Continuing our series looking at romance novels which have inspired and influenced writers, Heidi Rice reminisces about classic old school romance , Shanna.
My induction into the romance genre happened when I was twelve, and I snuck into my mum and dad’s bedroom one summer afternoon in Shepherd’s Bush West London, bored out of my skull.
First, let me set the scene. This was in the 70s, when summer holidays lasted forever and you were practically begging to go back to school by the end of them (something you quickly got over, of course! But still). In those days, there was no daytime TV, no internet and going to the cinema was a monthly treat… Basically for me and my older sister and younger brother summer holidays consisted of three options to keep ourselves from dying of said boredom: Going to the park. Going to the park in the rain. Or reading.
Anyway, so there I am trying to find something to read in my mum’s bedroom, because I had just finished my latest Little House on the Prairie book, when I discovered a dog-eared copy of a second-hand historical romance on my mum’s bedside table. The beyond florid cover – all rippling abs, torn petticoats and very-nearly-exposed nipples with a bit of flamboyant Caribbean jungle planting thrown in for good measure – instantly intrigued and scandalized me… So of course I had to open it up and start reading.
Now to be fair to my mum, she had my little sister to look after and a small business to run that summer, while my Dad was away most of the time travelling for work… So she tended to do light supervision, leaving us to our own devices, which is probably why she had that completely inappropriate book on her bedside table where her impressionable daughter could get her hands on it.
That said, I can still remember the burst of excitement as I scanned that first page and read about a carriage careering through the foggy, cobblestoned streets of Regency London en route to Newgate Prison. My heart started to race as I began to flip through the pages drawn into the scene and the rioting emotions of the woman in that carriage… And boy were they rioting, but when you’re twelve, careering towards puberty, your emotions are rioting too. So I was totally relating to Shanna’s wild ride.
Especially when she arrived at the gaol (yup, I had to look that word up – what the heck was a gaol?)… And she (and I) met Ruark Beauchamp for the first time. I nearly swallowed my tongue. Oh. My. Good. God! He was the hottie on the cover, even I figured that out despite his shaggy hair, dirty beard, wild blue eyes and filthy stinky rippling abs … Unfortunately, he was a condemned hottie – chained, abused, about to be sent to the gallows. But then it turned out that our extremely stroppy heroine Shanna wanted to marry him to piss off her dad, a Caribbean plantation owner (I think). TBH, I’m hazy on the plot details because I was totally stuck on the sexy times that ensued as Shanna proceeded to tease this guy to within an inch of his life so he would do what she wanted.
But while Ruark was chained and abused and dirty, he was also still an all-out unreconstructed alpha male – so even if he didn’t have much of a bargaining position, he managed to lead Shanna on a merry dance before he finally agreed to her bargain in that prison cell.
Shanna’s bargain: She would give Ruark a night of pleasure before he went to the gallows the next day and he would give her his name (ie: marry her – so she could be free of her overbearing Dad’s control)… But then, after he got washed, so we could all see how magnificent he really was, the marriage deed had been done and Ruark was just about to seal the deal and have Shanna bang to rights (or should that be bang to conjugal rights), Shanna freaked out – because her new husband was like, way TOO magnificent, and she may have over-exaggerated her sexual experience a tad – And she reneged on her bargain, and Ruark was dragged off in chains…
Boy, was he angry… Talk about coitus interruptus. But guess what? He didn’t die, instead by some fortuitous coincidence (the mechanics of which I cannot for the life of me remember now) he ended up on Shanna's dad’s plantation as a bond slave…
Whoa… What now? Shanna’s married to this guy but she can’t tell anyone, because everyone thinks she’s a widow of a respectable nobleman… And Ruark’s itching to finish what Shanna started and finally claim her as his wife with his throbbing manroot but how can he when he’s a slave and she’s the lady of the manor?
I ploughed through the first 200 or something pages that afternoon and came out of my parents’ bedroom feeling naughty and excited and totally hooked on that story. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s purple-to-the-point-of-psychedelic prose engulfed me in the savage OTT love of this pair who found themselves swept up in the most preposterous plot imaginable (which I believed 100 % could happen) – I’m not sure but I think Ruark eventually escapes to become a pirate, brilliantly turning the tables on his extremely spoilt and high-maintenance wife when Shanna gets captured and finds herself at his mercy … Phwoar!
Lush Caribbean scenery, some colourful historical baggage (which didn’t pay a lot of attention to the hideous realities of Caribbean slavery circa 1749), raw runaway emotions and lots of eye-popping sexy times (which didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the notion of consent either) ensued as I snuck into my mum’s bedroom over the next days and weeks to devour more of the story.
The book is 700+ pages long so I did skim over the boring bits (such as the book’s fixation on the workings of the plantation – who the heck cares about how you harvest sugar cane when we’ve got Ruarke and Shanna’s next incendiary encounter to encounter!!). Then I went back over and over again to re-read the best bits (ie: the bits where Ruark’s manhood did the most throbbing!)… It was like being cast adrift in another world. A hot, sweaty, forbidden but extremely exciting and exhilarating world which I did not fully understand but couldn’t stop reading about.
The next summer, I managed to get hold of more of Woodiwiss’s books – The Wolf and the Dove (throbbing Viking manhoods), The Flame and the Flower (very rapey manhoods) and my favourite, Ashes in the Wind (my first tomboy heroine in a US Civil War setting - aka Gone with the Wind with Scarlett in pants).
Quite apart from the sex though, it was the relationship dynamics in Shanna and Woodiwiss’s other books – as wild and untamed as their covers – that I found so compelling. The larger-than-life conflicts, all those raw hyper-real emotions…
Shanna was without a doubt an induction of fire into the romance genre (pun fully intended) for a 12-year-old, but one I’ll never regret. Not least because from then on I had a cure-all to ensure the summer holidays – and the rest of my life really – would never ever need to be boring again.
Have you ever read Shanna or seen the movie? What did you think of Shanna and Ruarke's old school romance? Tell us in the comments or use #oldschoolromance on Social Media to join the #PHS reader's discussion.
Heidi's latest release, Summer at Willow Tree Farm, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and her blog, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube.