Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Forever Amber By Kathleen Winsor

(Click here for information on the 2022 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the first selection, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor)

forever amber

Well, Constant Readers, I vowed to get to our first massive tome of the summer in July, and I almost made it. How epic is Forever Amber? Well, it’s got a self-centered anti-heroine making her way through a Civil War and its aftermath, marrying men out of a sense self-preservation while fruitlessly pursuing her unrequited love (a gentleman born of a higher station than herself), who has married a refined lady… let’s see, Slavery in the Americas provides some key plot components… the Heroine escapes from a big fire… there is a dramatic scene involving her being shunned for wearing a scandalous gown… it was made into an epic movie with a lot of publicity surrounding the search for the leading lady…

I mean, I’m showing my American biases, but this does seem slightly familiar…

I wasn’t going to bring it up, but my friend Rachael (fellow 7th grade Junior Friend of the Library, and one of the very first supporters of this website) said it for me:

this is totally Gone with the Wind set in the 1600s

I don’t want to be too reductive, because Restoration England is a very fertile period as a setting: there is a Civil War, religious conflict, a plague, London’s Great Fire, and women started acting on the stage. All of which and so much more will figure into the life of Amber St. Clair as grows from a self-centered farm girl of 16 to a haggard old crone of… 26.

The book opens with a lengthy prologue detailing the story of Amber’s parentage, as a young noblewoman defies her parents arranged marriage to the Earl of Radclyffe and runs away with her one true love, as he prepares to join the Royalists to fight in the civil war on behalf of Charles I. Already pregnant, she stays with a peasant family in the countryside under the assumed identity of Lady St. Clare. Dying in childbirth, her last wish being that the baby is named Amber, after the color of her father’s eyes.

The book switches back and forth between Amber’s story and the real-life intrigue in the court of Charles II, liberally mixing historical and fictional characters. Throughout the book, Amber pursues her first love, Bruce, Lord Carlton, although he vows that he will never marry her.

Amber rises through London society, marrying or dallying with a con artist (he steals all of her money, landing her in debtor’s prison); an infamous highway man (he busts her out of prison and takes her into his gang before being captured and executed); a college student (she gets him expelled); the Captain of the King’s guard (killed by Bruce in a duel); various fops and nobleman; an elderly middle-class merchant (he conveniently dies and leaves her a fortune); an impotent Earl who is revealed to the reader to be her mother’s betrothed (!!!); and King Charles II himself.

After giving birth to Bruce’s son and sending him away to live with a respectable farm family, Amber goes on the stage, after learning that actors cannot be arrested or prosecuted, considered to be under the protection and in the service of the King, solving her problem of being both a debtor and a fugitive.  She is an instant sensation, attracting the notice of Charles II, but her heart is still with Bruce, who is constantly going to or returning from the sea, reminding Amber of his vow to never, ever marry her.

When she again finds herself pregnant by Bruce and looking for someone to pass off as the father, she marries Samuel Dangerfield, a wealthy middle-class merchant. She feuds with his stuffy family, and is a bad influence on his youngest daughter, Jemima.

Amber grows impatient with 61-year-old Samuel’s longevity, but she’s not totally heartless:

If she was ever to become rich Samuel must die, and yet she shrank from the thought of being his murderess, even indirectly.

Samuel has been doing a lot of business with a noted privateer, whom Jemima notes is SO DREAMY and is totally in love with. Amber is not pleased when it is revealed that the privateer is… Bruce Carlton. When she discovers Bruce having an affair with her stepdaughter, she schemes to have Jemima married off to a local boy whom she loathes. Samuel finally drops dead, and Amber gives birth to Bruce’s daughter and the Dangerfields are none the wiser. Amber takes all that Dangerfield money and goes to work appointing her elaborate new apartment house… but all is not well in London. Amber is unconcerned:

“Pish. What of it? Plague’s the poor man’s disease. Haven’t you heard that?” Barricaded behind her sixty-six thousand pounds she felt safe from anything.

Bruce gets the Plague. There is a lot of blood and pus and vomiting. Amber restores him back to health, and even saves him from being strangled by their disreputable nurse, before succumbing herself, and Bruce proves himself to be entirely useless. After they have both sufficiently recovered, Amber and Bruce sneak out of London and yacht up the Thames to Bruce’s BFF the Earl of Almsbury’s country estate, and Winsor mentions in passing:

Not one of the three considered it either strange or disloyal that in Carlton’s absence the Earl sometimes made love to her.

What? Amber and Almsbury have been doin’ it this whole time???

Amber knows that she and Bruce really shared something together during the Plague, and that OBVIOUSLY he knows they are destined to be together… but soon Bruce is packing it up and shipping out:  his life, his love and his lady is the sea.

Having gained wealth, Amber now wants a title, and she sees that opportunity in another withered old man, this time the Earl of Radclyffe, who is both impotent and seems to have a real problem with women… hmmm, I wonder what that is about. On their wedding day Amber is surprised when the old-fashioned gown he provides her fits surprisingly well.

In between locking her in her room and slapping her around, Radclyffe eventually reveals that the dress was intended for his betrothed, a woman who mysteriously disappeared during the Civil War twenty years earlier… and thank you Kathleen Winsor for just spelling it out, because I did not remember that was the same Earl that Amber’s mother fled from.

So, Amber is unknowingly married to her own mother’s intended, who cannot deal with Amber’s behavior in court (she had a brief affair with Charles II during her tenure on the stage); so he packs up the household and sends them to his son’s country estate, where everything is so boring that Amber starts an affair with her own step-son out of sheer desperation.

Radclyffe is not so understanding when he finds out and tries to poison everyone. Amber escapes; Radclyffe’s son is not so lucky.

Amber heads to London to avenge Radclyffe, Jr.; upon her arrival she finds the city on fire, and Radclyffe trying to rescue all of his valuable paintings. He is somewhat surprised to see her alive, and she first takes pleasure in beating him with her riding crop, then having her man-servant bludgeon him to death.

Amber returns to court and into the King’s favor, immediately becomes pregnant and goes looking for a new patsy-husband to cover up the paternity of the child; she finds Gerald Standhope, a weak-willed mama’s boy who consents to Amber’s plan of him living elsewhere. Bruce returns, married to the utterly respectable and refined Corinna, and resumes his affair with Amber, who eventually consents to his taking Bruce Jr back to Virginia.

Not until near the end does Corinna appear in person, and at first she attempts to befriend Amber, who has had the title of Duchess bestowed upon her by the King. Corinna learns about the affair and Bruce Jr’s true parentage, causing Bruce to repeatedly swear off, and then resume the affair. Amber plans to meet her rival for the first time in a wild bit of fashion-cum-theater:

The Duchess was going to come as Venus rising from the sea, dressed in a single sea-shell. She was going to drive a gilt chariot and four full-grown horses up the front stairs and into the drawing-room. He gown was to be made of real pearls which would fall off, a few at a time, until she had nothing on at all.

While Bruce is not impressed by her entrance and Amber causes a scandal in court, she has also become enmeshed in the Duke of Buckingham’s various nefarious plots again the King, which she tries to leverage to her own advantage. She eventually annoys Buckingham with her meddling, and he turns his scheming against her: after Bruce and Corinna sail for Virginia, he sends her a false message that Corinna has died en route, and she hastily packs up her house and massive entourage and books passage to Virginia, ever pursuing Bruce, as Buckingham and his compatriots breathe a sigh of relief that they are rid of her at last.

Interwoven with Amber’s story are scenes depicting the youthful and popular Charles II’s return to the throne, marriage to the barren Catherine of Portugal, and the many affairs he juggles in between his power struggles with both the English Chancellor and members of his own court.

The book was a sensation upon its publication, reportedly being banned in 14 U.S. states as pornography (it is one of the most famous titles to be “banned in Boston”); I suspect that the controversy had more to do with the sheer number of men Amber is involved with (one source listed the total as 30, but I only counted 14 mentioned by name) as well as a rather casual attitude toward abortion (the Massachusetts Attorney General counted seven described in the text). There are no sexual acts that are specifically described, although Amber’s early encounter with Buckingham is described as “her first experience with perversion” and during the plague it seems to be implied that the gravediggers are necrophiliacs.

A reader had noted that Amber is the rare heroine who remains genuinely, unrepentantly unlikable throughout the story, and her total amorality is refreshing. However, Amber also remains largely unchanged and untouched by her experiences, floating through traumatic events like a soap bubble. Winsor even notes that her loyal maid, Nan, is far more concerned about the potential precariousness of their financial situation and holds the memories of their shared times of poverty and desperation.

FA movie

Such a hot property was of course destined for Hollywood, and 20th Century Fox paid Winsor $200,000 for the rights and secured her services as a writer and technical advisor.

The production was troubled from the start, as a Scarlett O’Hara-like search for Amber was undertaken and the producers struggled to figure out how to appease the censors.

Filming finally commenced under the direction of John Stahl (probably best known for the original versions of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession); the starring role would be the Hollywood debut of British actress Peggy Cummins. However, production was halted after a month: the reason often cited is that Cummins lacked sex appeal on film. This may come a s surprise, as today Cummins is known mainly (if not only) to American audiences for her uninhibitedly sexual carnival sharpshooter in the 1950 film Gun Crazy.

When filming resumed months later, it was with a new script by Ring Lardner Jr., direction taken over by Otto Preminger and Linda Darnell in the lead role.

Censorship issues aside, the massive text required that a lot go on the chopping block to become a manageable movie. Amber’s husbands and lovers are whittled down to five, and Bruce Jr is her only child- and the film seems to skirt his illegitimacy by mostly keeping him off-screen.

Darnell is often the best part of any movie she is in, but here her appeal is weighed down under the period gowns, wigs and jewels. Cast as Bruce Carton is Cornell Wilde, an actor who turns up when they need someone who won’t overshadow the leading lady.

The supporting cast is WILD, starting with professional cad (and multiple Gabor-husband [!!!]) George Sanders as Charles II, looking a little long in tooth to play the youthful King, but still fun as he gets off a few typically bitchy bon mots and bosses around a pack of tiny dogs.

A very young Jessica Tandy plays Amber’s faithful servant Nan Britton; Richard Haydn wears about 300 pounds of old age makeup as Radclyffe, making him look considerably older than when he’d co-star in The Sound of Music 20 years later (!!); and The Amazing Colossal Man himself, Glenn Langan is Captain Morgan.

The ending is changed considerably from the book, as is the characterization of Bruce’s wife. On film, Amber arranges to put Corinna in the path of Charles II, assuming he can’t help but seduce her. But Charles sees through Amber’s scheme and is annoyed that she tried to use him in her constant pursuit of Bruce. He reveals his suspicions to Corinna and sends her home… but Corinna seems like she might have actually been down with sleeping with the King?

At any rate, in the final scene Bruce demands that Amber send Bruce Jr., back to the colonies with him, and is surprised when Amber stands up to him and refuses. So confident is she in her son’s love for her, she sends for Bruce Jr., and allows him to choose- and he picks his father, the little bastard! The film ends with Amber tearfully watching Bruce and Corinna set off across the sea with him.

I feel like the movie is remembered as a notorious flop, but it seems to have actually been quite successful financially, setting a box office record upon opening, and earning a re-release that Christmas (…despite having been condemned by the Legion of Decency).

Forever Amber is also widely credited with popularizing “Amber” as a girls’ name… but at least in the United States, that may be an urban legend: Social Security records show a small rise in the popularity of the name for mid-1940s births, but it didn’t peak in popularity until the early 1990s.

Availability: The book is still in print, the most recent edition with an introduction by Barbara Taylor Bradford; the movie is available on a bare-bones DVD.

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12 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Forever Amber By Kathleen Winsor

  1. julie long gallegos says:

    You are to be commended for sticking with this weighty novel!! I gotta say, I really loved it and re-read it when I was in my teens; it’s a rip-roaring page turner.

    Some fun facts: Linda Darnell also played Bernadette’s vision of the Virgin Mary in “The Song of Bernadette”. And my dad danced with Linda Darnell at the Hollywood Canteen during WW2! She and other Hollywood stars served coffee and sandwiches at the Canteen and they had dancing too. Dad was there on leave while in the Army Air Corps. He said she was a knockout.

    I think the book succeeds well in evoking Restoration England. And it does have a pretty good cliffhanger ending, like the other epic novel it emulates.

  2. Sheesh says:

    Every time this book comes up in conversation I think of a story Ava Gardner told in her autobiography. She was married to Artie Shaw, who was quite an intellectual and who was always trying to educate her. She was reading Forever Amber and Artie went on about a piece of trash it was. Well, Ava and Artie eventually got divorced, and who did he marry next? None other than Kathleen Winsor!!

  3. countesspetofi says:

    Forever Amber was the first George Sanders movie I ever saw, and I’ve had a massive crush on him ever since.

  4. Uly says:

    In this context, “made love” means something closer to “flirted” than “had sex”. You find that phrasing in a lot of books of that period and earlier.

    • mondomolly says:

      You may be right- it’s a phrase that turns up a lot in films of the 30s/40s/50s, and I;ve never quite been able to pinpoint when it started meaning “sexual intercourse”. The Marilyn Monroe film Let’s Make Love came out in 1960, so it would seem to still have that meaning that late.

      On the other hand, taken in the context of everything else that happens in thebook, I feel fairly confident that Amber and Almsbury were indeed “doin’ it”.

  5. Crystal says:

    The late Florence King, who was a child when Forever Amber came out, noted that her bookish father was probably the only person who bought the book for its descriptions of Restoration London. It was considered very scandalous in its time, but the actual sex scenes are quite tame by, say, Rosemary Rodgers’ standards, or Bertrice Small’s.

    I read it as a teenager (hooray for public libraries) – the edition with what looks like a thoroughly PO’d Katy Perry in costume on the front. I was impressed that a romance novel was published where the heroine was not a nice person, nor was her love interest, nor was anyone except maybe poor doomed Captain Rex and Corinna (we were meant to not like her because Amber didn’t, but she was nicer than Amber!).

    The descriptions of Restoration London and society WERE well researched and really fun to read about. So I can see where Florence King’s father was coming from.

    By the way, another book I remember now which had another unpleasant – though less so than Amber – protagonist was Victoria Holt’s “Legend of the Seventh Virgin.” Kerensa – whose name, ironically, means “love” in Cornish – was a scheming social climber who married a man she hated for status, and pretty much stepped on people on her way up. Kerensa Carlee was at least capable of friendship and love (for her grandmother, brother, and son) which put her above Amber St. Clare, but she was another “not a nice person” heroine. I believe LOTSV was published in the late 70’s early 80’s.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! I agree, it really does give you a feel for the Restoration era and seems to have been exhaustively researched.

      I’ll have to check out Legend of the Seventh Virgin, thanks for the suggestion!

  6. miss amy says:

    Forever Amber is one I’ve meant to read for ages and just never have. It’s kind of a trip to read your review, though, because it turns out we BOTH spent July reading doorstopper novels about debtors-turned-actresses living through the high times of Restoration England! If you want a more recent iteration of the story, I really enjoyed Diana Norman’s The Vizard Mask – while I don’t love its Native American content, it’s pretty damned gripping for a 700-page book, and Norman really makes the main character and her love interest work for a happy ending.

    I’m really going to have to get around to Forever Amber, though, since there’s no way Norman wasn’t aware of the potential for comparison! And I definitely want to compare.

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