When Banning a Book Backfires

Author Kathleen Winsor invented the bodice-ripper romance novel in 1944. Attempts at censorship only helped her sales.

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In the midst of the second World War, American housewives — and likely their husbands  — found a titillating distraction from the distressing news of combat overseas. It came in the form of a steamy historical novel north of 900 pages and packed with promiscuity. Kathleen Winsor, the author of the first bodice-ripper, Forever Amber, became a fast celebrity, and her book’s sales climbed even higher after states began banning it.

Winsor had never written a novel before setting out to pen a sprawling story of Restoration London. When she was 19 years old, she married her college sweetheart Robert Herwig, and his senior thesis on Charles II put Winsor in the vicinity of literature on the king and his tumultuous period that included the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. She claimed to have read 356 books on the Restoration Period before working on Forever Amber. Once she began writing, she tracked her time, logging almost 5,000 hours to write five drafts.

The novel was published by Macmillan in 1944, and her publishers sent Winsor on a 10-day promotion tour that was “almost unprecedented for a first-book author,” according to LIFE magazine. Winsor signed copies of Forever Amber from Boston to Atlanta donning chic attire, and glamorous shots of the author accompanied her book’s promotional materials.

In spite of reviewers writing that it was “without any literary distinction,” Forever Amber was a hit. Much like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind of eight years earlier, readers devoured the epic story of a flawed heroine encountering hardship and falling in love during a historic period of intense tribulation. Better yet, Winsor’s main character, Amber St. Clare, is unapologetically promiscuous. “That Amber St. Clare,” a townsperson says of her in the first chapter, “if ever there’s a man about, you may be sure she’ll come along! I think she can smell ’em out!” Unsurprisingly, Miss St. Clare does “smell ’em out,” bedding one man after another throughout the story as she utters lines like “Adultery’s no crime — it’s an amusement” or “I’m somebody now! I’ve lain with the King!”

In Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds, author Dawn B. Sova observes, “Throughout the novel, Amber uses her sexuality to achieve her aims, actions befitting the times as portrayed in a novel in which most of the characters ignore traditional morality and use any means to achieve their ambitions.” Novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, in her foreword to the most recent edition of Forever Amber, echoes the idea that the book’s worst crime was being set in an indecent age: “In a curious way, I think those critics of long ago were really reviewing the Restoration Period itself, and not the story Kathleen Winsor wrote.”

The question of whether or not Winsor’s depiction of 17th-century England was accurate was a critical one in the 1948 decision against Massachusetts Attorney General George Rowell’s ban on Forever Amber. In Attorney General v. Book Named “Forever Amber,” the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that the book “is sufficiently accurate for the purpose of representing a portrait of the period and its customs and morals; that it does not exaggerate or falsify any traits of the Restoration.” In fact, the court’s opinion stated that it would be difficult to accurately depict the bawdy court of Charles II without including such indiscretions. The court heard testimony from experts on Restoration literature as well as three psychiatrists.

The State Attorney General had still claimed that Forever Amber contained “70 references to sexual intercourse; 39 to illegitimate pregnancies; 7 to abortions; 10 descriptions of women undressing, dressing or bathing in the presence of men; 5 references to incest; 13 references ridiculing marriage; and 49 miscellaneous objectionable passages.” However, the judge decided that, although the book was teeming with sexuality, none of it was depicted realistically, and Forever Amber was not — on the whole — obscene. In his closing statements, he wrote that the book was “a soporific rather than an aphrodisiac.”

The lusty novel was still banned by the U.S. Department of the Post Office until 1957. That didn’t make so much as a dent in sales though, since mail delivery wasn’t a significant means for distribution. In fact, Forever Amber became one of the best-selling books of the 1940s. Decades before the romance novel would materialize as its own genre, Winsor had tapped into the psyche of American readers and unearthed an insatiable desire for sexy light reading.

Talk of a motion picture adaptation began immediately after Winsor’s book swept the country. The biggest question on everyone’s lips was, of course, who would play Amber St. Clare? Maureen O’Hara wanted the role badly, as did Paulette Goddard, and rumors even flew that Amber would be played by Kathleen Winsor herself. Peggy Cummins landed the role, but she was booted from the film shortly after filming began and replaced with Linda Darnell. The script had to pass through the ever-strict Hays Office, and the studio made several attempts in vain. The papers speculated that Amber would need to die in the end as punishment for her sins, but the writers were able to gain approval by cutting the number of her lovers from around 30 to five.

The 1947 film adaptation of Forever Amber did well at the box office, but failed to exhibit the same cultural staying power as Gone with the Wind. As for Winsor, she promptly divorced her college football star husband and married musician Artie Shaw, the first of three divorces for the author. She wrote many more novels in her career, like the autobiographical Star Money and her last, Robert and Arabella, in 1986. She found that it was difficult to please readers who had already eaten up all the sensual melodrama she had to offer. Her books never sold as well as her first, bombshell novel. She spoke of plans for a sequel, to be called Amber in America, but it was never published.

Featured image: Forever Amber, 20th Century Fox, 1947m (Wikimedia Commons)

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  1. Nicholas, I’ve got to hand it to you for coming up with this tasteful tale of a naughty tale here. Obviously it was the right book at the right time, appearing that a little erotic literature may have been just what the doctor ordered. I’d have to read it myself (of course) to determine if it met the true definition of pornographic literature.

    As far as the film adaptation goes, some big female stars were obviously vying for the role of Amber. I’m sure Linda Darnell did a great job playing Ms. St. Clare. I appreciate the LIFE magazine link with the photo of the author Kathleen Winsor. It makes one wonder what the film might have been like with Kathleen in the lead role, being a 20th century fox herself!


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