first published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail 14 July 2007
The first romance novel I ever read was a Mills&Boon called Dreaming by Charlotte Lamb. I was introduced to these little hardcover romances by my nana, who handed me one and said ‘here, read this. It’s a nice story.’ It was a nice story, and I was hooked. Soon I’d read my library out of the Mills&Boon and most of the Harlequin series as well.
But I was never a short story kind of reader. I liked big, thick, meaty (you’ll have to pardon the expression) stories. I was also reading Stephen King, James Michener, and Colleen McCullough, stories that spanned generations for hundreds of pages. Series romance tends to run at less than 200 pages. I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more.
Then I discovered Kathleen Woodiwiss. And she provided for me—as she has for countless others—more. Woodiwiss wrote deep, thickly plotted, richly emotional historical novels that spanned families, geography, and time, and thrilled fourteen-year-old me to my fingertips.
Kathleen Woodiwiss died on Friday, the 6th of July after a long battle with cancer.
Long hailed as the creator of the modern romance novel, in 1972, Woodiwiss took traditional romance conventions and turned them on their head with her debut novel The Flame and the Flower, the first bodice-ripper. Twelve novels, and 36 million copies later, Woodiwiss remains a key name when discussing the evolution of romance and the advent of the modern heroine.
Though in 21st century context, The Flame and the Flower and the follow-up The Wolf and the Dove certainly don’t seem like feminist tracts, the effect they had were wide spread. Heather, the heroine, is the grandmother of feisty heroines. She runs away from her guardian to protect her virtue, only to find herself kidnapped and held captive on a ship by arrogant Captain Brandon who mistakes her for a prostitute. Flame is an example of an early rape romance, a tactic used to bridge the uneasy relationship between the sexual revolution and traditional values in regards to female sexuality. While Heather’s sexual awakening is controversial, she uses her compassion and quiet strength of mind to win over the Captain, and by the time they land at his family’s plantation in the US, he is in love and desperate to marry her.
Her death is not without controversy, however. In a message posted on his mother’s website, Kathleen’s son Heath claims her last novel is in its final stages, and that the family is trying to polish it and get it published as soon as possible, but are currently experiencing problems with an editor quoted as a ‘great source of stress’. Hopefully these last hiccoughs don’t overshadow a truly noteworthy career.