Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor (1944), the Banned Bestseller

Forever Amber with forward by Barbara Taylor Bradford

Forever Amber  by Kathleen Winsor (1944) tells the sprawling story of Amber St. Clair, a beauty who cunningly ascends the class structure of Restoration-era England. After a humble upbringing, sixteen-year-old Amber’s encounter with a troupe of traveling soldiers turns into her ticket out of the countryside – and her journey of social advancement begins.

Amber’s fictional narrative is interwoven with true historic facts of the English Restoration; she is born of circumstances resulting from the English Civil War, becomes a survivor of the plague, and witnesses the Great Fire of London.

Amber meets a vast array of characters from all the English classes, her adopted farmer parents, the mischievous highwayman Black Jack Mallard, her true love royalist Lord Bruce Carlton, and King Charles II. These encounters amount to a sweeping portrait of the English Restoration.

On her nearly 1,000-page path to the throne, Amber leaves a trail of scandal in her wake — theft, abortion, and sexual desire. She climbs up the ranks of 17th-century society as the mistress or wife of ever richer and more important men, all the while loving the one man she could never have.

Forever Amber scandalized and enthralled the reading audience. Fourteen American states, as well as all of Australia, banned the book upon release, citing claims of obscenity. Nevertheless, the novel skyrocketed in popularity, and in 1947 was made into a film


Publishers’ synopses of Forever Amber

From the  Chicago Review Press edition (2000): “Abandoned, pregnant, and penniless on the teeming streets of London, 16-year-old Amber St. Clare manages, by using her wits, beauty, and courage, to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England—that of favorite mistress of the Merry Monarch, Charles II.

From whores and highwaymen to courtiers and noblemen, from events such as the Great Plague and the Fire of London to the intimate passions of ordinary—and extraordinary—men and women, Amber experiences it all. But throughout her trials and escapades, she remains, in her heart, true to the one man she really loves the one man she can never have.”

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Forever Amber 1947 film

The 1947 film adaptation of Forever Amber
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Anticipating Forever Amber, and a movie deal

From the Lexington Leader, (KY) October 1, 1944:  The Macmillan Company will publish its big fall book Oct. 16, and you can mark the occasion as a red-letter day in your reading. The book is Forever Amber, a novel by Kathleen Winsor.

When I said “big” I was not thinking of size, but of quality, sales, and popularity. But the novel is far from short in length, running close to a thousand pages. Unless I miss my guess, Forever Amber, a story of turbulent Restoration England, will outstrip that other Macmillan story, Gone With The Wind, in every department of public appeal. I think it a much better story.

Kathleen Winsor is really Mrs. Robert John Herwig, wife of a Marine on duty in the South Pacific. (Those who read the sports pages will recall that Herwig was an all-American gridder at the University of California back in 1936 and 1937 and an all-American basketballer that former year.)

She graduated from the University of California in 1938 and her only writing for publications prior to this novel were football feature articles for the Oakland Tribune in 1937, the year that California went to the Rose Bowl.

Macmillan reports that Miss Winsor’s novel had its inception in a term paper which her husband did on the death of Charles II. The young bride picked up one of the books he was using for reference, became fascinated with the Restoration, and got the idea for a novel. She worked as a receptionist on the Oakland paper for about six months in hopes of becoming a reporter but gave up and started writing the story which turned out as Forever Amber.

You would never guess it from the novel nor from looking at her, but Miss Winsor is a plodding methodic worker. In setting out on her tremendous novel she outlined a definite schedule and stayed with it.

She took one week off every month, and even when she was trailing along with her husband from camp to camp her manuscript was a constant companion. If she were obliged to miss a day, she made up for it, and in the final stages was busy eight hours a day, seven days a week.

Miss Winsor kept tabs on how much time she spent on this novel. She wrote six complete drafts. This amounted to 9,241 pages or 2,310,250 words. She used 1,303 hours for reading and researching, 380 hours indexing her notes, and 3,284 hours writing the book, a total of 4,967 long hours on the whole job spread over about five years.

Macmillan paid the usual advance for a novel amounting to about a dollar an hour for the time spent on this particular one. The first printing which goes on sale Oct. 16, is 150,000 copies at three dollars each.

Miss Annie Laurie Williams, noted for big deals involving movie rights to the books, got hold of Miss Winsor soon after the manuscript reached Macmillan. That was before the record-breaking $125,000 MGM novel award.

But Miss Williams did not submit Forever Amber in the contest, because she believed that the movies would pay considerably more for the picture rights than a mere $125,000!

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Kathleen Winsor on Forever Amber paperback

Kathleen Winsor was just twenty-five when Forever Amber was published; it would remain her most successful work. This is from the back cover of a later edition of the book, in paperback


A 1944 review of Forever Amber

From the original review in The Rutherford Courier, Oct. 13, 1944: This is the Gone With the Wind of the Restoration period of Old England. Instead of Scarlett, the heroine’s name is Amber. Rhett Butler, here, becomes Bruce, Lord Carlton. The scene, instead of the Southland, is all England, from the debtor’s pens in Newgate prison to the bedroom of King Charles II.

The theme is–well, just to make every page as magnetically interesting as possible. The result is a book that one finds hard to put down, though every one of its 900-odd pages.

Like Gone With The Wind, Forever Amber is the story of a beautiful yet resourceful and determined woman who gets everything she wants except, in the end, the man she really loves. Amber is the daughter of high blood, but this is a secret that only the reader knows, and that Amber never learns.

Reared in a peasant household, she meets Lord Carlton as he, with other Cavaliers, passes through her tiny town en route back to London with Charles II. From the violent episode of her first meeting with Bruce, she never forgets him. She accompanies him to London but is left alone when he sets off privateering.

Amber, through a succession of marriages, “keepings,” and responses to the King’s night-time summons, eventually becomes the king’s mistress, a duchess, and perhaps the most influential woman in the Court, and hence all of England. Ruthless and scheming, she stops at nothing – and if there is any experience a woman ever had which Amber missed, it was omitted from the book surely unintentionally.

But the frank and violent action and the sex of this book are merely what make it run fast. Underneath there is good solid writing in the vivid picture of old England as it must have been in those times, with all its squalor and ignorance as well as extravagance and luxury.

The account of the bubonic plague epidemic in London is a truly sharp scene. Lord Carlton had the plague too, and Amber nursed him back to life, and in doing so caught the plague herself. This part of the story is told at length and is realistic detail, and it is a tribute to the author’s skill that interest never lags even here. 

The author, Kathleen Winsor, until she wrote this book had never written anything for publication except a few newspaper articles.

She is the wife of Lieut. Robert John Herwig, All-American football center from California U. in 1936 and 1937. They met in college; she became interested in the subject of Charles II when her husband had to write a term paper on the subject, and this book is the result.

The publishers state that they intended to give the book unprecedented promotion, and this can hardly help being a best-seller, perhaps THE best-seller of the 1940s. It is a natural for the movies. And there’s no justice unless Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh get the leading roles. In technicolor. — R.C.L.

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Forever Amber first edition 1944

First edition cover
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Further reading about Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

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