Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

Review by Rosie Canning

Kathleen Winsor published Forever Amber, the 972-page historical romance novel in October of 1944. There is nothing more enticing than a book that has been banned. While many reviewers “praised the story for its relevance, comparing Amber’s fortitude during the plague and fire to that of the women who held hearth and home together through the blitzes of World War II”, others condemned it for its blatant sexual references.

Fourteen US states banned the book as pornography. The first was Massachusetts, whose attorney general cited ‘70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men’ as reasons for banning the novel. He added: ‘The references to women’s bosoms and other parts of their anatomy were so numerous I did not even attempt to count them.’ The book was publicly burned in that state!

Winsor denied that her book was particularly daring, and said that she had no interest in explicit scenes. ‘I wrote only two sexy passages,’ she remarked, ‘and my publishers took both of them out. They put in ellipses […] instead. In those days, you know, you could solve everything with an ellipsis.’

Forever Amber, opens in 1644 with Judith Marsh who has been engaged since birth to her neighbour, John Mainwaring, heir to the Earl of Rosswood. Judith has her engagement broken when her family and the Mainwarings find themselves on opposing sides of the English Civil War. During a break in the fighting, John visits Judith and the two consummate their relationship. Pregnant, Judith eventually abandons her family and goes to Parliamentarian territory on John’s instructions, introducing herself as Judith St. Clare and staying with a gentleman farmer Matthew Goodegroome and his wife Sarah. Judith dies in childbirth but not before naming her daughter Amber after the colour of John’s eyes.

The story of orphaned Amber St. Clare, tells how she was abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London. 16-year-old Amber manages, by using her wits, beauty, and courage, to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England—that of favourite 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.

Many notable historical figures appear in the book including Charles II of England, members of his court, and several of his mistresses including Nell Gwyn.

Winsor’s inspiration for the book came from her first husband (she had many) who had done his undergraduate thesis on Charles II of England. For five years while he was serving in the army she read books on the period and wrote numerous drafts of what would become Forever Amber. She studied the period, read 392 books, and wrote six drafts of her novel, running to almost 13,000 pages.

A few years ago when I began to collect the books for my PhD that had made an impact on me whilst growing up, I found an old first edition of Forever Amber and bought it. In 1975, having rescued myself from homelessness by working as a Mother’s Help and staying in a rather magnificent house in Hampstead; I read unable to stop day and night until the book was finished. I suspect this novel is a bit like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. At seventeen, I loved it.

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