Jun 19 2013
Janine: When I heard Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy was being
electronically reissued, I knew I wanted to review these books in a discussion format. Angela (Lazaraspaste), who used to review for DA, volunteered to join me. We plan to review all three novels and begin today with the first book in the trilogy.
Angela: To Love and to Cherish has often been overlooked in favor of its darker and more turbulent sister, To Have and to Hold. This is too bad because it is a gem of a book. I have heard it called sweet and light, but only in comparison to the blistering angst of THATH. It is not.
Janine: I would call it a softer book than To Have and to Hold, but I think of it as being wistful and melancholy; some parts of it are heart-squeezing in their poignancy. To Love and to Cherish was very popular when I joined the online romance community (it placed at #27 in AAR’s Top 100 poll in 2000, ahead of THATH, which was then at #38), so I don’t think of it as having been overlooked, but it’s true that in recent years it seems to have disappeared from online discussions in a way that THATH has not.
Angela: Wistful and melancholy definitely summarizes it for me. I suspect that its disappearance is due to tastes having changed. I’m not sure I can imagine a book like TLATC being released becoming popular nowadays. Not a lot of recent books quite have this tone. It swings between the prickly wit of Anne Verlaine’s voice, to the contemplative and sincere melancholy of Christian Morrell’s. What’s interesting about this is that though the story is familiar—upright gentleman falls in love with his ne’er-do-well friend’s wife—the bulk of the story isn’t about sex or passion (though it has those in there), but about two people developing a friendship and love through the act of conversation.
Janine: Yes, and it’s also, without being preachy, a book that deals with spirituality and community.
Angela: Definitely! It’s rather radical. I can’t remember the last time I read a romance novel where the major part of the book was spent with the characters speaking to each other. It has the grand benefit of letting you get to know the characters, of seeing how they fit together, and come to love each other.
Janine: How novel, right? But I think there were more books along these lines in the 1990s, when To Love and to Cherish was published, than there are today.
Angela: I do, too. It probably explains why a lot of my favorites are from that decade. So for those of you who don’t know, the story is as follows: Christian Morrell is the local vicar. His father had been vicar before him and he finds it difficult to live up the image his father left behind. We first meet Christy as he attends the deathbed of the Viscount D’Aubrey, the father of his oldest friend, Geoffrey. Geoffrey Verlaine ran away from home 12 years ago and the only thing that’s been heard of him since are rumors. The opening of this book is one of my favorites.
Janine: Yes. And it has a great opening line:
Even on his deathbed, Lord D’Aubrey was a hard man to love.
God, give me patience and humility, prayed Reverend Christian Morrell, who was in the business, as it were, of loving the unlovable.
Angela: What I love about that opening is that it immediately puts you into Christy’s head. Christy is genuinely concerned about his aptitude as a Vicar and about his ability to minister to a man like Edward Verlaine. And yet, as we occupy his thoughts we, the readers, can see something about Christy that he can’t himself. We glean that he is honorable and righteous—not in that sanctimonious judgmental way that bespeaks of a religious narcissism—but in a melancholy and valiant way. Christy, despite his doubts and fears, his own suffering and sadness, again and again puts his own ego aside to do what he can to comfort and love those around him. This is evident in the first chapter, not because Gaffney tells us so, but because of the way she sketches Christy’s thoughts and interactions.
Janine: Agreed. Christy is an example of a kind of heroism we don’t see in most of today’s romances. He doesn’t lie atop a mountain of pounds sterling seducing beautiful women, in the way of many of today’s male historical romance protagonists. Instead he grapples with everyday challenges like how to comfort a parishioner after a loved one’s death, how to best convince landowners to allow the poor the use of their farmland, as well as how to instill faith and hope in others – and sometimes, in himself.
Angela: I really liked Christy. He is someone I’d want to be friends with. I can’t say that about 99% of heroes. So Geoffrey, of course, returns to Wyckerley, with a wife in tow. He is, however, not particularly keen on the position of squire. He looks sickly, different and brittle. It is obvious to Christy that there is something amiss in this marriage. His first impressions of Anne Verlaine are of someone distant and acerbic. Christy and Anne are interested in each other from the first. Not as lovers or in any way romantically, but as people. Christy has a natural inclination to want to know and love all those around him. Anne, not so much, but Christy—and the town of Wyckerley itself—begin to grow on her. She begins to feel that she can be truly herself around Christy.
Janine: What’s remarkable about this is that Anne is an atheist as well as something of a cynic. We get to know Anne partly through excerpts from the journal in which she writes her innermost thoughts. Here’s one of her early impressions of Christy:
I must call him Christy, he says. His coloring is so fair, I always know when he’s blushing. He has a big strong-boned head, almost bust like, and fine silver-blue eyes, gentle, not cold, in spite of their icy color. A good-humored mouth, very expressive. I see tolerance in his face, a deep sympathy for other people’s pain and uncertainty. And he’s the opposite of pompous. He strikes me as a man who could forgive anything in others, perhaps not as much in himself. Today he made me think of Rubens’ painting “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” Only it’s not Daniel he looks like, it’s the lion in the middle, the standing one with the gorgeous mane and the fierce but worried look in his yellow eyes.
In church, giving his interminable sermon, he was so very earnest, so heartbreakingly sincere, I felt almost like weeping. Most unusual, not like me at all; I still can’t quite account for it. And no doubt I would have been crying for myself, not him. I wonder what he would think if I told him the truth: that I have no religious faith at all, that his God is as apocryphal to me as Zeus or Apollo are to him. Would he try to convert me? What an amusing prospect. There was a mesmerist in Papa’s artist circle ones summer in Aix who attempted to hypnotize me, but without success; I remained disappointingly wide awake and rational. As I would, I’m afraid, if Reverend Morrell tried his Anglican catechism on me.
This quote illustrates that Anne is not quite as kind and patient as Christy, yet also that she is more softhearted than she wants to believe herself. And it shows how she girds herself with cynicism. Anne feels alone within her marriage and isolated from the other residents of Wyckerley by her position. Her wry outlook serves as a defense – if she keeps Christy and other villagers at a distance, the lack of a place of belonging among them will not hurt.
But Anne can’t help liking Christy as a person and a human being, even as she tries to maintain her reserve.
Geoffrey is a disastrous husband, yet he is humanized by the writing (something I appreciated). When he abandons his responsibilities in Wyckerley to fight in the Crimean War, he asks Christy to look after Anne. Then Anne and Christy’s leadership positions within the community of Wyckerley bring them together, first as friends, then as something more.
Neither is fully aware of the change, and once Christy realizes it, he immediately wants to establish distance. Anne, in her loneliness, asks him not to do so. So they remain friends, and Anne keeps her feelings a secret from Christy.
Then news comes of Geoffrey’s death. Anne grieves his loss despite everything. It’s not until a few months after his passing that Christy and Anne share their first kiss, and a new conflict crops up. Christy wants Anne to agree to marry him, while Anne doesn’t want to ever remarry. She also believes she, an atheist, would make a terrible vicar’s wife. She proposes that Christy become her lover instead, but of course, that is not acceptable to him.
Angela: What was great about that is that Christy doesn’t want to, but not just for the obvious reasons. He resists because he cares for Anne and her reputation and her personhood. He doesn’t want to see her hurt by their actions. I was also really pleased that Gaffney never strung these obstacles out into a Big Misunderstanding. Anne’s reservations seem both in character and reasonable. Yet, she doesn’t hang on to them past their expiration date.
Janine: So true. This was my fourth time reading To Love and to Cherish. I’ve long considered it one of the best written historical romances, despite the fact that every time I’ve read, I’ve felt at a distance from it. I confess that one of the reasons I’ve read it this many times is to understand why, despite my huge admiration for Gaffney’s craftsmanship here, I don’t connect with it as deeply as I do with To Have and to Hold or Wild at Heart.
Angela: I totally agree. This way my first time reading it and I had a very similar experience. I enjoyed it, and yet . . . reading it was like watching something without my glasses on, ya know?
Janine: I do know, though I got the book more this time than I ever have before. It may be simply because I’m in a different place in my own life or it may be because I wasn’t mentally comparing it to To Have and to Hold (my first and favorite Gaffney) as much as I have in the past. It is really important, I think, to try to approach it without expecting the same kind of intensity.
We haven’t talked that much about the other villagers, but as I read I found myself as moved by their circumstances as I was by Anne’s loneliness or Christy’s honor.
Angela: Yes! Too often secondary characters are just wallpaper, but here you feel like they have separate stories of their own.
Janine: Exactly. Middle-aged Miss Weedie, once Christy’s teacher, struggles with seeing the mother to whom she is devoted aging. Captain Carnock, a former military man with a back “as straight as a musket” wants to court Miss Weedie. Lily Hesselius is the doctor’s much younger and frivolous wife. And there is also William Holyoake, Lynton Great Hall’s dependable bailiff, who turns to Christy for advice and supports Anne in an hour of need.
Wyckerley is brought to vivid life though these depictions and through loving descriptions of the thatched roof cottages, the nearby canal and river, and the surrounding flora. I loved, for example, this bit:
Primrose Cottage, the Weedies’ little house, had been painted crocus yellow in 1834, the last year of the late Mr. Weedie’s life. In the intervening twenty years it had dimmed and mellowed through stages of saffron, lemon, and flax, and now it glowed a soft, creamy shade of dusty gold, as faded and gentle as the two ladies who lived inside its flaking walls.
This half-paragraph reveals much about Christy, the POV character here– that he has an artistic sensibility (we later learn he almost became a painter), a sense of whimsy, and a deep affection for the house and its inhabitants—as well as describing the Weedies, who, like their house, have “dimmed and mellowed” following Mr. Weedie’s death and are now “faded and gentle.”
The book’s sense of community is quite possibly what I love best about it, which is saying a lot, because Anne and Christy are wonderful characters. What I love least, I think, is the development of the romance in the middle section.
Angela: I don’t want to sound like a chorus here, but I, again, agree. The middle section sagged for me. I had a difficult time getting through it. It felt like I was wading through thick sludge. The relationship loses its momentum.
Janine: As I’ve said in the past, I love Christy and I love Anne, but I don’t love their relationship as much as I feel I ought to, given my love for these characters. Part of the issue for me is that amidst the glorious beauty that is Gaffney’s depiction of Wyckerley, Christy and Anne’s relationship doesn’t always seem situated center stage. And while I love the community Gaffney develops, I want to care about the romance just as much.
Angela: I think there’s a definite imbalance in the middle section of the book. But perhaps that’s true of the book as a whole. It felt uneven to me, like a ship listing off to the left.
Janine: The middle is the least satisfying and I wonder if that’s because once Geoffrey is gone the conflict changes. I haven’t always been 100% convinced Anne would be happy as a vicar’s wife – she argues the case against it pretty strongly. I was somewhat more persuaded this time, but a different issue came up for me. The preoccupation with whether sex between two unmarried, consenting adults is sinful, while natural for Christy, was sometimes difficult for me to relate to. In addition, Anne’s attempts to persuade Christy to sleep with her before they were engaged seemed contrived. I felt Anne should have known Christy well enough to understand he could only refuse.
Angela: On the sex before marriage question: For me, it’s like Mansfield Park where I can never get past all the hullabaloo about them putting on a play. Like really? Who cares? I know intellectually that this is a concern and that its mores of the time, etc. But as a reader, emotionally, I never bought it. That’s how I felt about the sex before marriage question in this book. It felt . . . contrived, as if it was a stand in for the much more difficult religious questions. And like why wasn’t Anne concerned with pregnancy? Did I miss something? Before birth control, sex both in and out of marriage was like playing Russian Roulette with your reproductive organs.
Janine: I believe birth control did exist in the 1850s. More to the point, the absence of any attempt prevent pregnancy from the storyline jarred me since Christy was so concerned with Anne’s reputation. He could have at least practiced withdrawal.
Angela: Well, birth control like crotch-less panties: there but not covering what it should. For me, the religious question was the more interesting one. That seemed to be the more pertinent point. I have waaaay too much to say on the way religion is depicted in this book. Religion is really hard to deal with. People either want it to be all touchy-feely and rainbows. Or they want it exposed as a delusion held by corrupt people. Gaffney departs from either of those extremes.
Janine: That was something I appreciated.
Angela: I had this contradictory sense that while Christy had a deep and complex faith, the narrative voice was constantly eliding it. I think this was most apparent to me in the treatment of Anne’s atheism. She herself states a one point that her atheism isn’t really based on principle or belief but is a default position she inherited from her father. Which, hey, there are plenty of religious and non-religious people who are like that. Yet, so much of Christy as a character is as a person who struggles with faith.
This is exemplified for me in the ending scene where SPOILER ALERT Trantner Fox is trapped in the mine. I thought this was the most moving scene. But I thought that Trantner should have died. It seems to me that faith in God is not faith if you only can believe in God during the good times. It seems to me that a better, and frankly more radical religiosity, would have been presented if Christy’s faith had been restored in witnessing Trantner’s death. A paradox but one far more in line with Christianity, which after all has God die in order to resurrect and redeem the world.
Janine: I read that differently – I thought that Chrsity’s faith was restored down in the pit with Tranter when he thought they would likely die. Immediately after they sang the hymn, Christy was able to pray easily, and to feel “profound sadness and profound peace at the same time.” The profound sadness was over Tranter’s death – and perhaps his own, since by then he’d promised to stay with Tranter, and it was not safe to do so. The profound peace came from his restored faith. END OF SPOILER.
Yes, the book elided an exploration of Christy’s faith, but I didn’t mind. Not being Christian myself, I was able to appreciate his devotion without feeling that I was required to share it.
Angela: I still think it was a bit of cop out in the same way the moral question in Christy and Anne’s relationship pivots mainly on sex before marriage. I prefer a slightly more ambiguous morality and faith. But that’s just me.
Janine: Ah, I see what you mean. On a related topic, a major plot twist that comes late in the novel struck me as predictable. There come points in the story when Christy and Anne both believe they have been punished by God for having (during their secret engagement) expressed their love for each other physically. I found those scenes unsettling, and while, given the recent state of Anne’s widowhood, I could see why they might feel that way, I wish the novel had answered the question regarding the possible sinfulness of premarital sex with a stronger, more resounding no.
Angela: Blah. Don’t even get me started. I could go on a long winded rant about how people always think sins of the flesh are worse than sins of calculation. We can all blame St. Augustine and the Latin Fathers for that one. Thanks, guys.
Janine: Still, I felt a great deal of warmth for these characters, and therefore I really wanted their HEA to arrive. Their happiness together at the end of the book put a big smile on my face.
I’ve written a tome here yet there is more I could say about how charming this book is. I hope the reissue leads more readers to try it. My grade for To Love and to Cherish is a B+/A-.
Angela: Ditto. I think this book is well worth the read. I think the fact that we have so much to say about it proves that. My grade is about the same. B+.