For those romance readers of the 1970s, one writer took the lead and now thousands follow her path of description: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and Flower.
In the late 1960s, romance was divided into two sections – contemporary stories, published in paperback and sold in drugstores and other mass-market retailers, historical romance novels, sold in bookstores in hardcover.
Stories were chaste, offering no intimate details of a physical relationship between a man and a woman, instead focusing on the emotional reactions of falling in love.
Woodiwiss had written a 600 page romance novel, but its length was its initial detriment, getting rejected by many agents and publishers. She kept getting the same advice – to rewrite the novel.
Instead, Woodiwiss sent her unsolicited manuscript to Avon Books, where an editor pulled it from the slush pile, read it and offered the writer $1500 plus 4% royalties on sales.
The Flame and the Flower focuses on the story of Heather Simmons, who kills a man trying to rape her and then is taken by a ship captain to be his mistress. But when she is found to be pregnant, the two are married. Now Mrs. Birmingham, she suffers from the hatred of the Captain’s former fiancee but that encourages the couple to fall in love.
Mrs. Birmingham is blackmailed due to the death of the man who tried to rape her, the Captain is blamed for the death of a former girlfriend and the two survive the accusations and jail to be together and in love.
This novel was the first to break the romance rules, not only having a main character who is not a virgin throughout the storyline, but also detailing the intimate relationship of Heather and the Captain from their first encounter on his ship. As well, Woodiwiss makes Heather a strong character, not a weak female waiting to be rescued by a strong male hero every time she’s faced with danger.
Avon published The Flame and the Flower in April 1972, as an Avon Featured Title in original paperback, with a print run of 500,000 copies, a risky move for a book that hadn’t been published in hardcover and was breaking all the rules of romantic storylines. The cover illustration showed the lead characters embracing, a departure for the traditional style of romance books.
But this story proved that readers wanted more – and became one of the most successful books of the time period and genre, selling millions of copies. In 1975 Publisher’s Weekly Magazine reported that four Avon Books tiles including two by Woodiwiss, had sold a combined total of eight million copies in the United States.
The Flame and the Flower sold 4.5 million copies and went through 40 printings in six years, and in 2013, is still in print.
For those who don’t understand the power of romance, The Flame the Flower broke all the rules, to show that readers wanted to know about love in all its steamy details.