I'm not sure where 1945's fiction best seller fits in terms of World War II. It seems, in the context of the war, to be escapist fare. And certainly, the reasons for its best-sellerdom probably had most to do with its seeming depravity. The book is stock full of allusions to sex, abortion, prostitution, and crime--all of it set in Restoration England. (The war ending midyear, people's attention may have already begun turning elsewhere.) But what a great portrayal of a historical age it is.
The main character is Amber, a woman who goes from innocent virgin and depraved and corrupt madam. Watching her moral descent is fascinating--and sad. The reason for the descent is, one might say, in part an sort-of unrequited love, in the form of Bruce Carlton. Or it might also be her love of nobility and the upper class, who are anything but noble in their actions. It is the lack of nobility that makes Carlton want to flee England and the king's court, to which Amber aspires and clings.
At the start, Amber is a country girl who would not ever sleep with anyone but her one true love. She meets Carlton, who takes her along to London as an adventure. There, she becomes with child by him (the beginning of her corruption), though she refuse an offer for sex with his best friend, who will go on to become one of Amber's best friends. Carlton leaves to go privateering but also leaves her a generous sum of money to take care of the child. Naive as she is, she falls into the clutches of a greedy woman who gets her to marry her son and who then abscond with all her cash, leaving her in debt.
This takes her to the debtor's prison. Here, she is granted favor with a scoundrel who breaks out of prison with her and then uses her for his own purposes to run various scams. She breaks free from him by running off with a man named Michael who has been hired to teach her how to speak other dialects of English so as to help with the scams. In turn, Michael's dad finds the two of them living together and forces Michael to return home, much to Amber's relief.
In the meantime, Amber has taken up acting. Another actress takes a fancy to a particular gentleman named Rex Morgan, and Amber decides to get this man for herself and does. Though she refuses to marry him (and give up her freedom), having been burned by a bad marriage once, she agrees to become a kept woman. She will sleep with no one else, and he will support her in the lifestyle she desires. During this time, the king sees her and sends for her to sleep with him, which she does, not telling Morgan. It is only because of the king's main mistress, the jealous Barbara Palmer, that Amber is not summoned again. (Our morally pure girl by now has slept with at least six men, and from there, one loses count, for many other interludes are hinted at from here on.)
Carlton returns, and lovestruck Amber gets him to run away with her, giving Rex a silly excuse for her absence, an excuse that doesn't hold up to reason and that gets Rex to challenge Carlton to a duel. Rex refuses anything but to murder Carlton or to be killed, and as a result, his life is ended--and so too Amber's life of ease and perhaps the best chance she has of a good marriage to a man who really does love her. For Carlton will never marry her, as he notes, because she is not noble.
Amber than aspires to become what Carlton says he wants. She gives up acting and marries another man, much older, in order to inherit his fortune at his death, much to his children's disapproval. Carlton visits, and the black plague hits, and they almost die, but they nurse each other back to health. Still, he won't marry her.
She marries yet another man, poor this time, but of noble blood, in order to gain a title. This marriage is an absolute disaster, and Winsor's skill allows you to sympathize with Amber even as one realizes just what a horrible woman she has become. Because the man is a vicious husband who uses Amber's money for his own purposes but cares nothing for her and controls her every move, she opts to cheat on him with his son. (But wait, if he weren't controlling her every move, she'd be going to London and cheating on him with people at court, so . . .) Her husband then conspires to kill her but kills only his son. Now she has what she wants: a title and no husband.
She moves back to London and takes her place at court. She becomes the king's mistress, to an extent displacing Barbara Palmer. Carlton returns for a visit, but this time he's married, as he said he would be--and he's taken up residence in the American colonies. Amber does all she can to curry Carlton's love and favor, dressing scantily, summoning him to meetings alone, and so forth, and Carlton falls for it in terms of sleeping with her regularly, but he is committed to marriage to his wife.
In a final fit of anger, Amber tells Carlton's wife of their affair, but she only ends up distancing herself from the man she loves more than would ever seem possible to repair. Still, even at the end of the novel, she continues to chase him, even if it means going to the colonies. She has become a sad, disreputable woman, one worried constantly about her looks and age, for they are what she has lived by and she knows that her days are numbered.
In this book, among Europeans, only the Puritans displaced from power seem to have much in the way of morals, but they also come off as stodgy and greedy in their own way. It is the Americas that beckon, the world from which Carlton draws his wife, that seem to offer some sort of honesty and reward for hard work rather the depravity of inherited leisure.