Reviewed by Ed Lengel
World War II inaugurated the era of the mass-market paperback novel. U.S. service members on fronts from Europe to North Africa and the Pacific spent the preponderance of their time away from the fighting: sometimes working or drilling, but more often just waiting for something to happen. The demand for reading material was intense. Publishers responded by issuing cheap paperback editions—first popularized during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but now appearing in print runs reaching into the tens of millions. Chief among these were the Armed Services Editions, vetted by the nonprofit Council on Books in Wartime (CBW) and issued to service members in vast quantities from 1943 until 1947, two years after the war ended.
Titles ran the gamut from classics to potboilers. And while the CBW carefully edited its list, in consultation with government and military agencies, to ensure that no books were issued that might undermine the war effort or faith in America’s allies, publishers nevertheless recognized the importance of providing a broad range of entertaining materials suitable for all tastes. Some service members, looking ahead to entering the workforce after the war, sought to improve themselves with “deep” reading. Others thrilled to tough guy detectives like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Cutting against expectations in the masculine military world, however, romance novels proved exceptionally popular. And though book historians have focused almost exclusively on how Armed Services Editions helped maintain morale at the war front, there was another extremely important group of Americans in desperate need of something to help them pass the time: women.
Kathleen Winsor’s epic historical romance, Forever Amber, succeeded in capturing the imaginations of millions of American women at home (and overseas), along with servicemen abroad—even though for the latter it was sometimes a guilty pleasure. Almost a thousand pages long, the book chronicles the often-racy adventures of young Amber St. Clare through England of the 1660s—the so-called Restoration Era whose loose sexual ethos contrasted so strongly with the repressive Puritan era that preceded it. In her rags-to-riches-to-rags adventures, Amber navigates a series of romantic entanglements with a succession of men—including King Charles II—while fending off vindictive female rivals. At times, Amber becomes little more than what a later era would dub a cheap call girl; but rather than being degraded by her experiences (and the succession of illegitimate pregnancies that result), she maintains a strong sense of confidence and control. This too, despite an excruciating bout with the bubonic plague. In essence, then, Forever Amber was a feminist novel before feminism came into vogue.
Kathleen Winsor carefully researched her novel—inspired by an undergraduate term paper written by her first husband—to provide a reasonable degree of historic verisimilitude. Her writing style refuses to take itself too seriously, resulting in a delightfully amusing and self-deprecating prose. Most important, Winsor deeply sympathized with her reading audience’s desires, by virtue of personal knowledge and experience. Most popular romance novelists of the 1940s were products of the nineteenth century, and their writing frequently reflected a Victorian stuffiness. Winsor, though, turned twenty-five the year Forever Amber was published, and she wrote it while her then-husband fought overseas with the U.S. Marine Corps. Naturally, then, her writing reflected the youthful sexual yearnings, frustrations, and adventures of women and men separated—and brought together—by war.
Inevitably, Forever Amber drew the ire of the self (and government)-appointed moral guardians of its day, and it was frequently censored. The Armed Services Edition of the novel was heavily condensed and expurgated; and the 1947 movie version was tightly corseted to make it acceptably wholesome. But all of the censorship signified little in light of the book’s tremendous popularity, and it became the best-selling novel of the decade. Winsor embraced the celebrity life that she enjoyed as a result—marrying four times, including to big band leader Artie Shaw—although nothing that she wrote afterwards came close to matching her first book’s runaway popularity.
Arguably, Forever Amber owed its success not just to the circumstances of young Americans in the World War II era, but to their reaction against the stultifying, repressive environment they had endured as teenagers during the Great Depression. It was no coincidence that Winsor chose the bawdy Restoration Era, which attempted to throw off the yoke of Puritanism, as the setting for Amber’s adventures. A sense of liberation from moral repression permeates the novel, providing an element that might make the book ripe for revival today. There’s plenty in Forever Amber to outrage the puritanically woke moral code that has dragged down popular literature for the better part of the past two decades—censored then, it would be cancelled now. The moral straight-jacket may just be fraying at the seams, however: offering a younger generation new opportunities to revel in the lusty and charmingly guilt-free adventures of Amber St. Clare. Almost eighty years on, opening the cover of Forever Amber is as refreshing now as it was in 1944.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.