Spirit Preserved in 'Amber'
Note: this article appeared
in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on June
On May 26,
a frail woman of 83, once famous, died in New York City,
a virtual recluse. News of her death appeared sporadically.
I called one newspaper about an obituary. An editor asked,
Winsor had died, the author of seven novels, including,
in 1944, "Forever Amber," which in its first
week of publication sold 100,000 copies and went on to
sell millions. Enthusiastically bawdy, the novel was set
in Restoration London, then rebounding boisterously from
the somber rule of Oliver Cromwell.
were largely dismissive, derisive. As if that was all
she should be remembered for, even eight-line obituaries
evoked the Massachusetts attorney general who brought
charges of obscenity by numbering its sexual passages;
an adding machine was needed, he said. Since there is
no graphic sex in "Forever Amber," he must have
distractedly counted ellipses.
longer obituaries cited the judge who, dismissing obscenity
charges — the book was banned in 14 states and abused
by reviewers as vulgar and trivial — claimed that
the novel had put him to sleep. Counting sexual liaisons,
the interim following, several novels aroused censors,
none as notoriously as "Forever Amber." Although
four years later Norman Mailer had to coin the word "fug"
to ease "The Naked and the Dead" past censors,
he and other writers — some of D.H. Lawrence's and
Henry Miller's novels were not yet legal here —
benefited from Winsor's contribution to the fight. Aside
from all that, "Forever Amber" is a grand literary
heard of it at age 13 when, with other congregants in
the Church of the Immaculate Conception in El Paso, I
stood to repeat a decreed vow that I would never read
the sinful book. Grateful to God for the introduction,
I rushed to read it.
precocious then, and as modest as I am now, I read several
long books simultaneously. So it was that while I followed
Winsor's glamorous Amber St. Clare from a staid country
household to the profligate Court of King Charles II,
I also roamed with Molly Bloom through lush memories of
fragrant tosses in flower-strewn fields; and I traversed
Swann's way to encounter the scandalous Odette; and every
now and then I would cast Molly as Amber, and then Odette
was Amber and Amber would turn into Molly. Eventually,
stubborn Amber refused to become Ma Joad.
by years of research, Winsor, age 25, drew so exuberant
a picture of London during the Restoration — "stinking,
dirty, noisy, brawling" — that it is difficult
to believe she had not been there. She evokes the heat,
the advancing flames of the Great Fire. She creates a
surreal city during the Great Plague. Predators pillage
near-corpses. "Bring out your dead!" echoes
along plundered streets.
sit among raucous theater audiences. In the opulent court
of Charles II, we mingle in golden-mirrored halls, all
as Amber climbs to the heights as mistress of Charles
II. With wry humor, Winsor follows that ascent closely.
To upstage everyone else, Amber attends the royal court
with breasts exposed. " 'Swounds, madame, this is
the greatest display since I was weaned," leers a
lord — and I quote from usually reliable memory.
her sumptuous characterizations, Winsor is in the tradition
of Dickens. Mother Red Cap, Black Jack Mallard, Mrs. Maggot
— her cast ranges from bawds and pirates to embroidered
courtiers and courtesans. Historical figures come to life
as vividly as fictive characters. Charles II, cynical,
bored, wanders luxuriant gardens with his pampered dogs.
Winsor imbues her star-crossed romance with a sense of
fateful irony. Amber's love for the haughty Lord Bruce
Carlton is impossible because she is lowly born. Only
the reader knows that her mother was an aristocrat.
every one of the Winsor obituaries relegates her work
to the realm of "women's fiction." Even Elaine
Showalter in an admiring appreciation in the Guardian
limits the author's scope by identifying readers implicitly
only among women. Other writers mention Jacqueline Susann
and Grace Metalious as her literary sisters. It is not
to demean those significant ladies to uphold that "Forever
Amber" belongs with Thackeray's "Vanity Fair,"
Defoe's "Moll Flanders," Margaret Mitchell's
"Gone With the Wind" — and with Fielding's
famous picaresque novel; Amber is somewhat of a female
only women admired the book. Ring Lardner did; so did
Otto Preminger. So did my brother Yvan. Returning from
the invasion of Normandy, Yvan, 21 then, snatched away
my copy. He had started reading it on the ship back to
the States but couldn't keep it long enough from other
returnees to finish it. When I was in the 101st Airborne
Infantry Division in Germany soon after the Korean War,
I read it again. It had lost none of its power.
her primary honor is as a storyteller, Winsor's prose
is splendidly robust. It may seem blasphemous to some
to say that Winsor was a better writer than Mitchell,
who introduces the famous heroine of her undeniably great
"Gone With the Wind" with this awful sentence:
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom
realized it when caught by her charm, as the Tarleton
chooses the moments before Amber's aristocratic mother's
death to introduce her heroine at birth: " she could
hear again, loud and clear, the sound of her daughter's
cries. They were repeated over and over, but grew steadily
fainter, fading away, until at last she heard them no
more." Not spectacular, no, but a kind of resigned
viaticum for the child of turbulence.
authors acknowledge only sanctified writers as their influences
— "And of course Shakespeare" —
along with another writer to confound an interviewer (mine
is Aphra Behn). Early on, I admired Winsor's Technicolor
prose, its possibilities, when effective, when not. I
thrilled to her unabashed exploration, with empathy —
and necessary humor — of lives disdained as outrageous,
and to her storytelling genius.
Winsor's stature was minimized because her heroine does
not end tragically, like Becky Sharp, Emma Bovary, Moll
Flanders, Anna Karenina. Amber is indefatigable to the
end. Too, she was created by a woman, and she was lusty.
Gentlemen's heroines don't care much for sex. Even Scarlett
O'Hara tells her bumbling husband, Frank Kennedy, that
only men like sex. Unlike Amber, Scarlett marries her
suitors, although, as wise old Mammy knew, she would have
taken the plunge if Ashley Wilkes hadn't been so prissy.
Here's Amber: "Adultery is not a crime, it's an amusement."
— who was beautiful — may have suffered the
curse of the sensational first novel whose reputation
is so entrenched that its author can no longer be evaluated
beyond it in subsequent work. She wrote more books —
"Star Money" (which honed her satirical powers),
"The Lovers," "Calais," "Robert
and Arabella," "Jacintha" and another massive
epic, "Wanderers Eastward, Wanderers West,"
in which she displayed again her superb talent to re-create
history, here 19th century America.
the Internet, I stumbled upon another saddening item.
A brief note introduces the "Preliminary Inventory"
of Winsor's papers, which she donated to the University
of Texas at Austin: "The collection is not fully
processed or cataloged; no biographical sketch, descriptions
of series, or indexes are available." Included are
five drafts of the famous novel and handwritten notes
of the author's vast research.
has a way of correcting literary misjudgments, eventually
relegating to derisive footnotes fatuous censorious attorneys
general, clownish judges, silly reviewers, uninformed
obituary writers. The frail lady who died May 26 was the
woman who created Amber St. Clare. Amber survived plague
and fire. With equal assurance, her creator triumphs.
Los Angeles, California
Back to top
Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.