EPIC JOINT REVIEW: To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney
Janine: This epically long disucssion is the second of our joint reviews of Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerley books, originally published in the mid 1990s and recently reissued in electronic editions. The review of the first book, To Love and to Cherish, can be found here.
Angela: To Have and To Hold is the second book in Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerley series, and the most famous. Or should I say infamous. It is my understanding that this book is both beloved and be-loathed, though I think, perhaps, more beloved. Certainly, it is one of my favorite romances.
Janine: Mine too. In fact I’ve said for years that in my opinion it’s the best book in the romance genre, hands down. I don’t think I’ve loved a romance more than I’ve loved this one—in spite, or perhaps even because of, its harrowing and controversial aspects.
Angela: Which is one of the several reasons why I was a little nervous going about a re-reading it. First and foremost, it is always a fraught endeavor to re-read a book you loved after several years of not having read it. What will your reaction and sense of the novel be this time? There’s always a fear that it will be less or disappointing.
Second, this novel is pretty emotionally intense. For me, the last few months have not been emotionally awesome, to say the least, and I was afeared that re-reading this book was going to be devastating. I mean, it’s a bit devastating at the best of times, ya know?
Janine: Yeah, I know.
Angela: The book is set in the same small village of Wyckerley as TLATC. In some ways the book deviates from the classical romance series form. That is, it does not begin where the last book left off. It could be read as an entirely contained novel. While we get a brief glimpse of THATH’s hero in To Love and To Cherish, we aren’t fully apprised of his person until this book.
Janine: Yes. Also, this trilogy isn’t about siblings or a set of friends, but rather about three pivotal figures in the Wyckerley community. In the first book, To Love and To Cherish, we get to know Reverend Christian Morrell, the vicar of All Saints Church. The third book, Forever and Ever, one of the protagonists is Sophie Deene, owner of the local mine. And in this, the middle book, our “hero”—and I use that word very loosely, since for half the book he is really the villain—is Sebastian Verlaine.
Angela: Sebastian Verlaine! He’s now the Viscount and has taken up his position in full. He has even become a local magistrate. This is where the novel opens—with Sebastian in his magisterial role, hearing the case of a potential parole by the name of Rachel Wade, our heroine. It is fairly clear from the outset that the tone of this book is dark. There’s a sinister quality to the writing in this opening chapter.
Janine: Yes. Sinister is right. We first meet Sebastian in his carriage on his way to the courtroom, where he is in the act of dumping his French mistress Lili. It’s clear from the outset that he is witty and funny (there’s a great line in his POV where he throws Lili a jewelry box and she catches it “with the dexterity of a cricket ace” “like a lure to a great, hungry bass”) as well as self aware (“He’d been called many things – rake, sensualist, seeker, dilettante, degenerate. What he’d never been called was ‘Your Worship,’ a magistrate’s title”) but frankly, he mocked his mistress with such meanness that the first time I began this book, I wasn’t sure I could stand to read a whole novel about him.
That began to change for me when he reached the courtroom, and joined two other magistrates, Mayor Vanstone and Captain Carnock, in observing a few trivial cases before the one all the courtroom spectators are there to see. Sebastian starts to think about how English justice, where “the accused wasn’t allowed to speak on his own behalf,” is “an indefensible system.”
The caliber of the crime in Wyckerley was nonviolent, venial, and definitely not worth repeating in humorous anecdotes for the delectation of his jaded friends. What surprised him was that he wasn’t altogether bored. No matter how trifling or ludicrous the offenses, the people who had perpetrated them were interesting, in their way—at least to look at and speculate upon; closer acquaintance would probably not be edifying and Sebastian was a firm believer in the axiom that familiarity breeds contempt. But from this distance, and for a little while, their stories entertained him, and he even got an old moral lesson hammered home anew: the poor go to gaol for the crimes with which the rich aren’t even charged.
I love this paragraph because (A) it reveals much about Sebastian and (B) it encapsulates the themes of this novel. Sebastian, whom we already know from the scene with Lili to be heartily bored with his degenerate lifestyle, actually feels his interest perk up when he observes the lives of normal people. He’s no longer able to use their stories for humorous anecdotes, as he had planned to do – but he immediately counters his liking for them by reminding himself that if he got to know these people better, he would no doubt be contemptuous of them.
Sebastian then amends “interesting” to “their stories entertained him,” but he can’t stifle a renegade bit of moral outrage over the way the system discriminates against the poor and in favor of the rich.
Angela: Exactly. It is his sense of irony and his wit that, for me, make him a very excellent protagonist. And I think, importantly, even in this first scene when he is at his most corrupt, you can see already the seeds of his transformation. Rachel doesn’t make him change. I think that’s why this book works, ultimately.
Because Sebastian from the beginning possesses an awareness and a longing for something outside himself—something totally other and he sees that in Rachel. He sees her brought before the parole board and what attracts him to her is not her beauty, but her silence. “She was younger than he’d thought, and yet her unlined, unblemished face was, strangely, not youthful; it seemed more blank than young, and not innocent but . . . erased.”
Sebastian’s desire for Rachel results in him offering her a position as his housekeeper, an action that has “nothing to do with either kindness nor generosity.” Even so, Sebastian is unlike a lot of these sorts of rake characters because he recognizes from the first the amorality, even the evil of this power abuse.
Janine: Agreed. This battle between good and evil, between amorality and conscience, is *the* central theme of To Have and to Hold. And the injustice inherent in the British class system is the second theme, one that is almost as central.
Whereas hundreds of historicals romanticize and idealize the “nobility,” and romancelandia abounds with earls, marquesses and dukes who are wonderful people, To Have and to Hold reminds us that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Angela: Yes! And I think that’s one of the things I love about this book. It really looks at power and class and injustice in a very unromanticized way that, I think, somehow results in an incredibly powerful love story.
Janine: Exactly. Sebastian is corrupt, though maybe not completely. But he’s certainly corrupt enough that when a woman is brought in to stand trial for vagrancy, a woman who could not get work after her release from prison and who stole a few apples in order to survive, he is, much against his will, fascinated.
She was dressed in a gown of grayish worsted, shapeless, styleless, essentially colorless except for the mud stains at the hem. No hat or bonnet. Her figure was youthful, but he judged her to be middle-aged because of the silver in her dark, too short-hair.She kept her head bowed and her eyes on the floor, shoulders slightly hunched. Nevertheless, in spite of her posture, the aura she projected wasn’t abject or furtive; only hopeless. She struck him as a woman beaten down so thoroughly that even servility had gone beyond her.
Sebastian begins to question Rachel.
“Mrs. Wade, look at me.” His tone was sharper than he’d intended, but she didn’t jerk her head up in startled obedience. She lifted it slowly, with unconscious drama—he assumed it was unconscious—and looked him full in the face.
For one awful, shocked instant, he thought she was blind. Her eyes, so pale they looked like crystal, were wide and unblinking, almost unreal, like a doll’s luminous, painted-on eyes. She had a high, pale, intelligent forehead, sharp cheekbones, a small nose. An intriguing mouth, full but stern, the lips compressed in a defensive straight line, as if to keep in check any wayward utterance not absolutely required for survival.
With Sebastian, we learn that Rachel is twenty-eight, that she was originally sentenced for killing her husband, that she has no family, friends, or anyone who can help her. She can write and has even worked as the bookkeeper in the prison’s tailor shop, but no one will employ her.
Sebastian is “irked” by Rachel’s passivity, and perhaps even more by the fact that “against all reason, she interested him sexually.” When it becomes apparent that no one will help her and that she will be sent back to prison simply for being poor, “the quick flick of panic in her disturbing eyes changed everything,” and Sebastian, fascinated by the way the emotion belies the woman’s self-erasure, stands up.
He offers Rachel a position in his household, and relies on his position of enormous privilege to strong arm the other magistrates into agreeing. But though the position he offers is that of his housekeeper, he has more than that in mind.
Angela: I think this is where it gets interesting, because once Rachel gets back to Lynton Hall, Sebastian immediately starts to question her. They begin a sexual relationship which is coercive and I think, some might argue it as rape.
Janine: I would call it rape, or at the very least extreme sexual harassment, because Rachel clearly states she doesn’t want it while it is happening, and only agrees because losing her position as Sebastian’s housekeeper would mean going back to prison, and she has decided that “If they tried to put her in prison again, she would find a way to take her own life.”
So she has, in effect, a gun to her head, and while Sebastian may not know she will kill herself if she goes back to prison, he knows he is terrified of being sent there again, and he makes sex, in Rachel’s words, “a condition of employment.”
Rachel’s past experiences of sex are limited but horrific, and she does not want a repeat. There are moments during the rape scenes where Rachel cries or tries to disappear. I found those absolutely harrowing, even as someone to whom non-con is erotic. As a whole the sex scenes were incredibly disturbing, and I felt they clearly took the stance that Sebastian was perpetrating a crime, a huge wrong against Rachel.
Angela: Agreed. I think this goes back to how unromanticized this romance is. Gaffney does not paint power with an idealistic brush. Even as power is attractive, just like Sebastian is attractive, it is also distressing, abusive, and even foul. I think the worst thing—and I wrote about this book extensively in an article I wrote on rape in romance—that Sebastian does to Rachel, though, is try to get into her head. It’s never just about sex for him, but about her—knowing her, finding out what makes her tick. I think that is what makes those scenes so distressing.
Janine: I agree that it’s never just about sex. And I can see why you feel there’s room for debate about whether this crime is exactly rape, because I thought Rachel was clear on what the position of “housekeeper” really entailed when she accepted it, and she also thinks:
He wanted to sleep with her, of course. She’d have to be made of stone not to know that. If that was all he wanted, she would count herself lucky. Her body was cheap; it had nothing to do with her; she never thought of it. But she was afraid he wanted more from her, or that he would take more from her if they ever became intimate.
The other thing is that Rachel is incredibly lonely, having been isolated from almost all human contact in prison. She has no friends in the world at this point, no source of support other than Sebastian, and Sebastian is extraordinarily interested in her, and I thought he ruthlessly exploited her isolation as well as every other advantage or power he had over her, and that this was part of why, during the second time he rapes her, he is able to get her to feel some physical response, very much against her will.
Angela: Definitely. For me, the real (which is a strange word—maybe central? primary? unambiguous?) rape occurs in those interrogations, and I would argue (have argued) the trauma that Sebastian inflicts on Rachel is trying to get her to talk about her past. This is something she is loathe to do. Rachel is content enough to accede to Sebastian’s wishes but she holds herself back in reserve. Rachel has been deprived of basic human power and dignity for so long that she gets a “little thrill in her chest at this elementary but powerful act—controlling light and darkness in her own room.” Rachel’s POV is really marked by an intense silence, which I find very stylistically interesting. Even as we occupy her own headspace, we feel her reserve, her caution, her suspicion, and her total expectation that this reprieve in Sebastian’s house will soon be over. She takes nothing for granted.
Janine: I agree with this characterization of Rachel, but I think the rape is just as real a trauma as being forced to talk. And in both cases, I thought that was partly due to the fact that under the self-protective reserve, part of Rachel is desperate to open up to someone—she just doesn’t want that person to be Sebastian, who to is clearly bent on her destruction much of the time. But Sebastian makes himself that person.
Angela: Sebastian’s relationship with Rachel is really all about him trying to get inside her head, not her body. She gives her body to him pretty much immediately, but that’s not really what drew him to her. He torments her with questions, trying to shock her out of her stasis, or get a reaction from her. Rachel fears Sebastian not just because of the physical and sexual threat he poses, but because he “must lie awake at night thinking of way to make her do things she didn’t want to. Speak to him for instance.”
Janine: I think he wants her to engage with him on every level. His first words to her are “Mrs. Wade, look at me,” and just a few pages from the end, he says “Don’t look away, Rachel.”
Angela: I think Sebastian falls in love with Rachel long before she does with him.
Janine: I’d say he starts falling for her very early on, but he doesn’t want to. His resistance isn’t just about the fact that as a convict and his servant, she’s not a fitting partner for a man of his station (though the class difference is part of the subtext), but just as much about the fact that he has huge defenses and doesn’t show vulnerability to anyone, or willingly allow almost anything to touch his soul.
Angela: Sebastian has been in a kind of prison—though not one in any way on par with actual prison—of his own. He’s not the brooding, isolated hero . . . but there’s something about libertinism as way of living the keeps you from really being in the world, you know? It’s a self-imposed prison of selfishness and privilege and blindness. Sebastian wants to leave it but it is a desire that is not conscious. I think he falls for Rachel precisely because he sees in her something wholly unlike anything he has ever encountered before.
Janine: I would agree with that. Rachel has a core of goodness, of kindness, that some might not see this way but which I saw as a sign of tremendous strength. I say this because some aspects of her experiences in prison were so dehumanizing they reminded me of the experiences of concentration camp survivors I’ve known.
Upon her imprisonment as an eighteen year old, she is given a number, forty-four, which replaced her name and became her identity. Her hair, which she loved, is completely shorn. She is made to do dehumanizing tasks and imprisoned under inhuman conditions. She spends ten years cut off from the rest of the world, and once freed she wants to erase herself, to disappear, lest some predator spot her.
And yet, despite all this, and despite all the power she knows him to have over her, Rachel never sucks up to Sebastian, never licks his boots as I think many, many people in her situation would do. Nor does she fall for him as I’m sure deep down he wants her to. She recognizes his callousness and expects nothing less, yet she never forfeits her own conscience.
Angela: And her kindness isn’t the schmaltzy sentimental version you get in a lot of romance heroines. She’s valiant. That’s an old word but I think it applies.
Janine: Yes. She’s my favorite romance heroine which is surprising since I usually prefer characters who are more flawed. But she feels so real to me, despite how good she is.
She has a wry outlook, perceptiveness, and a sense of humor, and though her awareness of Sebastian is as keen as his of hers, in her case, it’s more about waiting for the other shoe to fall and trying to anticipate when and where that will happen.
I think she is a little attracted – partly to his intellect and partly due to the power he holds over her—but she does not give in to that attraction. She remains, more than anything else, wary.
Angela: As she should be!
So when Sebastian begins to fall for her, he of course doesn’t permit himself to show it. I thought it was so interesting that every time he has a sympathetic thought, he immediately does something awful, whether it is deliberately embarrassing Rachel by touching her in the presence of two disapproving ladies, or deciding it is time to force her to sleep with him. The latter comes right when she is crying, which from his POV is communicated this way: “There was a raw, bottomless agony in the sound of her weeping that he literally could not bear.”
Literally could not bear, and this is how he responds. Sebastian is truly twisted for a good part of this novel because conversely, when he has his most malicious thoughts, i.e. that his motives have nothing to do with kindness or generosity, it is usually when he is aiding Rachel, for example when stepping in at the courtroom and preventing her being sent back to prison. His brand of love is scarier than hatred, because he feels both, and we never know which one will come out.
Angela: This for me goes back to the conflict—which I think is actually a theme of all the series-what does it mean to be good? And I think Sebastian knows that goodness means being vulnerable. Not weak, mind, but vulnerable, porous, prone to bruising. If he lets himself love Rachel, to show it—Rachel who is inappropriate and vulnerable herself—he will open this door to the possibility of suffering, really suffering in a way that his money, his maleness, his privilege has prevented him from ever having to experience before. So he plays this game with himself, telling himself lies that he knows are lies in order to keep that from happening. Of course, it does anyway.
Janine: Yes. And strangely, he is furious with Rachel, all the more so since he knows she’s done nothing to deserve it—and I love that he makes no excuses for his behavior nor does Gaffney make any for him.
He’s furious because of the way Rachel has retained her integrity even in her powerless position, which he has not done in his far more powerful one, and also because his impulsive, unpredictable responses to her indicate she has some kind of power over him when by all rights he should have all the power over her.
It’s like he has to get a reaction out of her because he cannot help but react to her. He is obsessed with her, and that’s the last thing he wants to be. Part of him admires her, and another part of him wants to destroy her because he admires her. And so he revels in his power over her life.
Around p.60, well before he forces her to sleep with him, we also get this in his thoughts:
He wasn’t sure why he tormented Mrs. Wade, why he had numerous new torments in mind for her in the future. It wasn’t his usual style. But he’d seen a change coming in himself for a while now. Out of boredom and cynicism, he was starting to become nasty. He didn’t approve of it, but in some ways he saw it as inevitable. Life, he’d decided years ago, was supremely, spectacularly pointless, and a wise man learned to deal resourcefully with that disappointing truth. Fortunately, Sebastian Verlaine had been born into wealth and comfort, two commodities that helped mitigate pointlessness no end.
But the older he got, the less fun he was having. It took more every day to divert him, and lately he’d begun moving gradually, with misgivings, into excess. There were no vices and few depravities he hadn’t tasted, with differing degrees of satisfaction. He worried that when he ran out, he would choose a few favorites and indulge in them until they killed him.
In some ways, what he saw in Rachel Wade was what he couldn’t see in himself anymore. She was like some raw, naked thing, stripped down to the basics, without illusions or hope, without vanity. The fire she’d been through had burned her clean to the bone. She knew something now; she’d learned a secret—maybe the secret—and he had some idea that if he could possess her, the essence of what he lacked and she had would be his. He would appropriate it.
So we have Rachel, who has decided to kill herself rather than go back to prison, and is now fascinated with and deeply appreciative of basics like sunlight, wildflowers and fresh air, and Sebastian, supremely, spectacularly bored with life, who believes that he if he can appropriate the essence of Rachel, steal it from her, he might be able to avoid dying, also by his own hand.
Angela: What I think Gaffney does brilliantly in this book is parallel and complement Rachel and Sebastian. You can see their similarities, see how each is fallen in some way. Rachel, ironically, needs Sebastian’s perverseness, to keep pushing her. He says to in the latter half of the book that: “They sent you to an early grave, Rachel, but I’m going to dig you out of it and resurrect you. Revive you.” This is a line that always catches in my throat.
Janine: The stage is set for a battle between good and evil, an epic battle for survival which is played out in a subtle ways and, with the exception of a few excursions to the village of Wyckerley, mostly within the space of one house.
Angela: Things change between them little by little with each encounter they have, as Sebastian forces and coerces Rachel to reveal herself to him.
Janine: Much to his frustration, the more he tries to get under her skin, the more she gets under his. Eventually he does something drastic that forces him to change. I don’t want to give away how it happens, but the second half of the novel shows him treating Rachel very differently while still remaining recognizably himself.
Angela: At this point, I think the novel really becomes about them getting to know each other. You could also call it forgiveness in action. Rachel’s kindness in combination with her unflinching ability to see Sebastian are what, I think, allow her to forgive him and then love him.
Janine: Because of her background, she’s a remarkably accepting person; as he says, much more forgiving than he deserves.
I think of the second half as being more about Rachel, and I love that we see her struggle with her feelings for Sebastian. Does she really love him or is it just an unhealthy dependency? Does he really love her or is she just a project he’s taken on? Can she trust him enough to let go with him sexually? Will he leave her someday, or will she be able to leave him first? Does she have what it takes to actually choose him, after all he’s done to her in the past?
Angela: For me, I think what is extraordinary about this book is that I believe in Sebastian’s transformation. I feel it viscerally. Part of this is due to two things. First, we already from the beginning see Sebastian on the cusp of transforming. Second, Sebastian becomes a better person but not a different person.
Janine: Yes. During the first half, Sebastian is almost like a Jekyll/Hyde split personality, with Hyde in charge. Every time Jekyll tries to open his mouth, Hyde stomps on his face. When the big turning point comes and Jekyll finally gets the upper hand, it’s believable because this good vs. evil, love vs. hatred war within Sebastian has been raging before our eyes all along.
Though he remains a man who finds it hard to make himself vulnerable, Sebastian is no longer so unpredictable in the second half, nor the same kind of threat to Rachel. For this reason the second half is not as suspenseful. But it is hugely romantic, as well as powerful in a different way—in a way that instills hope.
I feel that it’s the role of redemption stories to do that, to remind us that if we want to badly enough, we can change our behavior, if not who we are. That we can all be better versions of ourselves, if we care enough and believe enough and work at it hard enough. It takes a character who commits a great wrong to dramatize that powerfully.
Angela: Rachel changes, too. But like Sebastian, she doesn’t become a different person but rather someone alive and whole again rather than the blank, erased woman she was at the beginning.
Janine: I love the way Rachel changes, and the way Gaffney takes us back to that courtroom to show just how much she has transformed.
Angela: It was as if there was something sorely imbalanced about both of them and their relation to power that need to be harmonized.
Janine: Before we finish this discussion I want to mention a few flaws. The mystery of who killed Rachel’s deceased husband is a weak link. A couple of the side characters lack dimension. Much to my dismay, the ebook contains some annoying OCR errors such as omitted punctuation.
And obviously, the book is problematic because even though it works so well as a story of personal transformation for both characters, and even though I feel it does not condone Sebastian’s initial treatment of Rachel, we still end up with the heroine marrying the man who raped her. It’s a beautiful book but not a feminist one.
Angela: I could talk about this book endlessly but I’ll stop here. I unequivocally love this book. I’m totally prejudiced in favor of it. So I’m obviously giving it an A.
Janine: I completely understand why some readers will never feel similarly, but yeah, I love it too. It’s an A for me as well.