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Apr 10, 2012

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

2000 reissue of a forbidden 1944 tale, Chicago Review Press
Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
Originally published 1944
Chicago Review Press, September 2000
Paperback 976 pages
Novel purchased from HalfPrice Books
Burton Book Review Rating: 4.5 stars

Abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, 16-year-old Amber St. Clare manages, by using her wits, beauty, and courage, to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England—that of favorite mistress of the Merry Monarch, Charles II. From whores and highwaymen to courtiers and noblemen, from events such as the Great Plague and the Fire of London to the intimate passions of ordinary—and extraordinary—men and women, Amber experiences it all. But throughout her trials and escapades, she remains, in her heart, true to the one man she really loves, the one man she can never have. Frequently compared to Gone with the Wind, Forever Amber is the other great historical romance, outselling every other American novel of the 1940s—despite being banned in Boston for its sheer sexiness. A book to read and reread, this edition brings back to print an unforgettable romance and a timeless masterpiece.

Forever Amber is one of those books that you either love or hate it. Some hate it because the main protagonist is a total dimwit with zero scruples. Others feel it is a total rip of Gone With The Wind. And, hey, if I were a critical woman I'd agree wholeheartedly, but the fact of the matter is that I simply do not care as long as I am being entertained. Instead of rereading Gone With the Wind over and over, I'd so much rather read rip-offs and garner a new experience with new characters. And what better setting than that of Restoration England?

Amber is a harlot and cares only about herself. Once I got past that icky fact, I let the scenery suck me into Amber's world during the seventeenth century. And lucky for us, the story is told omniscient so that we get a little taste of everyone, from Charles II and his Queen, to his mistress Barbara Palmer and but always back again to Amber. There are quite a few supporting characters and men to keep the story interesting, as Amber keeps that one man never far from our thoughts: Bruce Carlton (said as an epithet: Bruce Carlton!! $%#%$!!)

Halfway through the book, where in other novels heroines would finally have settled down and conducted themselves in a respectable manner, Forever Amber once again exhibits reasons why there are some who loathe it. I'll say it again: Amber is a harlot. Can I truly get past this fact four hundred pages later with even more to go? I will say that she actually does manage to redeem herself for half a moment when she takes care of Bruce, but I knew it wouldn't last long.

The background of the story (and its saving grace) is the magnificent era of the Restoration in all its glory. Charles II and his mistresses are featured, with the corresponding courtiers the likes of Samuel Pepys and the Duke of Hamilton/Buckingham/etc. The decadence, the plays, the plague, the privateers, the discontent of England and the distant hope of America are the novel's driving force as Amber becomes involved in them all.
Peggy Cummings, original star of Forever Amber, but sadly was replaced by Linda Darnell. This is exactly how I pictured her. 
Lobby Card of the film

One of the amazing things that always gets me thinking is the original novel that Kathleen Winsor had written. Her original publisher is said to have cut her final draft to one-fifth its size. What was cut out? Why didn't they publish separate volumes if size was an issue? The author's other novels seem to be more themed as pure romance types, so I wonder if it was the romantic scenes that got the heave-ho. Even though the topic is scandalous enough for the 1940's when this was written, the sex scenes are completely skipped over. Fourteen US states banned the book for pornography.. from this typically prudish gal I'm like you've gotta be kidding me! Because even though Amber IS a harlot, the actual sex is not here. But, we're talking fifty years ago, so the ALLUSION of sex is evident and therefore ruffled prim and proper feathers.

The entire story of a girl sowing her oats in Restoration England is a memorable one, and I can understand the reasons why this novel has made the favorites list. The details are immense, and the narration of the story is done so well that the reader gets immersed in the era of Charles II and the Restoration. The final scene leaves us shaking our heads, and wondering what silliness Amber is going to embark on next. We can only imagine.