Heather Simmons was left destitute when her parents died. She was taken in by her aunt and uncle and lives with them in a humble cottage in the countryside. Her aunt treats her no better than a servant, forcing her to work hard from dawn to dusk and wear too-large, ragged hand-me-downs. When her aunt's brother comes for a visit and offers to take her to London, where he claims he can obtain employment for her at a school for young ladies, Heather jumps at the chance to better her circumstances. Little did she know that the man really planned to take advantage of her virginal charms and then sell her to a brothel. When Heather realizes his true intent, she tries to defend herself against his unwanted advances, but in the process accidentally stabs him. Thinking that she killed the man and the authorities would never believe it was an accident, she runs into the dark streets late at night, where she encounters two seamen who convince her to come with them to meet their captain.
Brandon Birmingham is an American businessman and the captain of the ship Fleetwood. When they finally put into port after their long journey at sea, Brandon sends his servants to find him a woman for the night. The young lady they bring him is beautiful beyond compare. Even though she resists, he beds her anyway, thinking she is merely a prostitute playing a game. When he realizes she was actually a virgin, he offers to make her his mistress, but Heather will have none of it. Instead, she takes the first opportunity to escape and returns to her aunt and uncle in disgrace. She tries to avoid telling them what happened, but when she begins to show signs of pregnancy, she can no longer hide the truth. Her aunt and uncle set out to force Brandon to marry Heather, but the captain is none too happy about this turn of events. Nevertheless, he does his duty then drags her back to his Southern plantation, where she must face his vengeful, jilted fiancée. Gradually, Brandon softens toward Heather and she finds many allies in her new home, but when the only man who can implicate her in the death of her aunt's brother appears in Charleston, he may threaten Heather's newfound happiness.
For years, I had no intention of reading The Flame and the Flower because of its infamous rape scene. The hero raping the heroine simply isn't my cup of tea, and I really didn't think I could enjoy a romance in which this happens. After reading numerous reviews, I finally convinced myself to give it a shot for three reasons. The first, and probably most important reason, is that I'm a huge fan of romance and am pretty well-read in the genre, and recently, have also taken up writing romance too. The Flame and the Flower is considered to be the book that birthed the modern romance novel, so I didn't feel that I could call myself a true fan without reading the book that started it all. Second, I've read other books by Kathleen Woodiwiss that I've enjoyed, including one that is still in my top 20 all-time favorites. And last, but not least, I hate to read series books out of order, and since I was interested in the other books in the Birmingham Family series, I wanted to start from the beginning. In the end, The Flame and the Flower left me with mixed feelings. I didn't hate it, but neither did I love it like so many other romance fans do. It was a very readable book, more so than many others I've tried, and aside from showing its age a bit in both style and content, it was a fairly entertaining read. However, the whole rape scene kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, and the memory of it haunted me throughout, essentially marring the better parts of the book. If this had not been a factor, I can honestly say that I would have really enjoyed it and probably could have placed it on my keeper list.
I'll start by getting the bad stuff out of the way up front with my analysis of the rape. It all started with a case of mistaken identity. Brandon believes that Heather is a common street walker. A part of me wanted Heather to speak up sooner and disabuse him of that notion, but I realized that the poor girl was probably in shock from the near rape she had just experienced at the hand's of her aunt's evil brother and thinking that she had accidentally killed him. Therefore, she most likely wasn't thinking too clearly. I'm not sure Brandon would have believed her anyway. She did fight back and say "no," but he seemed to think she was playing a game with him. In my mind, no means no, and there is never any good excuse for a man to force himself on a woman. However, with all the complications and misunderstandings abounding, I might have been able to forgive Brandon for the initial rape, but when he realized Heather was a virgin and she finally did explain how she came to be on the street and that she wasn't a prostitute, he should have stopped, apologized profusely, and given her compensation beyond the added insult of offering to make her his mistress. Instead he proceeds to rape her two more times and undoubtedly, would have done more if she hadn't escaped. He all but said he was going to hold her captive and continue to rape her until she enjoyed it, which only served to make me want to throttle the guy. Also having this happen right after the aunt's brother tried to rape Heather makes it somehow seem that just because Brandon is attractive and the other guy wasn't it was OK. Rape is never sexy nor romantic in any way no matter who the perpetrator is. Even the characters themselves don't deny that it was rape, but once they start to fall in love, they tend to treat it in a rather blasé manner which I found to be somewhat insulting to women who have been through this kind of trauma. This is just my take on it though, but it is also the reason that this one scene, which occurred in Chapter 1, cast a pall over the rest of the novel.
As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, Brandon begins the story as an insufferably arrogant jerk who seems to think he's God's gift to women. In my opinion, he's anything but a gentleman and doesn't have a clue how to treat a lady with respect. He laments the fact that he doesn't feel loving or possessive toward his fiancée in the way that a man who is about to be married should, but when Heather stirs those feelings in him, he takes it way too far. Brandon is a complete hypocrite, who whines about being forced to marry Heather when she becomes pregnant with his child, but never once considers her feelings in the matter, nor the fact that he got himself into this mess by forcing her to have sex with him. He then proceeds to punish her for the whole situation and constantly mock her with his demeaning smiles and laughter, which made me want to smack the jerk upside the head. Once married, he occasionally does something kind toward Heather, but then turns right around and negates it by doing or saying something vicious. This man has a jealous streak a mile wide and a serious case of passive/aggressive behavior. He constantly blows hot and cold, or perhaps I should say warm and cold, since he rarely rises much beyond an icy demeanor during the first half of the book. He is also a chauvinist who seems to think women are the ones responsible for inflaming men's passions, rather than being accountable for his own actions. He can be cruel and selfish, rarely considering Heather's needs and feelings. Granted, there's something to be said for Brandon not forcing himself on Heather again once they're married, even though it was considered to be his right as a husband, but he certainly spends a lot of time considering the possibility. I can also give him credit for nursing Heather while she was sick (although his boorish behavior is what caused it in the first place), and I think this was the turning point in their relationship. Once they arrive in America, he also defends her against Louisa's attacks, both physically and verbally, never allowing the potentially embarrassing truth of her getting pregnant out of wedlock to come out. From that point on, Brandon gradually began to soften, although he still had some blustery moments that hurt Heather's feelings. When he realizes he's falling in love with her (about 3/4 of the way in), he finally settles down to become a much more ideal hero. I can't say that I truly understood why he fell in love with Heather and started treating her better, as he doesn't really have any major epiphanies, but I am very glad that he eventually became a nicer person. I'm also glad that he never cheated on her. However, just when I thought things were getting better, Brandon flew into a fit of jealousy over Heather dancing with other men at a ball they were hosting. Afterward he demands his husbandly rights and threatens to rape Heather again if she doesn't submit willingly, which isn't my idea of effective foreplay. Heather initially got a little ticked, and rightly so, by his dominance and unwillingness to show her any love or tenderness, but then almost immediately did an about face and decided it was turning her on. The ensuing love scene itself was fine (thankfully no more rape), but knowing how they got there, cast a pall over it too. The bottom line: If Brandon had been the hero he was during the latter half of the book (minus the alpha posturing for sex) right from the beginning, he could have easily made my favorite romance heroes list, but with him being a big, fat jerk for a large part of the story, he'll never be a favorite with me like he is with many other fans.
Heather was not as much of a shrinking violet as I expected her to be. In fact, she was a pretty strong young woman for her age, who had lost her parents early and was living with an aunt and uncle. The aunt treated her no better than a servant, so essentially she was a Cinderella-type heroine. In some ways, she was a product of her time, often meekly following others, but in reality, she had few other options for survival. Underneath it all though, she showed some spunk. I'm actually glad that Heather escaped from Brandon after the rape, even though I knew it wouldn't last. After they were married, I loved that she fought back against Brandon's callousness and him ordering her around and called him for what he was, a rapist. She even had a few other choice words for him, which were exactly what I'd been thinking. If I were Heather, I don't believe I'd have been worried when she thought Brandon had left her at the inn. To the contrary, I'd have been relieved. For her to think she couldn't go back to her father's friends for help seemed a little ridiculous to me, since they obviously cared for her like a daughter. At least some of the time, she stood up for herself, and spoke the truth, but of course, every time she did, Brandon complained about her waspish tongue and acted like she the one who was always wrong, then proceeded to punish her in some way. Much like Brandon, I'm not sure why Heather fell in love with him, except that he gradually begins to treat her better. Since there isn't much deep POV to speak of, it's more like a magical thing that just happened to her. The reader gradually sees her becoming more possessive and jealous toward Brandon, until she simply loves him and wants to be a wife to him in every way. The bottom line: Heather weathered through all the bad things that happened to her like a trooper, and in many ways, deserved better than the guy she ended up with, but if she's happy...[shrug]
As for secondary characters, the bad guys, William Court, Thomas Hint, and Brandon's ex-fiancée, Louisa, were all really bad and in the end, paid the price for their evil deeds. The good guys helped to off-set Brandon's temperamental nature. Early in the story there was a young man from Heather's village, Henry, who was vying for her affections. Of course, Heather conveniently didn't love him, but neither did she love Brandon at the time. Henry, however, was so sweet and so blinded by his love for Heather that I couldn't help wondering if he might not have understood about the rape and married her anyway if she'd had the courage to tell him. In the end, I wasn't quite sure what purpose Henry served, since he got left out in the cold. He did make an impression on me though, and in spite of the fact that he never would have been able to give Heather the material things that Brandon could, he certainly was a lot nicer. Brandon's housekeeper, Hattie, was essentially the stereotypical black servant in the old South, except that she nor any of his other servants were referred to as slaves. She was a kind, caring mother hen, always doting on Heather and the baby and not afraid to give Brandon a piece of her mind when he deserved it. Last, but not least, was Brandon's brother, Jeff, who was a real Southern gentleman. He's an easy-going guy who could teach his brother a thing or two about manners and sometimes tried. Jeff became an instant ally for Heather, occasionally goading Brandon into taking more responsibility for her and her well-being, as well as prodding him with a bit of jealousy to get him to realize what a wonderful woman he had. I liked Jeff a whole lot more than Brandon and think he'll make a great hero, so I'm really looking forward to reading his stories. He appears in two novellas, The Kiss, and Beyond the Kiss, as well as the full-length novel, A Season Beyond a Kiss.
As a study in the history of the romance novel, The Flame and the Flower was an interesting read. The author does underscore the lack of choices for women in that era. Heather was first at the mercy of her abusive aunt, then nearly raped by the aunt's brother, who lured her away by devious means, then actually raped by Brandon, who seemed to think he could have Heather just because she was a woman all alone in the world. To top it all off, she was forced to wed her rapist, because she became pregnant. It certainly sounds like a potentially realistic scenario for those times, but I'm sure that most women who found themselves in such an untenable position never experienced the happy ending that Heather did, which is, of course, what makes it romance rather than real-life. Brandon was a typical man's man of the era, and so also something of a product of the times, but still, I didn't feel he was justified in forcing himself on a woman just because he was lonely and found her beautiful. He would have had to do a whole lot of groveling to make up for what he did, but of course, he never truly shows any genuine remorse. Even if he had, it still might not have been enough to make me like him, but it certainly would have helped. The novel had some slow places, but overall, it held my attention pretty well. Although I thought the book showed some of the greenness in Ms. Woodiwiss' style (it was her first novel), The Flame and the Flower is classic Kathleen Woodiwiss and she is a good storyteller. Overall, it was worth the read. It just wasn't entirely my cup of tea.
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