Guest Review: The Flame and The Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss
If you haven’t read this post yet, please do so. The following is a guest review. No, sorry, discursive thought summary on The Flame and The Flower by our new guest reviewer, AJH.
Kickin’ It Old School: The Flame and the Flower
I thought I knew where I was with F&F from the final sentence of the very first paragraph:
The thatched cottage stood between spindly yews and, with shutters open and door ajar, it seemed to stare as if aghast at some off-color jest. (p.1)
Omg, I thought to myself, this is such a hardcore bodice ripper, even the buildings have their virtue threatened. But, truthfully, dear reader, I was not prepared.
You probably all know, inside out and back to front, the basic plot of this book but here goes nothing: Heather is a beautiful and virtuous maiden who lives with her Evil Aunt and Hopeless Uncle. Evil Aunt arbitrarily decides to sell her into prostitution. Heather flees the first of many would-be rapists, only to be mistaken for prostitute anyway by two dudes who have been dispatched by the hero, Captain Brandon Birmingham, who is looking to acquire a ho into whom he can place his penis. As it does not seem to cross Heather’s mind at any point to say “um, I’m not a prostitute”, Brandon deflowers her and subsequently decides she is such a good penis repository that he will keep her. Heather runs back to her Evil Aunt, who mistreats her for a while until it becomes apparent Heather is with child. Captain Brandon is pressured into marrying her, which makes him throw – what we manly men call – a total strop. The newly married couple go shopping and have a lot of baths, and a lot of arguments, and eventually set sail for America. In America, there is an Evil Ex and an Evil Cripple, and they fall in love. I mean, Heather and Brandon fall in love. Not the Evil Ex and the Evil Cripple, though they would probably get on well together. There are also some murders, but not of anybody we cared about. The end.
I will not lie: I spent a lot of this book confused and slightly worried, which had less to do with the plot (implausibility does not trouble me – I like books about dragons, remember) than the behaviour of all the people in it. Even the apparently nice ones. Especially the apparently nice ones. Thankfully, I was able to navigate who were supposed to be the good guys because morality in F&F seems largely determined by body shape.
Our heroine, Heather, is thin and righteous and, we soon discover, possesses a couple of super-powers: the first of which is the ability to make all men instantly want to rape her and the second is the ability to make all women instantly hate her. I feel these were an unfortunate choice and she should have held out for super-speed or invisibility. I found it rather difficult to get a handle on her, not because she’s devoid of character, but because she goes through such a lot over the course of the book (this poor woman is semi-violated more than most people sneeze) that she’s constantly in flux. ‘Terrified of being raped’ and ‘escaping from a rapist’ are not exactly what you’d call a personality. I could be reading it wrong, but I think the ‘true’ Heather is supposed to emerge in the second half of the book when she finally has a home and some security. She becomes very wifely, at this stage, in what I personally found a discomfortingly Stepford way but I think there’s enough textual evidence in there to suggest that this always what she wanted, and who she was, and she hasn’t just been brainwashed by Brandon’s, err, mighty wang.
Unfortunately, this was also the point at which I completely lost touch with Heather. In a weird way it reminded me a lot of Richardson’s Pamela. Despite the fact Mr B is always spying on her bosom, Pamela is kind of cool in the first half of the book (spirited, resourceful under siege, protective of her bosom) but, once she’s tamed Mr B into marriage, she becomes this picture-perfect pattern of virtue and is, therefore, a bit of a bore. Heather is nearly always a picture-perfect pattern of virtue but, before she gets shipped off to America with Brandon, she’s quite sympathetic. She’s not exactly over-endowed in the brain department but I thought her fears and anxieties were depicted plausibly, and – without going crazy-spunky about it – she does display some degree of resourcefulness in escaping from Brandon. And, now I think about it, she takes out Rapist #1 armed only with a small knife for peeling fruit. Which is totally Brian Blessed awesome. Respect, Heather, respect. Whereas in America she sits around sewing and being pregnant.
The other thing I found a bit hard to navigate was the fact Heather seems to go actively dangerously nuts in Brandon’s presence. Maybe I’m just an incurable romantic but I was under the impression that a lover should, y’know, bring out the best in you. There were several occasions when her behaviour genuinely made ‘do not date, do not date’ sirens start howling in my head.
The first warning sign occurs when Heather and Brandon are sleeping in a tavern, not long after their … what’s the Regency equivalent of a shotgun wedding? Flintlock wedding. Some men break into the room with the aim of kidnapping Heather. Brandon is so very very manly that he confronts the interlopers stark bollock naked and forces them to jump out of a second storey window, from whence sounds of their breaking limbs and obvious pain drift up from the street. Now, I agree that these are not good men but they are clearly poor and uneducated (you can tell because they have common people accents and I think one of them might be fat) and probably have only limited ways to make a living. And, presumably, even fewer now they can’t walk. I’m not condoning kidnapping as a trade for the lower classes but I do feel making random members of the public, no matter how morally dubious, auto-defenestrate at whim crosses the line from self-protection to sadism. Not our Heather though. She greets Brandon’s display of rampant psychosis with “a soft ripple of musical laughter” (p. 141).
Then there’s the occasion when they’re on a ship halfway between England and America and Heather casually asks if she can have cream in her coffee. Brandon, I think entirely fairly, derides her for this hilarious and blatant display of utter stupid, by asking “Do you think we’ll find a herd of cows in the middle of the North Atlantic?” Whereupon Heather immediately bursts into tears and runs from the room. I felt, at that moment, I was sharing a Dude Look with Brandon. I mean, seriously, Heather, get a grip. This man was raping you a few chapters back, and now you’re crying because he was slightly verbally mean? What’s wrong with you?
However, for me, the final nail in the coffin of my sympathy for Heather came in America, where she enacts one of the most masterfully passive aggressive manoeuvres I’ve ever witnessed, in life or fiction. She is like the Napoleon of manipulation. I didn’t know whether to applaud her or run away screaming, or applaud while running away screaming. Basically, she decides she going to make Brandon a Christmas present but, instead of using the abundant amount of money he owns and everybody keeps telling her she has the right to use, she sells some old dresses and uses the proceeds to knit him a cock sock (or some other hand-made garment, I forget the details). He is, of course, delighted with the gift when she presents it to him at Christmas, mistaking it for a gesture of genuine affection rather than the Woman Trap it blatantly is. The truth soon comes out and there is A Scene. I can’t tell whether this is genuinely meant to demonstrate Heather’s honesty and integrity in not wanting to take Brandon’s wealth for granted or if we are meant to think he brought it on himself for being a git to her earlier. To be fair, if I was married to Brandon at this point, I would have no faith in his human decency either but there’s just something so subtle and sinister about the Gift Trick that it scared the living hell out of me. And there’s no doubt that Heather knows exactly what she’s doing: “She sipped her tea daintily and lifted her nose with a slightly injured air. ‘Sir, I understood quite well,’ she needled, “that your money was not mine to spend.” (p. 291). Ye gods. Get out Brandon, get out now.
Speaking of Brandon, I found him as difficult as Heather, if not more so. I have just enough basic understanding of the genre to be able to recognise him as your Greater Spotted Alpha. Uber-virile, super-manly, over-bearing, possessive, obsessive and protective. But he’s also kind of a wankbucket and I don’t know to what extent that’s a side-effect of Alphadom or if it’s just him. Personally, I think can tell a lot about a person if there first act is to rape someone and that’s not the least sympathetic thing they do. To be honest, it’s probably a lot more understandable than some his later actions, because it’s just about attributable to an error of judgement, and Brandon is clearly a bear of very little brain.
What really threw me, however, was his behaviour afterwards. Once he’s comprehensively established that Heather was a virgin, she’s not a prostitute and she’s definitely not willing, he enthusiastically goes onto to rape her two more times. Seriously, dude. What gives? If I squint at it funny I can just about get my head round the first time. I mean, yes, I like to think most of us would take “no, no, please stop” as, y’know, indication that stopping would be a good idea right now but Brandon comes from the Mr Collins school of emotional intelligence and his blood seems to flow in one direction only. But why on earth does he keep on raping? (aaaand that sounds like a breakaway pop hit waiting to happen). And how are we meant to feel about it? To commit rape once may be considered unfortunate, twice looks like carelessness.
To be fair (I can’t believe I’m writing that sentence in this context), once they’re married, Brandon stops sleeping non-consensually with his wife. But I found his sexual behaviour reprehensible throughout: his justification for his two additional rapes is that Heather is so hot she deserves it (she was wearing a see-through gown as well, which I assume is the 1800s equivalent of a short skirt) and he basically stops raping her because he’s annoyed he’s been forced into marrying her and wants to punish her. Which just goes to show how messed up this man is. Yet, despite having instigated the whole no-more-raping rule, he whinges constantly throughout the first year of marriage that it’s her fault that he’s got nowhere to put his wang. Take some responsibility for your own penis, man!
I was genuinely having problems interpreting Brandon as any sort of fantasy figure until I realised how much time he spends taking Heather shopping and then it all clicked into place. For a fellow who impregnates women by looking at them and pushes bad guys out of windows, he’s remarkably – hilariously – metrosexual. When these two aren’t bathing or fighting, they’re out buying dresses. It’s like the Pretty Woman Rodeo Drive scene but, err, longer and duller. Well, duller for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like frocks but as an end product not as a process. You would probably have to be Julia Roberts to get me to voluntarily go clothes shopping with you but Brandon is totally into it.
Everything he selected she more than agreed with, and those discarded she had prayed would be. His sense of color astounded her. The man was gifted. She had to admit he chose better than she. (p. 160)
Dear me. He rapes virgins, defenestrates villains and can match a gown to a woman’s eyes at forty paces. What a guy.
Although Brandon and I did not get on (and since I wouldn’t go shopping with him we probably wouldn’t be a good match anyway), he does possess one trait that I found borderline endearing. Yes, that’s one, count ‘em, one. Whenever he’s having an internal monologue moment, he has an utterly bizarre habit of slipping into some kind of cod-Shakespearean dialect:
“Heather, this tiny purple flower from the moors, has dined upon my heart and now it grows within her and I have no more a heart to share. But my heart, thou hast betrayed me deep. You have closed all doors but one and that I slammed in anger.” (p. 311)
Now, I’m not very good at articulating my feelings either, so I sympathise but … whut? A small purple flower is eating your heart? And Heather has taken all the hearts? And there are doors in the hearts that are being slammed? Now, Brandon, sweetie, I may be going out on a limb here but … you’re unhappy about something aren’t you?
Oh bless him.
So, where does this leave us? Well. I had fun reading it, he damns with faint praise but – however important it may be in the development of the genre, or however much secret affection it may garner in the small, carnivorous purple flowers of readers’ hearts – I can’t say it did much for me. It’s exuberant, I’ll give it that. I was genuinely pretty shocked when I looked up from my Kindle, having followed Heather from an aghast country shack, through about six attempted rapes, via kidnapping, pregnancy and marriage, to discover I was barely 15% of the way through the book. I mean, 150 pages of a fantasy novel and you’re probably still in the prologue. So stuff really does happen in this thing. Stuff by the bucket load. So much stuff, I was pretty exhausted by the sheer stuff of the stuff. But I think the main problem, for me, was that I found Heather and Brandon both incomprehensible and largely unlikeable. It was borderline impossible to invest in the actual romance bit of the book, when the nicest thing I could think to say about them was: well, they probably deserve each other. Often followed by: God, I’m glad I’m not dating either of them.
I was somewhat discomforted by both the actual rape and the prevalence of rape, but that’s a personal rather than a universal judgement. I’m just squeamish and hand-wringy, ignore me. And, for a book written for women (right?), I found Heather’s second super-power a bit disconcerting. Nearly every other female character she meets is actively vile to her, for no apparent reason, but I suppose it keeps the focus on Brandon as a source of physical and emotional support. Also, I was quite disappointed to learn the term bodice ripper is a misnomer. Not a single bodice is ripped over the course of this novel. Not one. Just the occasional lightly torn chemise. But I guess chemise-wrecker doesn’t sound as cool.
On the other hand, personal reactions and confusions aside, I can sort of see what F&F was doing, or trying to do, and why it’s important. I guess there’s an extent to which we can see Heather and Brandon’s sexual relationship as … well … what’s the opposite of a metaphor? A literalisation of gendered power dynamics. Brandon can initially take what he wants, with no consequences, but eventually Heather is able to channel his desire down more socially and personally acceptable channels within the context of marriage. You could even go so far as to argue that Heather and Brandon reciprocally violate each other. Brandon, of course, literally, but then Heather (albeit inadvertently) blackmails him into marrying her, thus emasculating him and denying him the power of choice, just as he did when he raped her. Of course, this all takes as read a view of relationships in which women want marriage and security and men want sex and, err, sex, and the two must be traded from across the gender battlefield. But, Heather gets to have sexy fun times too, and on her own terms. Equally, it’s very clear that she wants the life she eventually fashions with Brandon. And, I think, perhaps that’s the important thing. Heather goes from having no choices, to being in a position to have everything she wants. And I guess that’s a decent fantasy for anybody, in the 1970s or not.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading The Flame & The Flower: to truly win a woman’s heart, throw some dudes out of a window, if you inadvertently have non-consensual sex with someone you might as well get a few more rapes in since the damage is done, fat people are evil, hair is remarkably emotionally expressive, boobs want to be free and should not be oppressed by clothing, nobody wore any underwear in the 1800s.