First edition cover
|Cover artist||Jean Des Vignes|
|Set in||17th-century England|
Forever Amber tells the story of orphaned Amber St. Clare, who makes her way up through the ranks of 17th century English society by sleeping with and/or marrying successively richer and more important men, while keeping her love for the one man she can never have. The subplot of the novel follows Charles II of England as he returns from exile and adjusts to ruling England. The novel includes portrayals of Restoration fashion, including the introduction and popularization of tea in English coffeehouses and the homes of the fashionably rich; politics; and public disasters, including the plague and the Great Fire of London. 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 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.
In 1644 Judith Marsh who has been engaged since birth to her neighbour, John Mainwaring, heir to the Earl of Rosswood, 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 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.
In 1660 Amber is now a flirtatious teenager being raised by the Goodegroomes in ignorance of her origins. She meets a band of Royalists passing through town who inform her that Charles II of England is returning. Amber is particularly attracted to Lord Bruce Carlton and during a fair she lures him into the woods and loses her virginity to him before persuading him to take her with him to London. Carlton reluctantly agrees, but tells Amber he will not marry her and she will come to regret her choice.
In London Carlton makes Amber his mistress and she quickly grows accustomed to their luxurious lifestyle. She longs to have Carlton marry her and believes that pregnancy will secure her position. However, when Amber does become pregnant Carlton tells her he plans to leave to become a privateer. He leaves Amber a significant amount of money and tells her that if she is clever she can legitimize herself and her child by marrying well. Left alone, Amber is befriended by a woman named Sally Goodman and passes herself off as a rich country heiress. Sally introduces Amber to her nephew Luke Channell and, terrified that her pregnancy will soon reveal itself, Amber quickly marries Luke. She soon discovers that Sally and Luke are not what they appear, and after realizing she is not as wealthy as she claimed the two run off leaving her penniless in the city. Pursued by creditors she is taken to a debtors' prison. Salvation comes when she catches the eye of Black Jack Mallard, a highwayman who escapes the prison taking Amber with him. Black Jack takes Amber to Whitefriars where she is introduced to the ways of criminals and gives birth to a son, Bruce, who she gives away to a countrywoman to raise properly. Black Jack hires a student of noble birth, Michael Godfrey, to educate Amber, and begins to use her as bait in his schemes, where she lures handsome rich men to quiet corners before Black Jack robs them. Amber attracts the hate of Bess, Black Jack's former lover, and after Bess's jealousy results in her being kicked out of their home, Bess avenges herself by turning in Black Jack and his conspirators. Amber manages to escape, and happens upon Michael who offers her his protection. She becomes his mistress.
Terrified that her debts will one day catch up with her, Amber learns from Michael that actors are protected from arrest by being servants of the king and uses her connections to get on stage in the King's Company. Though she is not a great actress Amber uses her beauty to earn larger parts, hoping to attract the attention of a man who can afford to keep her as his mistress. She catches the eye of Captain Rex Morgan, the paramour of Beck Marshall another actress in the company and succeeds in persuading him to pay to keep her. Morgan falls in love with Amber and offers to marry her, but she resists because she feels she is capable of attracting a more valuable man. True to her belief, Amber eventually attracts the attention of the king and sleeps with him twice before his mistress, Barbara Palmer, grows angry and convinces him to stop. Depressed, Amber decides to marry Rex, but shortly before her son's second birthday Bruce returns from his travels and Amber realizes she is still in love with him. Amber recklessly spends more time with Bruce, aware that he will leave soon. Unfortunately Rex realizes who she has been spending time with and challenges Bruce to a duel which results in Rex dying and Bruce leaving once more.
Amber feels bereft after Rex dies, but becomes more popular than ever and prostitutes herself to the Duke of Buckingham and several other rich men. The more men she sleeps with the more her price falls and she eventually becomes unpopular leading her to leave the city after an abortion makes her ill, to rest and contemplate her future. On her way to Tunbridge Wells she meets a rich widower, Samuel Dangerfield, and pretends to be a modest young widow in order to convince him to marry her. Dangerfield's puritanical family is horrified by Amber, who is forty years younger than her new husband. Only Jemima, Amber's step-daughter who is a few years younger than her, reacts favourably to her. Amber finds out that Bruce is partially funded by Samuel and when he returns the two strike up an affair with Amber hoping to become pregnant and pass off the latest pregnancy as Samuel's. She succeeds but is discovered by Jemima who also harbours romantic feelings towards Bruce. Jemima later reveals she is also pregnant by Bruce and Amber forces Jemima into a marriage she doesn't want in order to legitimize the pregnancy. Bruce eventually leaves again after reasserting he has no intention of ever marrying Amber, and Samuel dies of a stroke leaving Amber a very rich woman.
Shortly after Amber gives birth for the second time Bruce returns just as London is taken with the plague. Bruce contracts the plague and Amber nurses him back to health before contracting the plague herself and being nursed by Bruce. The two manage to escape the city to Lord Almsbury's country estate, but when Bruce leaves her again, Amber decides to remarry once more to the Earl of Radclyffe, a fifty-something impotent old man who is more attracted to Amber's money than to Amber herself.
Now a countess, Amber intends to go to court and become the King's favoured mistress, replacing Barbara Palmer, the countess of Castlemaine. Unfortunately for Amber, her husband is disgusted by her behaviour and takes her to the country forcing her to miss an assignation with the King. Angry and bored, she begins an affair with her step-son. Unfortunately the earl discovers what Amber has done and tries to poison her and his son, succeeding only in killing his own son. Amber follows her husband to London where she has her manservant murder him their crime undiscovered due to the Great Fire of London.
Now finally free she becomes the King's mistress. When she informs him that she is pregnant the king arranges for her to marry Gerald Stanhope, a man a year younger than Amber, to hide the pregnancy. Amber marries him and continues her affair with both the king and Bruce, when he returns from Jamaica. During their brief time together Bruce informs Amber that he has finally married and also that he intends to make their son his lawful heir, passing him off as a child of his first marriage. Horrified at first, Amber reluctantly lets her son go, knowing it will secure his future.
With Bruce gone again, Amber finds her fortunes on the rise as Barbara Palmer ages and falls out of favour. Frances Stewart elopes and when she returns, ready to become mistress to the king, becomes disfigured by smallpox though she and the king remain on friendly terms. Amber is made Duchess of Ravenspur with the only threats to her happiness several low-bred actress-mistresses of the king.
Bruce returns just as Amber is at the height of her power, with his wife Corinna. Amber is jealous of her, but though Bruce informs her he loves Corinna, he resumes his affair with Amber. However, when Corinna discovers the affair Bruce promises her to stop seeing Amber. When Amber chases him down he relents once more on the condition that they carry their affair in total secrecy. Amber eventually becomes angry at the effort they go to disguise their affair and when she complains to Bruce he finally leaves her for good. As part of the court, Amber goes to Dover for the signing of the Secret Treaty of Dover. Upon her return, desperate to reunite with Bruce, she goes to Corinna and tells her about her affairs and the fact that young Bruce is her son. Bruce happens upon the two women and he and Amber violently fight, triggering Corinna's labour. Amber becomes convinced that her relationship with Bruce is truly over. Unbeknownst to Amber, the Duke of Buckingham finally sees her as a threat and convinces one of his enemies, the Baron of Arlington it would be mutually beneficial for them to find some way of ridding themselves of Amber.
Amber receives a note telling her that Corinna died on the voyage from England to France, where she and Bruce were last seen going. Amber decides to leave for America hoping that Bruce will forgive her and they will finally marry when they are together, unaware that Corinna is perfectly well and the note was engineered by the Duke of Buckingham and the Baron of Arlington.
- Amber St. Clare - The illegitimate daughter of two nobles who is raised by well-off farmers ignorant of her origins. She is extremely beautiful and ambitious but also selfish and naive.
- Lord Bruce Carlton - A free-spirited Royalist thirteen years older than Amber who spent his formative years in exile following Charles II of England's wandering court.
- Lord Almsbury - a friend of Bruce Carlton's who is also taken with Amber. He tries repeatedly over the years to make Amber his mistress. He is more willing to stay at home and play politics to secure his fortune, unlike his free-spirited friend.
- Nan Britton - Amber's loyal maid and only female friend.
- Black Jack Mallard - an extremely tall and clever highwayman who uses his savvy to escape from debtors' prison and is extremely lustful.
- Michael Godfrey - a bon vivant law student who falls in love with Amber and introduces her to a life of hedonism.
- Captain Rex Morgan - a swashbuckling lothario who keeps many mistresses but is most interested and loyal to Amber, wanting to marry her despite knowing that she is married and has a child by another man.
- Samuel Dangerfield - a 60 year old widower and self-made man who is one of the richest men in England and becomes Amber's second husband.
- Earl of Radclyffe - Amber's third husband who is an ugly and indebted man who is impotent and abusive. Unbeknownst to Amber he was actually once engaged to marry her mother, Judith, before she ran away, leading him to pine after her for the rest of his life.
- Gerald Stanhope - Amber's fourth husband who is the foppish first son of a family that was bankrupted in the civil war. He allows Amber to dominate him and eventually allows her to pay him off so that she may live freely, doing whatever she wants to do while he consorts with his mistress.
- Bruce - Amber and Bruce Carlton's oldest son, born of the first period of their long affair.
- Susanna Dangerfield - Amber and Bruce's youngest child, born during their affair during Amber's marriage to Samuel Dangerfield and passed off as a Dangerfield child. She is very much like her mother in both looks and temperament.
- Charles Stanhope - Amber's third child born of her affair with Charles II, King of England. He looks very much like his biological father, though Amber names him after Gerald Stanhope, her husband at the time of his birth. Amber uses his birth to manipulate the king into making her a countess and, eventually, a duchess.
- Charles II of England - The newly returned King of England who is well known for his voracious sexual appetite, good-temper and smart political savvy.
- Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland - The king's favourite mistress who is an ill-tempered but extremely beautiful woman who is ambitious and enjoys scheming.
- George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham - A perverse man who enjoys scheming and making enemies of his friends and who is Barbara Palmer's cousin.
- Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond - a beautiful young noblewoman who attracts the King's attention but refuses to become his mistress.
- Catherine of Braganza - Charles' Portuguese wife. Small of stature and very modest due to her Catholic upbringing, she is devoted to her husband and puts up with his affairs. He remains loyal to her as well, despite her inability to produce an heir.
After five drafts, Forever Amber was accepted for publication. After editing, the two and half million word manuscript was reduced to a fifth of its original size. The published novel was 972 pages long.
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. 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."
Despite its banning, Forever Amber was the best-selling US novel of the 1940s. It sold over 100,000 copies in its first week of release, and went on to sell over three million copies. Forever Amber was also responsible for popularizing "Amber" as a given name for girls in the 20th century.
The book was condemned by the Catholic Church for indecency, which helped to make it popular. One critic went so far as to number each of the passages to which he objected. The film was finally completed after substantial changes to the script were made, toning down some of the book's most objectionable passages in order to appease Catholic media critics.
- In Child of Divorce, a 1946 film, Nora, the maid, balks at reading Roberta 'Bobby' Carter Forever Amber as a bedtime story.
- In the Christmas Eve 1946 show of The Abbott and Costello Show, Santa lists one of the reasons that Costello shouldn't get a present as him having a certain book under his bed. Lou says that it was only a book on how to make tea the right color. When Santa asks what it was called, Lou replies Forever Amber, to which the audience roars with laughter.
- On the Burns and Allen radio show, the book is often spoofed for its blatant references, usually with Gracie Allen commenting on it naively not knowing what it is all about.
- The book is referred to on multiple episodes of many radio shows including The Jack Benny Program, The Bob Hope Show, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, The Fred Allen Show, The Alan Young Show, It Pays to Be Ignorant, The Great Gildersleeve and The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show and Fibber McGee & Molly on the episode from 2/19/1952.
- In The Perfect Woman, a 1949 film, the butler reads from the Times' small ads: "Wanted: clean copy of Forever Amber".
- On the 10/16/49 episode of The Jack Benny Program, Jack is in bed recuperating from a cold and asks his butler, Rochester, to read aloud to him from Forever Amber (“Amber kissed him on the ear and whispered, ‘Darling, if you ever come to London…’”). When another character asks Jack why he is reading a book that is six years old, Jack replies “I couldn’t trust myself with it when I was younger”.
- On the debut episode of the radio show A Day In The Life Of Dennis Day, Dennis Day dresses up as the female lead character from Forever Amber for a costume party because the costume is deemed too sexy for his girlfriend to wear.
- Amber St Clair appears as a historical character in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a member of the first incarnation of the League in the 17th century, Prospero's Men.
- In Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley Forever Amber makes an appearance after Dr Poole's release to the Facts of Life where he is sleeping under guard of two Postulants, one who is himself asleep; the other who is 'absorbed in an ancient copy of Forever Amber.' Throughout Ape and Essence the Postulants spit at the sexual acts of others, so for one of them to be absorbed in the racy book is a bit of fun on Tallis's (Huxley's) part alluding to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the new society.
- In the film The Last Time I Saw Archie Archie Hall (Robert Mitchum) and William Bolden (Jack Webb) both read the book while lying on their respective bunks.
- In the 1949 psychological thriller Somewhere in the Night (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Police Lt. Donald Kendall (played by Lloyd Nolan) jokes that the murderer confesses "... with full detail that'll make better reading than Forever Amber."
- In the 1948 Merrie Melodies cartoon Home Tweet Home, the nurse who is tending the baby and Tweety is seen reading (and gasping at) a book labeled AMBER.
- In I Love Lucy, Season 3, episode titled "Lucy Writes a Novel," Lucy reads about a housewife who makes a fortune writing a novel, and then pens her own book entitled Real Gone With the Wind. Fred, Ethel and Ricky secretly obtain a copy and find upon reading it that it is all about them and not very flattering. The three of them then destroy the book in the fireplace and Ethel tells Lucy they changed the title to "Forever Ember."
- In the 1946 movie Lady Luck, a customer enters the bookstore run by Barbara Hale and asks for a copy of Forever Amber.
- In the movie Here come the Huggetts (1948) an elderly lady interrupts David Tomlinson's attempt to woo the librarian by asking if the librarian could exchange her book for Forever Amber.
- In the television show Time Team, Season 5, Episode 8 titled "High Worsall, North Yorkshire," (1998) when show presenter Tony Robinson says to field archaeologist Mick Aston "When you say 'village', I tend to think of duck pond and village green, the little old tavern," whereupon Aston responds, "That Forever Amber image, as I think of it," and says it is a "rather romantic image" of the post-Medieval period, but that the site in question predates that era.
Notes and references
- Showalter, Elaine Showalter. "Emeralds on the home front". Retrieved 17 August 2017.
- Guttridge, Peter (May 29, 2003). "Obituary: Kathleen Winsor: Author of the racy bestseller 'Forever Amber'". The Independent. Retrieved 2 December 2018.
- Bernstein, Adam (June 1, 2003), "Kathleen Winsor, 83, 'Forever Amber' author", The Seattle Times, p. A29
- "Banned Book". The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950). Perth, Western Australia: National Library of Australia. 1 August 1945. p. 8 Edition: City Final. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
- Huxley, Aldous (1948) Ape and Essence, New York: Harper and Row; p.115 (Bantam edition, 1958)
- Guardian Unlimited book review of Forever Amber by Elaine Showalter, August 2002.