Everything You Need to Lead the Best Book Club Discussion Ever of the novel called “the first bodice ripper”
Why choose Forever Amber?
Forever Amber has a reputation for being a scandalous book, but there really isn’t any description of sex in it at all. Many of the female characters have a lot of it, and seem to enjoy it, but it’s all discussed more romantically than physically. The female characters DO have a lot of abortions, which to me comes off as more shocking than all of the sex…obviously, the birth control methods they had weren’t all that reliable, but they were used. Since the focus is on courtesans, however, they did seem to be pretty good at preventing it, but in the course of the novel they had abortions more often to get rid of a pregnancy because of its changed political value than because of any “accidents”.
Aside from that, Forever Amber is one heck of a good story. Winsor manages to tell the story with enough detail to allow the reader to envision the setting without sacrificing obvious realism or disrupting the narrative, all frequent pitfalls of historical fiction.
The centerpiece of the story might especially resonate with readers in 2021 because of the depiction of Amber’s encounter with the Bubonic Plague in London. This event was real, and it won’t seem nearly as surreal as it might have to readers just a year ago.
Forever Amber is a fun, engaging read, but it is also a long read, which makes it a great option if your club takes a hiatus in the summer. It’s definitely a good option to take along on vacation.
And although it was written in the mid twentieth century it addresses themes that we still struggle with regarding why we do what we do and want what we want…and also what happens if we get it.
Forever Amber was written during World War 2. After its publication, it was ironically a popular title when produced in an “Armed Services Edition”, but Winsor also addresses some themes regarding expectations for women and female choice that must have been confronting the women “back home” who had to leave their comfort zones and take on new positions during the war…comfort zones they were about to be shoved right back into at the end of the war, whether they wanted to be or not.
Background Information for Forever Amber
The character Amber St. Clare is fictitious, but some of the characters were based on real people and events. Kathleen Winsor wrote Forever Amber while her husband was away serving in the Armed Forces during World War II. He had written a thesis on Charles II, and Winsor claimed to have read more than 300 books on the subject.
The published edition of Forever Amber is 1/5 the length of the original book that she wrote…if you can imagine…and Winsor went through 5 drafts before getting the book accepted.
The English Civil War
The English Civil War was actually a series of wars in the mid 17th Century that resulted in the execution of King Charles I. Forever Amber begins with the Restoration of King Charles II.
The time that England was ruled by the “Protectorate”, a government headed by Oliver Cromwell, was very austere as Cromwell was a “Puritan”, who were similar to the group who later settled present day Boston, Massachusetts. Women had to wear plain clothes, and many traditional English celebrations were banned.
2. Charles II and his lifestyle
Charles II did lead a lifestyle similar to the one depicted in Forever Amber. He was known for his many mistresses and illegitimate children, and the relationship depicted between the King and his consort, Catherine, is historically accurate. He never had any legitimate children, but he did recognize and make provisions for his many “natural” children.
3. The Bubonic Plague
Amber’s bout with the Bubonic Plague is also a historically accurate depiction of the outbreak in London, which was followed a year later by a fire that ironically kept the Plague from coming back. Life lesson: Don’t say “things can only get better”. You are messing with God and/or the fates, depending on your worldview.
Who was Kathleen Winsor?
Forever Amber was Kathleen Winsor’s first novel. She wrote numerous other books, but none of them are currently in print. She divorced her first husband after the was, and she married three more times, including the bandleader Artie Shaw and the lawyer who represented her in her divorce from Shaw.
Discussion Questions for Forever Amber
Note: If the discussion falters, ask the group what they didn’t understand or what they “wondered” about. You will find out what the group is interested in.
Don’t rush the group through the questions or try to hit every single question, but don’t allow members to “take over” the discussion either. If time starts to run short, give the group a choice.
Finish on the agreed upon time so there is time for socialization after.
Opening questions for discussion of Forever Amber
1. Forever Amber was once banned in many places; this book has quite a reputation. In what ways is it, or is it not, what you expected?
2. What surprised you about life in 17th Century England, as portrayed in this book?
2. Discussion Questions for Forever Amber
Forever Amber was written during World War II, and copies were sent to men fighting overseas, where it was very popular. Aside from the obvious, what might they have gotten from it?
Why would female readers in the United States have connected with Amber?
The chapters in which Amber and Bruce fight off the Bubonic Plague in London is the centerpiece of the novel. In what ways does this resonate as we struggle with the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2020-2021?
3. Closing Questions for Forever Amber
1. How do you feel, overall, about the character of Amber St. Clare? What would you say to her, if you could?
2. (spoiler alert) Given Bruce’s attitude toward Amber at the end of the novel, do you think she has any chance of reigniting their relationship?
Further Reading for Topics Related to Forever Amber
Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
Gone With The Wind was published just a few years before Forever Amber, and there are several parallels in the two stories: Blockade runners, Civil War, heroines named for colors, cities destroyed by fire. But then, Scarlett always refuses Rhett’s indecent proposals, while Amber sees them as a means to an end. Then again, Amber didn’t start out with Tara.
2. Moll Flanders and Roxana, by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe, who is famous for writing Robinson Crusoe, also wrote two novels about women surviving on their own in Restoration England that Winsor is known to have used as resource material. Both books are fascinating: Authors didn’t normal write about women such as these in the 17th century. Moll is actually much wilder than Amber St. Clare, but she never rises into the aristocracy. Like Amber, Roxana is a courtesan. If you are more interested in the life of a cavalier, such as Bruce, try Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier.
3. A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe
Defoe was a prodigious writer and is credited with pioneering several forms of journalism. His A Journal of the Plague Year is an eyewitness account of London during Bubonic Plague.
All of Defoe’s works are in the public domain. Click here to go to the Daniel Defoe page at Project Gutenberg, a reliable source for public domain materials, and here to find out how to download from that site directly to a Kindle Paperwhite.
4. The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser
Biographer and historian Antonia Fraser wrote a book about the role of women in 17th century England.
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