Ask almost any avid romance reader which book got her hooked on the genre, and she’ll likely name a title by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. For me, it was Shanna, which held me mesmerized behind my college math and poly sci textbooks and was a revelation to the budding writer in me.
Millions of readers were saddened by Kathleen’s passing. I was privileged to know her, having met her when she opened her amazing antebellum home to a group of writers who had come to Alexandria, Louisiana for a workshop. She was soft-spoken and gracious. You’d never know, to meet her, how vast her influence was on our industry. She was incredibly humble. To meet her, you’d never know she’d taken the publishing world by storm. My favorite room in her home? The Shanna master bath. It featured the original painting from the book cover and was done in the same lush color scheme.
I gave her a copy of one of my books, which she read and later told me she enjoyed it a lot. (I still have that letter in a special place, tucked into a signed copy of The Flame and the Flower.) Later, I’d get the occasional e-mail from her, letting me know she’d read my latest and giving me glimpses of her journey from Minnesota homemaker to blockbuster author, the likes of which publishing hadn’t seen since Grace Metalious or Jacqueline Susann. According to Kathleen, there were few expectations attached to her first book. She told me the initial print run target was about 30,000 but the actual number was a great deal higher–600,000. Although the book was not an immediate blockbuster, her next one, The Wolf and the Dove, hit #2 on the New York Times list, and a phenomenon was born.
Here’s a snippet of the opening of Shanna, the book that started it all for me and so many others. The writing speaks for itself. Even now, decades later, she takes me away, to another time and place. She was a true original.
“Surely, madam, you jest. To propose marriage to a man about to hang? Upon my word, I cannot see the logic in it.”
” ‘Tis a matter of some delicacy.” Shanna presented her back to him as if embarrassed and paused before continuing. She spoke demurely over her shoulder. “My father, Orlan Trahern, gave me one year to find a husband, and failure shall find me betrothed to whom he wills. He sees me a spinster and wants heirs for his fortunes. The man must be of a family privy to King George. I have not yet found the one I would choose as my own, though the year is almost gone. You are my one last hope to avoid a marriage arranged by my father.” Now came the hardest part. She had to plead with this filthy, ragged colonial. She kept her face averted to hide her distaste. “I have heard,’ she said carefully, “that a man may marry a woman to take her debts to the gallows in re turn for an easing of his final days. I can give you much, Ruark–food, wines, suitable clothing and warm blankets. And surely my cause–”
At his continued silence, Shanna turned toward him and tried to see his features in the gloom, but he had carefully maneuvered their positions until she now was presented full to the light when she faced him. The wily beggar had moved so stealthily that she had not been aware of it.
Ruark’s voice was somewhat strained as he finally said, “Milady, you test me sorely. A gentleman my mother tried to teach me to be, with good respect for womanhood.” Shanna’s breath caught as he stepped nearer. “But my father, a man of considerable wisdom, taught me early in my youth a rule I’ve long abided.”
He walked slowly around her, much as she had done with him a few moments before, then halted when he stood at her back. Scarcely breathing, Shanna waited, feeling his nearness yet not daring to move.
“Never–” Ruark’s whisper came close to her ear, stirring awake a tingling of fear in her. “Never buy a mare with a blanket on.”
Shanna could not suppress a flinch as his hands came over her shoulders and hovered above the fasteners of her cloak.
“May I?’ he asked and his voice, though soft, seemed to fill the very corners of the cell. Ruark accepted her silence as consent, and Shanna braced herself while his lean fingers undid the velvet frogs. He drew the cloak from her, and though lacking splendorous trimming and fancy laces, her deep red velvet gown enhanced her beauty divinely. She was the gem, the jewel of rare beauty which made the dress more than a garment but rather a work of art. Above the hooped panniers which expanded her skirt on the sides, the tightly laced bodice showed the narrowness of her waist while it cupped her bosom to a most daring display above the square decolletage. In the golden glow of the tallow lantern, her skin gleamed like rich, warm satin.
Ruark stood close, his breath falling softly against her hair, his head filled with the delicious scent of woman.