than the archetype—we want the characters more developed. Everything in the book is so blatant, and it made me look harder at what we’re reading now vs what we were reading then. 

Would you recommend this book to someone today?

Erin: As a romance novel? No. As a part of a study of the history of romance? Yes.

Ingrid: I would recommend this to other book reviewers because I think it’s really interesting to see what we’re reading now and seeing the change is interesting. Would I recommend this to anyone who reads romance novels as a hobby? No. There are way better books and half of the allure of the book is that it’s bananas.

Holly: I read this book for fun within the last ten years, and my experience reading it then, and my experience reading it now was very different. When I read it then, I thought, “That’s special…Let’s see what happens!” There was some ridiculous glee going on. But Ingrid’s right. If you want to read a ridiculous book for the sheer joy of the bonkersness, some of the romances from the later 80s when the genre had gelled a little bit are better-written and less cringy. But I guess we’ll find out!

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7 thoughts on “Back to Old School: The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss (1972)”

  1. I read this when I was young, along with The Wolf and the Dove, another Woodiwiss, and Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers., which are very similar. I thought they were thrilling! Now I feel bad for you all having to plow through them and I love how much romance, as a genre, has evolved.

    Books were rapey back then because it wasn’t okay for women to acknowledge wanting sex outside of marriage.

    There’s a terrific short story by Margaret Atwood, “Rape Fantasies,” originally published in 1975, where a group of women discuss their rape fantasies that illustrates the ethos of the time really well.

    Liked by 2 people

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