Book Discussion: To Have and to Hold

I feel as if Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold has been looming on my romance-reading horizon forever. Once I thought I would never read it. I’m glad I did, but my feelings about it are very mixed–though not quite in the ways I expected them to be. I can’t possibly do this book justice. Fortunately, all I have to do is start a discussion. I’ve linked to some other posts at the end, all of which provoked me to think further about my initial responses to the novel. Those initial responses are where I’m going to start, though.

WARNING: ALL THE SPOILERS. 

First half: Even though I know pretty much everything that’s going to happen I am riveted. I feel less horror than I would have if I’d come to the novel cold, but I’m still astonished by the unsparing narration. The scene with Sebastian’s friends is worse, for me, than the rape. I expected melodrama. The starkness is harder to take.

Second half: A puppy? A bubble bath and a massage and sex on a bearskin rug? (Are you fucking kidding me with this? I feel like this scene slipped in from another, more conventional book. I’m cringing.) Oh look, bondage so she can trust him enough to let go during sex! (Possibly this felt new at the time). Wait, maybe this is some kind of clever comment on Stockholm syndrome, and Rachel won’t fall for it, and . . . no, no not really.

I still found a lot to admire in the later part of the novel, but I didn’t find it romantic, and as a romance, this did not persuade me. I very much appreciate, though, reviews and interpretations from readers who were persuaded. I can see where they’re coming from. I believed the changes in Sebastian. I believed Rachel was happy. But that wasn’t enough for me, and I’ll try to explain why.

My Lengthy Still Not Very Coherent Thoughts:

This novel had to start in Sebastian’s point of view, because I think we can (and need to) see the seeds of his redemption right from the start. He has good impulses as well as evil impulses. He was bored, and he could deal with that boredom in two ways: turning to serious virtue, or serious vice. Vice is the path of least resistance, so that’s the way he turns:

Out of boredom and cynicism, he was starting to become nasty. . . . [T]he 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.

His motives are “murky,” even to him, from the moment he sees Rachel: “He felt pity for her, and curiosity, and an undeniably lurid sense of anticipation.” Sebastian is perceptive about others, and about himself. He’s undeniably fascinating. I didn’t sympathize with him, exactly, but I understood him (I’ve taken the moral path of least resistance myself, if not so spectacularly). The fact that he could, right from the start, have made kinder, more moral choices makes him very real and in some ways more frightening than someone who has no better impulses.

The subtlety with which Rachel is drawn is a real strength of the novel. The little personal touches she gives her room and the joy she takes in them; the significance of even her very limited freedom; how hard it is for her to make choices and to re-enter the world after her 10 years in prison. Here she is talking herself into entering the servants’ hall for the first time:

She’d say her name, tell them she was the new housekeeper. Hello–no–Good morning. I’m Rachel–no–I’m Mrs. Wade. I’m the new housekeeper. After that . . . she couldn’t imagine anything after that. Things would just happen, it would unfold naturally. Other people would talk, she would answer. She would look them in the eye and do what she had been forbidden to do for the last ten years: speak.

The stakes for her are so clear, as are the reasons she will suffer Sebastian’s abuse rather than return to prison. Watching her gradually open herself to life again was often very moving. She makes friends, she takes pleasure in things, she asserts herself in firing Violet, she helps Sidony, another victim of abuse. And, of course, she falls in love with Sebastian.

I was bothered much less by the fact that Rachel forgives Sebastian for raping her than I thought I would be. I’m not sure either of them actually thinks of this as rape (I believe the word is only used when Sebastian tells her, “Relax, Mrs. Wade. . . . Don’t make it a rape”). Both of them think of it as a kind of “seduction” at various points, but the evocation of rape in the text invites the reader to interpret it that way. Or not. The deliberate ambiguity of this scene is deliberately disturbing, I think. We are asked to consider the meaning of this moment for these specific people, to ponder the complex power dynamics between them, rather than to rush to judgments that come either from real life (e.g. legal definitions) or from genre conventions. That’s uncomfortable. We don’t want sex and power to be morally ambiguous (at least I don’t). We want there to be a clear line between right and wrong. I think this scene challenges that idea. I wanted Rachel to call this a rape. It bothered me that she didn’t (even more, that her “incipient pleasure” was part of why she didn’t, because physical response doesn’t equal consent). And yet, she’s also refusing to see herself as once again a victim without choices. She’s rejected that label. In the end, I thought that the ambiguity of this scene is part of why this novel could be seen as “transcending the genre” (though I dislike that phrase): ambiguity and irony are not typical features of a romance.

But then there’s the fact that for me this didn’t really work as a romance. Here’s the best way I can explain this: at the start of the novel, Rachel has a strange kind of self-possession. Yes, she’s beaten down, locked into herself, but she is also, as Sebastian realizes, untouchable in some way. That’s why he finds her attractive: he wants (though he may not fully recognize it) to break through her protective shell, to touch her, to possess her. (And being who he is, he’s willing to do this by hurting her if necessary). He wants her to be open completely to him: he wants to know her. The scene where his friends pry (some of) her secrets out of her is both parallel to and worse than Sebastian’s rape. It’s also what he’s really after in raping her: “What did he [her husband] do to you?” he asks as he strips her. When she recognizes that she loves him, Rachel finally tells him. (The paper by Angela and post by Victoria linked below both talk about this issue of knowing the other in more depth). He gets what he wants–not by force, but by the gradual seduction that makes her love him. Which, great, because it’s healing for her, but also, the rapist got what he wanted, even though only when she wants to give it to him. I just can’t see that as romantic, I guess.

It’s dangerous to take any quote from the book and make it stand for the whole, because their relationship keeps changing, but I was bothered when Rachel tells him “Sometimes I feel as if my body doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to you.” Oh Rachel, nooooo. She says this right before the scene in which he a) makes love to her outside (exposing her) and b) ties her up (symbolically) so she will learn to trust him totally, give up her self control (self-possession?) and have an orgasm. In the context of this story, these were not acts I was comfortable with.

Sebastian’s project for making her happy, “bringing her back to life,” bothered me too. I mean first off, let her bring herself back to life; give her freedom. But his goals are to make her laugh and to make her come. Not to see her laugh. To make her laugh. It’s all about him, about having the power to make her happy. About penetrating all her secrets, knowing precisely what will give her pleasure. And making her come–look, I get it symbolizes trust, it requires losing control at least briefly. But I’m a bit weary of how much, in Romance, it stands in for other kinds of trust, and other kinds of pleasure, that matter in a loving relationship. Rachel needed to trust people again in far more profound ways than that. And given her sexual violation, not just by Sebastian but by her husband, the extent to which the novel emphasized sexual healing bothered me.

In the end, I felt that Rachel’s recovery and happiness depended far too much on Sebastian. Is she stronger, happier, more alive at the end? Yes. But she no longer really possesses herself. He possesses her. I wanted her to have her Jane Eyre moment, to reject him, go away, see that she can live without him, and come back on her own terms. I know there were gestures in that direction (the letter, her trip to Plymouth, the fact that Sebastian is not ultimately her rescuer), and many points that mitigate against my reading. For me, they were not enough to satisfy.

One final tangent: the solution to who really killed Rachel’s husband was both obvious and troubling. Given Rachel’s heroic status, having the same abuser turn Lydia into a crazed, vindictive killer felt cheap and awful. I’d rather Rachel had killed him (in fact, at first I thought she had and really admired Gaffney for going there).

I talked way more about Rachel than about Sebastian. You all can redress the balance in the comments. Or not–he so often gets the lion’s share of attention in discussions of this book.

Other Perspectives:

Janine and Angela’s Epic Joint Review at Dear Author is seriously amazing; there’s also a thoughtful recent review there from Romance newbie AJH, who shared my 1st half/2nd half problems

Angela’s JPRS paper on rape in romance includes a discussion of THatH, and helped me figure out my own feelings about the book

Victoria Janssen’s wonderful post on “Eroticism in THatH,” which also helped me articulate my views

Brie’s review

Jessica’s review (from way back)

Rosario’s review (also from way back)

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54 Responses to Book Discussion: To Have and to Hold

  1. It’s dangerous to take any quote from the book and make it stand for the whole, because their relationship keeps changing, but I was bothered when Rachel tells him “Sometimes I feel as if my body doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to you.” Oh Rachel, nooooo. She says this right before the scene in which he a) makes love to her outside (exposing her) and b) ties her up (symbolically) so she will learn to trust him totally, give up her self control (self-possession?) and have an orgasm. In the context of this story, these were not acts I was comfortable with.

    But are we as readers meant to be comfortable with it? Totally, completely comfortable? I don’t think so. There’s a moment in that scene when Sebastian gets his knife out, in order to cut the flower stalks with which he binds Rachel, and he says “No, I’m not going to stab you.” And for me there is a sense of real danger in that moment– I mean, we know Sebastian isn’t going to stab Rachel, but it’s like that knife stands in for all the other dangers Sebastian embodies.

    For me, unlike some other readers, the threat Sebastian poses doesn’t get neutralized until the very last scene, when he tells her when he began to love her, and even then not completely (and did you notice that he dates it back to before the rape?) — i think this novel is disturbing even once Sebastian changes, partly because we’ve seen him operate in the other mode, and partly, because as you say, Rachel opens up to him. Yeah, it’s disturbing when she says she feels like her body belongs to him,but I also buy that that’s how she would feel. Esp. given her history.

    And that’s why the puppy, the bubble bath, the gift of the books and the greenhouse, etc., worked for me. Because underlying them there was also this sense of danger, they never seemed trite or cheap and easy to me — each step along Rachel and Sebastian’s journey was fraught.

    And the danger I felt was danger to Rachel, of course but not just to Rachel: also to Sebastian. There was the danger that Sebastian could hurt, devastate, destroy Rachel, but also the danger that Rachel could dump him because of his actions on the first half, because he didn’t give her her freedom in the second half, and because underneath it all, until the last scene, he is a coward. And that would have destroyed him and yet he also feels that that’s what he deserves.

    For me the second half works because of this sense of danger, though I know some readers don’t feel it is there. And it sounds like for you, there may have been too much of it there?

    Sebastian’s project for making her happy, “bringing her back to life,” bothered me too. I mean first off, let her bring herself back to life; give her freedom. But his goals are to make her laugh and to make her come. Not to see her laugh. To make her laugh. It’s all about him, about having the power to make her happy. About penetrating all her secrets, knowing precisely what will give her pleasure.

    Yeah, true. But I’m trying to imagine how else someone as determined to put up walls and defend himself as Sebastian is could have gone about helping Rachel heal without also retaining some of his power/defenses. I think if he had done the things I think you wanted to see him do– freed her completely, backed off sexually and opened up more emotionally — I would not have bought it, and also, too much tension would have been sapped from the story.

    The reason I would not have bought it is that Gaffney sets up Sebastian from the beginning as someone who is on the deepest level, terrified. He’s like the schoolyard bully who is really a coward under it all. Gaffney never tells us why, but it’s not hard to imagine a reason– quite possibly he witnessed someone being destroyed by someone else at some point in his development and decided that being the predator is preferable to being the prey. We don’t know how, what, where — all to the good because it would read like an excuse for his behavior if we did know. But I agree with Angela when she says Sebastian knows how vulnerable love can make him.

    Given that, I just can’t see him helping Rachel in a way that requires him to give up all his power in the relationship. He is just too scared. And in that scene after he laughs at Christy’s suggestion, when Rachel says, “I feel sorry for you. I do, because you’re a coward,” and “There’s something missing in you, Sebastian! I feel pity for you!” — in that moment, I was shocked by how much sympathy I felt for him (esp. as I also had tremendous sympathy for her) because that was a bullseye strike: she got him where he lived.

    And making her come–look, I get it symbolizes trust, it requires losing control at least briefly. But I’m a bit weary of how much, in Romance, it stands in for other kinds of trust, and other kinds of pleasure, that matter in a loving relationship. Rachel needed to trust people again in far more profound ways than that. And given her sexual violation, not just by Sebastian but by her husband, the extent to which the novel emphasized sexual healing bothered me.

    I get that, but again, I would argue that it’s supposed to bother us that the relationship is SO sexual. I mean, it comes up briefly in Forever and Ever, and it bothers me even there, that he is so obsessed with her on a sexual level. But I’m trying to think, if it weren’t this way, how would it be portrayed in a way I could believe, after the first half? And how else would the tension be sustained in the story? And I can’t come up with anything better.

    But then, I also have to admit that I loved that the sexual healing part of the story wasn’t accomplished in a single sex scene, which is how it’s happened in every other romance I’ve read in which the heroine had a sexual trauma to recover from.

    And one of my favorite scenes from the second half is the last sex scene, in which Rachel turns the tables and becomes the sexual aggressor. And there’s this line in which she compares Sebastian to her abusive first husband and says, “He made me do this to him,” and then “Do you like it?” It’s disturbing, and yet, that’s part of why it works. She has the power in that scene, she is already planning on leaving Sebastian, and yet Gaffney doesn’t allow us to forget how this relationship began, or the fact that while it’s healthier than it was, these two people aren’t poster children for emotional health.

    In the end, I felt that Rachel’s recovery and happiness depended far too much on Sebastian. Is she stronger, happier, more alive at the end? Yes. But she no longer really possesses herself. He possesses her. I wanted her to have her Jane Eyre moment, to reject him, go away, see that she can live without him, and come back on her own terms. I know there were gestures in that direction (the letter, her trip to Plymouth, the fact that Sebastian is not ultimately her rescuer), and many points that mitigate against my reading. For me, they were not enough to satisfy.

    I totally get that, but I didn’t feel that Sebastian possesses Rachel at the end any more than she possesses him. For me the gestures you mention were enough. Rachel thinks about the fact that she’ll leave when she’s ready– that Sebastian may be preparing her to survive without him — for most of the second half. She’s preparing herself for the end.

    Sebastian by contrast doesn’t allow himself to think about the future at all, but he keeps investing in the present — investing in Wyckerley and hiring an architect to change his house to something Rachel would love. If he possesses her, then she owns him.

    So I very much felt the balance of power in the relationship shift toward Rachel, and while, yeah, her healing process might be even more believable had she left him for longer than she did, or had we seen her decision to leave on page more, the way Gaffney brings us back to the courtroom to show Rachel refusing to marry Sebastian even to keep from returning to prison, where in the beginning she accepted a position as housekeeper/mistress rather than go back helped make this work for me, as did the last scene, where Sebastian has to open up completely to persuade Rachel to marry him.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think we’re not so much disagreeing in our readings of the novel (that is, I don’t really disagree with anything you say here) as responding to it differently.

      I don’t think I can articulate this clearly–or at least not briefly–but I have been pondering a lot lately whether I think there are some kinds of stories (including love stories, I mean) that romance just can’t tell effectively. I think there may be, and I think I would argue that this is one of them–for me. (So many qualifiers there). Because although the novel focuses on the wrong Sebastian does Rachel and his need to redeem himself with her, he really does wrong more broadly–and here I’m thinking of Sunita’s point about how there’s no excuse for a man with his privileges, and Miss Bates’ consideration of the novel as inspirational. He wastes himself, and he needs to be redeemed not just in his relationship with Rachel but in general. The novel nods to this, certainly, as he takes on more interest in his role as a landlord, but it’s only nodded at because the romance is central.

      Sebastian basically ducks out of the responsibility of the title he inherits from his father [this part of the book left me bewildered. In what sense can he “give” his estate to his mother? He lets her live there? And did it actually say he had 100,000 pounds PER YEAR to give to his mother and sister? Whaaaa? There was just some historical carelessness there maybe.] Instead it ends on a sentimental (to me) return “home” to Wyckerley (as did TLatC). If ever there could be a Viscount as sentimental middle-class domestic Victorian hero, Sebastian at the end seems to be it. And that struck me as an evasion of other roles; he didn’t even really try with his family. I guess I found a largely (though not entirely, as you say) personal, private, erotic redemption insufficient in a novel that has so much of the flavor of the 19th century. The focus on romance limited the story’s success for me because the issues went so much beyond that one relationship.

      I think this response has something to do with my personal values and something to do with my view of the genre–I just couldn’t see Sebastian as “heroic” and I feel like Romance asks me to do that. But maybe in that way this novel is even more genre-bending than I give it credit for. Your point that Sebastian remains dangerous in some ways is well taken.

      • I don’t think I can articulate this clearly–or at least not briefly–but I have been pondering a lot lately whether I think there are some kinds of stories (including love stories, I mean) that romance just can’t tell effectively. I think there may be, and I think I would argue that this is one of them–for me.

        I can understand that– I’m never surprised when this book fails to work for someone, whether as a romance novel or on any other level. It’s always more surprising to me when it does work for someone, and especially as well as it does for me.

        And there absolutely are stories that romance can’t tell effectively for me, as well, so I understand where you are coming from. I recently read a sample of Witt and Voinov’s Unhinge the Universe and found myself reluctant to hit the purchase button because I just don’t know if I can get past a Nazi SS member as a hero in a romance. I don’t know if it can be pulled off for me. And I can completely understand seeing Sebastian in that same light, even though I didn’t, myself.

        Because although the novel focuses on the wrong Sebastian does Rachel and his need to redeem himself with her, he really does wrong more broadly–and here I’m thinking of Sunita’s point about how there’s no excuse for a man with his privileges, and Miss Bates’ consideration of the novel as inspirational. He wastes himself, and he needs to be redeemed not just in his relationship with Rachel but in general. The novel nods to this, certainly, as he takes on more interest in his role as a landlord, but it’s only nodded at because the romance is central.

        i didn’t feel that was true, and I think the reason I didn’t was because his reason for falling in love with Rachel was that he saw her as his opposite, as selfless where he was selfish, empathetic to everyone where he was callous. So for me, his attraction to Rachel reads like a blind search for something, and that something turns out to be living his life more like she does. She is his example, his beacon. She is a symbol, in his eyes, of all that he hasn’t been and all that he could be. Had he fallen for her for some other reason, I would have needed more too, but from the beginning it is about his unnamed, unacknowledged need to treat everyone around him differently and to engage with the world differently.

        Sebastian basically ducks out of the responsibility of the title he inherits from his father [this part of the book left me bewildered. In what sense can he “give” his estate to his mother? He lets her live there? And did it actually say he had 100,000 pounds PER YEAR to give to his mother and sister? Whaaaa? There was just some historical carelessness there maybe.] Instead it ends on a sentimental (to me) return “home” to Wyckerley (as did TLatC). If ever there could be a Viscount as sentimental middle-class domestic Victorian hero, Sebastian at the end seems to be it. And that struck me as an evasion of other roles; he didn’t even really try with his family.

        The 100,000 pound a year struck me as a bad error too. I also wondered if it was accurate or convenient artistic license for there to be no butler at Lynton.

        But while it did bother me a bit, this time around, that Sebastian delegated his responsibilities in Rye to the steward there (mainly because it seemed unlikely that it could be done so completely), it didn’t bother me at all that Sebastian made the decision he made to separate completely from his mother and sister.I didn’t feel that he needed to try harder with them. I felt there were enough hints that very bad stuff went down in that house when he was young, and he knew enough about who his mother and sister were and who he himself was to be able to make a sound decision about that.

        There are plenty of real life situations in which people have good reasons to terminate relationships with family members because no amount of trying can do them good, and I felt this was a clear cut case of something like that. (And as an aside, I loved the the line about the pigs kicking the oast barn.So funny.)

        I think this response has something to do with my personal values and something to do with my view of the genre–I just couldn’t see Sebastian as “heroic” and I feel like Romance asks me to do that. But maybe in that way this novel is even more genre-bending than I give it credit for. Your point that Sebastian remains dangerous in some ways is well taken.

        I did find him heroic, but not in the usual romance genre white knight sense of that word. To me what made him heroic was his ability to follow through on his decisions. When he decides to take Rachel home from the courtroom, he does it, no matter how it looks to anyone else or what they might think. And when he decides he hates the mirror image of himself he sees in Sully, he changes how he lives his life — and that’s not an easy thing for anyone to pull off — much less as someone as entrenched in being corrupt and as afraid of being vulnerable as Sebastian is.

        He’s the agent of so many of the bad and good things that happen in the story, he is someone in charge of his own destiny, and in a strange way, reading about him helped convince me (in the symbolic way that art sometimes can if it resonates with a personal belief that has gone dormant) that I could take charge my life, make different choices, change things I didn’t like in it. And that quality *is* something I see as heroic.

      • i forgot to ask this question — is there a genre in which you feel a story like Sebastian’s journey could be better told? I can’t see it working in today’s lit fic. Although this wokred for me as a romance, I feel there are some stories that can’t be told well in any existing genre, and that’s a great pity.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I can’t respond to everything but I’m really appreciating your comments. This is such a rich book that supports so many readings and different focuses.

        WOULD Sebastian (and Rachel’s) story be told as literary fiction today? No, probably not. COULD it be? Sure. I think this is in some ways very much reflective of the nineteenth-century novels that influenced Gaffney, and maybe it’s in part my familiarity with them–where the romance arc is often present but a less major thread–that makes me wish for more attention to the other parts of Sebastian’s redemption/change.

        I can’t organize my thoughts effectively in response to your points about imperfect protagonists/relationships but I do basically agree with you–I think too many books today pull back from fully real people. “Flaws” are fixable, rather than something that we have to accept in our partners. Nothing TOO unlikeable is allowed. Everyone has to be “OK” at the end, forever and ever. No dark moments allowed in the future! I’m so grateful these are not requirements for real-life love. I still think there’s something between modern, anachronistic therapeutic models and the kind of mutual dependency in this novel. Where a person can be a catalyst for change but not the whole context that makes it possible or desirable. I’m not sure that I think Rachel is that for Sebastian. But maybe. This novel feels kind of claustrophobic to me, despite some great secondary characters (Holyoke! I wish there were a novel about him! He reminded me of Caleb Garth in Middlemarch a bit). More so than To Love and to Cherish did. I’m kind of jetlagged and not making sense. But I’m so appreciating your take!

      • I still think there’s something between modern, anachronistic therapeutic models and the kind of mutual dependency in this novel.

        Oh, yeah, absolutely, and I never said otherwise. But these are farther and fewer between now. And I would rather the genre umbrella were wide enough for a novel like this, too, and I don’t think it is anymore.

        This novel feels kind of claustrophobic to me, despite some great secondary characters (Holyoke! I wish there were a novel about him! He reminded me of Caleb Garth in Middlemarch a bit). More so than To Love and to Cherish did.

        I mentioned the claustrophobia in the comment section of my review with Angela. It’s one of the things I love — the way the reader has to experience some of Rachel’s imprisonment in that way. Just as she can’t leave the house much, neither can we. Iuntil the the second half, when there are more scenes set outdoors and we even get to leave Wyckerley.

        The first half of the story is as much a psychological suspense novel as a romance and i think that’s due partly to Sebastian’s villainous and unpredictable behavior but also partly to the intense claustrophobia.

      • WOULD Sebastian (and Rachel’s) story be told as literary fiction today? No, probably not. COULD it be? Sure.

        To clarify, do you think Sebastian’s story as well as Rachel’s — keeping its redemptive arc — could be published as literary fiction today, or could have been published as such in the literary fiction genre in the mid 1990s when Gaffney wrote it? Because that is the question that concerns me.

        I don’t see the lit fic of the 1990s as being much like 19th century classics, And what concerns me here, as both a writer and reader, is that some books, even when well written, are very hard to publish in any genre.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Sorry, that’s what I meant. No, I don’t think it would be. And I agree it’s a real short-coming of publishing right now, romance genre and otherwise, that a novel like this probably wouldn’t find a publisher.

  2. Sunita says:

    My feelings toward the book (as I remember it) are much like yours. I admire it, especially the first half, which I think is one of the great romance half-books (I know that sounds like faint praise but I don’t mean it to be). It is so unsettling and so in your face without really departing from the genre; it just stretches the parameters as far as they can go.

    The second half lost me. I still admire the intelligence and skill of the execution, but I feel as if this terrible/wonderful book suddenly realized it was riding on the shoulder, too close to the cliff, and swerved back into the lane to sit firmly between the white lines. And if that’s not enough … a puppy.

    I can see why readers are so enraptured by Sebastian, but for me the fact that his faults are so much of his own making is an insurmountable problem for a romance. Here is a man who has everything his society has to offer, and he’s bored and jaded. In the middle of the 19thC, when there are a million exciting things a man of his talents and status and intelligence can do, he does none of them. Instead he hangs out with people who like to pull the wings off flies. It’s great that he suddenly realizes what horrible choices he’s made, and I’d happily read a non-romance story about his journey to becoming a worthwhile person. But it’s not Rachel (especially Rachel!) or any other heroine’s job, in a romance novel, to get him there. I want him doing this on his own, for his own sake, because then I’ll trust that it is a permanent transformation. When it’s for someone else, or to win someone else, I’m skeptical that it will stick. Along these lines, the parallel structure of Rachel’s journey back to fully realized personhood and Sebastian’s redemption makes me really uncomfortable, because Rachel’s terrible experiences were unjustly visited on her and not at all of her own making, whereas Sebastian’s were entirely on him.

    This is very much a book of its time, I think. The emphasis on the hero’s journey and the hero’s POV comes into its own in the 1990s, and the hero and heroine are much less often separated during the course of the story. In a 1980s historical, you more often had the couple go off and have their own adventures and then meet up again as wiser or more experienced people. I would have bought Sebastian’s transformation in a story like that, because it wouldn’t have been Rachel’s job to facilitate his redemption.

    Shorter version: what you and Brie said.

    • Sunita says:

      Oops, forgot to tick the subscribe box when I posted.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I think the paralleling, in some ways, of Rachel and Sebastian, the way the romance structure . . . not EQUATES, exactly, but . . . entangles? their journeys just did not work.

      It isn’t that I wanted Sebastian to save/help/heal Rachel in some other way. It’s that I thought it was none of his damn business. I guess really I didn’t WANT it to be a romance.

      Also, I am enough the child of a priest and a therapist that I just don’t like stories where one person’s healing or salvation seems to depend so entirely on another person. Even most of the opportunities for healing and empowerment that didn’t directly involve Sebastian (e.g. helping Sidony) basically came to Rachel via Sebastian.

      Realistically, if she’d left him, could she have made her own way in the world? With a prison record? What sort of work could she have found?

      • It does seem that Rachel would have had a tough time making her way in the world — in fact it’s pretty clear that, at least as written in the novel, she would have been sent to prison, and likely found a way to kill herself there, had she and Sebastian not crossed paths. I think that is something that can fairly be critiqued too — that Gaffney sets us up to want the characters together in this way.

        You make a good point about Rachel being dependent on Sebastian. I do feel that this is a relationship where there is dependency, but it works for me because the level of need feels mutual. And also because therapy didn’t exist in the 1850s.

        I nodded along with Sunita’s point about the book being of its time in the sense of being focused on the hero’s journey, although Rachel has a steeper arc than many a heroine, so I don’t see it as being focused solely on his journey.

        But what struck me most when Sunita brought up the romances of the 1990s is that it was much more common then to come across protagonists that we might call damaged or dysfunctional, and this is another way in which THATH is of its time.

        Personally, I miss that aspect of the 1990s books. I hate the idea that characters can only be heroic or romantic if they are emotionally healthy. I think it limits the genre a great deal, in terms of the types of stories that can be told within it. I’m fine with reading about people who end up healthier and better off than they started out, even if they never end up what we would hold up as emotionally healthy.

        Most of the relationships I know IRL are more flawed than the ones I read about in today’s romances. A friend who is a psychiatric nurse once told me that it is thought that around 70% of the population suffers from some kind of abnormal psychology. I think the genre is better off acknowledging that in the stories we tell, rather than turning a blind eye, or portraying all kinds of dysfunctional behavior (like possessiveness, sexual aggression, vigilantism and controlling behavior to name some examples) as healthy because we don’t want to think too deeply about the books we read.

    • It’s great that he suddenly realizes what horrible choices he’s made, and I’d happily read a non-romance story about his journey to becoming a worthwhile person. But it’s not Rachel (especially Rachel!) or any other heroine’s job, in a romance novel, to get him there. I want him doing this on his own, for his own sake, because then I’ll trust that it is a permanent transformation.

      I felt he did do it for his own sake and I didn’t feel that Rachel lifted a finger to get him there, other than simply by being herself, which she would have been in any case.

      Did I miss another conversation about this? Because I didn’t read Liz’s post above as suggesting that Rachel changed Sebastian, but I could have misread her.

      • Sunita says:

        I meant that Rachel’s character served as a way for Sebastian to become a more worthwhile person, and his actions toward her were part of that process, not that she was actively working to make him a better person.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I agree–structurally she is his savior.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Ah, I see what you mean and I can see why you would be discomfited by her healing process being the vehicle for his redemption. I feel that Sebastian could have and perhaps would have found another way to make himself a better person if she hadn’t come along, that he was looking for a way to figure out what he wanted from life and that he brought her home with him for that purpose. But that’s neither here nor there if I read your concern correctly.

  3. I enjoyed reading your review! It’s been so long since I’ve read THATH now, that I don’t feel I can enter into a proper discussion of it. And I’m not inclined to reread the book either. But I did want to say that I couldn’t read it as a romance, that the romance got broken for me in a way that could not be fixed. But there was a lot to admire in the book.

    I keep meaning to read Gaffney’s Wild at Heart…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have Wild at Heart TBR, thanks to Janine. I am not sorry I am reading all this Gaffney, even if I haven’t LOVED one. They’re so interesting, and so good in so many ways.

  4. Miss Bates says:

    I read this once about three weeks ago and then let it incubate. I don’t think I’ve achieved clarity and I don’t think I will in the near future. I didn’t read any others’ thoughts/ideas on the novel, so I comment in a state of ignorance. I agree with Liz when she doubts the romance of the novel. It never felt romantic to me: I thought it was erotic, but not sexy and not romantic. I’m still very jumbled and uncertain about what I can say, but I’ll take a stab at it (pun not intended! sorry!) and apologize if whatever I say has already been said and better.

    Firstly, I’ve made some peace with the trilogy (I haven’t read the third book yet, waiting for Liz’s signal for the third discussion!:)) by thinking of it as a triptych, like one of those religious paintings with three panels that tell a story, or comment on the central panel, I think (sorry, just one undergrad class in art history here). It can only stand as a romance maybe if taken as a whole, not in its individual parts. This is what I mean about making my peace with it, which really means making my peace with THaTH. TLaTC is the gentler title, isn’t it? To HAVE and To HOLD always sounds harsher to me (to have like a possession, to own).

    In this case, THaTH, because I have to look at these novels from an “inspirational” perspective to make any sense of them for myself, stands to reason as being the triptych’s central panel. If we can look at these three novels as a kind of Nativity, Crucifixion … blowing hot air here because I’m making assumptions about the third book which I haven’t yet read, then, yes, Resurrection. So, if in TLaTC we have a kind of birth of the spirit in Anna and a physical rebirth for Christy as he emerges from the womb of the earth that is the mine, I can only bear THaTH as a redemption of the Geoffrey figure (who self-destroys in TLaTC). Sebastien is Geoffrey redeemed; Geoffrey/Sebastien, as persecutor, has a “road to Damascus” revelation in that awful awful scene with his friends and Rachel. He is led there by, very simply, a feeling of shame, that spark in him that is the only good that’s left, his last chance, his only chance to seize his humanity. Knowing what we know about Geoffrey, what other form could his journey have taken?

    Rachel’s self-possession, no matter how and where she is tormented (in the jail, court, Wyckerley, with Sebastien) is a very very interesting point because she serves for me as a scapegoat-, or Christ-figure. (This is the only way I can accept her place/role in the narrative and not reject/condemn it). That scene with Sebastien’s friends was more painful to read than the rape scene with Sebastien: it was verbal scourging and flailing taunts and so humiliating that I had to stop reading it several times and go for a walk. Once Sebastien (interesting name for him, proto-martyr, right?) stops Sully (what a great name for a villain!) from raping her, the novel flattened out for me. The intensity was gone as Sebastien took Rachel on as a convert does the zeal of new-found faith, a new truth, so to speak. It’s very interesting that Christy is always there, to minister to Sebastien, to recall him to what is right. Sebastien’s “conversion” is not complete until he makes a public declaration to Rachel, which is what a marriage is, isn’t it? Everything he did for her remained private acts: he can only be a new man when his community can recognize him as such, when he is humiliated in the same way that Rachel was, hence, the final courtroom scene. He doesn’t get his redemption until he too is publicly shamed. And there’s your JaneEyrian vindication when the person who gets to point to Sebastien’s flaw is the very person that he tormented. She gets to throw the first stone and only she can restore his authentic self by accepting him.

    I don’t know that any of this has any relevance because this is intended as an inspirational novel: Sebastien does not have a religious conversion and my attempts to make sense of this and the trilogy as a whole may be reductive. I found this novel (I can’t think of it either as a romance) quite unbearable. And this is how I made my peace with it. If you’ve actually made it to the end of my comment: thank you for tolerating the confusion and reading-too-much-into-it-ness of it!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Wow. The triptych idea is a fascinating one.

      I do see the two novels I’ve read so far as commenting on or interacting with each other (for instance in both ending on coming home). This is a very helpful, thoughtful perspective.

      PS I just started Forever and Ever. Will post in a couple of weeks.

  5. Liz Mc2 says:

    I meant to say, in response to Miss Bates, that the erotics of this novel make perfect sense to me–in other words, Sebastian and Rachel’s relationship makes sense to me from that perspective; I believe they’re in love, too. *I* just don’t find it romantic.

  6. Miss Bates says:

    I had the same reaction: I didn’t find anything about the novel romantic. I don’t know that “in love” can express their symbiosis in the second half of the novel, maybe by the final scene when Rachel calls Sebastian on his cowardice? It’s a bewildering book. I find myself grasping ideas about it, then tossing them aside soon after.

  7. I haven’t read this book in a while, but it stands as one of my favorite books. Not just favorite romances, but favorite books. Because of all the things you mention here.

    But first, this:
    :: ambiguity and irony are not typical features of a romance.::

    To which I say, why not?
    That’s a question I ask of myself and every other romance writer out there. Why not? In fact, some of the finest romance authors out there do, in fact, include ambiguity and irony in their work.

    I’m actually not convinced the book is a romance, though on the surface it fits. But underneath Gaffney poses hard questions about the nature of sexual and social power and redemption. I’m not necessarily convinced the book has a happy ending, even though it would appear it does.

    At the time, Gaffney was a romance author, so the book was published as such and the story has been ignored by readers who think romance doesn’t challenge us and therefore have never read this novel. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the book had been published as Literary Fiction. It has a legitimate claim to that.

    This is a challenging novel and what Gaffney offers us is worthy of long, deep thought, even if, ultimately, we might abhor the content. Is that not the definition of Literary Fiction? The fact that it was achieved in a Romance novel says a hell of a lot about the power of the genre.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wouldn’t say I’d never encountered ambiguity or irony in romance before; it’s rare though.

      I think some of my own discomfort with this book may well have to do with expecting the genre to offer me simple answers to questions. Which is partly my experience, but also an unfair lowering of expectations. A lot of what bothered me here might not have if I hadn’t been thinking of this as genre romance and bringing some of my (limiting) understandings of the genre to it.

  8. kmc1952 says:

    I think of THATH as an outlier in the historical romance landscape. I first read it as a newbie to the genre, and it was so unlike the other books I’d read that it etched itself in my mind. On a re-read five years later, I have a clearer perception of it.

    The first half of the book remains as gut-wrenching as before. Sebastian’s intimate, intrusive interest in Rachel is almost too difficult to read. Rachel’s’s ten years in prison have left her so ready to expect cruelty “…that it was gentleness that devastated [her], not ruthlessness.” These characters are anything but cardboard.

    In the second half of the book, Sebastian wants to “heal” Rachel, still controlling her so much that at two crucial points she says, “I don’t know what to do.” Her lack of agency remains pretty consistent, and to say there’ll be an HEA for these two seems a stretch. Because these issues exist, I consider it to be less of a traditional romance, but certainly a work that is worth reading and discussing.

  9. I really love this bit from Miss Bates: “I can only bear THaTH as a redemption of the Geoffrey figure (who self-destroys in TLaTC). Sebastien is Geoffrey redeemed; Geoffrey/Sebastien, as persecutor, has a “road to Damascus” revelation in that awful awful scene with his friends and Rachel.” So fascinating!

    • kmc1952 says:

      I’ve been thinking more about this: Years ago I read Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, a book of five short stories that struck me the same way. The lead character in each story can be seen as the same entity, growing from a child not understanding his place in a racist society to an old soul who knows precisely what is her purpose in life. Miss Bates’s suggestion that the same type of thing could be going on in the Wyckerley trilogy is, indeed, fascinating. If the male protagonist in each book is the same figure, what does that say about the female protagonists?

      Another thought: Is there any value in looking at the trilogy in terms of Joseph Campbell’s separation-initiation-return hero archetype? Again, how would the female protagonists fit in such a framework?

      I need more coffee. And probably a fresh copy of Forever & Ever.

    • Miss Bates says:

      Thank you, Ms Janssen! :) I don’t think I ever recovered from Geoffrey and his final grand gesture of love. This was my way of reconciling my reader-self to it.

  10. Sunita says:

    I don’t see why the story of their journeys couldn’t have been written in lit fic. They wouldn’t have the same romantic arc and stipulated HEA, which from my point of view might have been better. To think of this as lit fic (or general fiction) wouldn’t have helped me; in fact it *didn’t* help me when I was reading it and tried that as an alternate frame.

    I think of books by Peter Carey, Richard Ford, Larry McMurtry, or even Martin Amis, all of whom have written about men with plenty of issues to work through, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and who have written (with more or less effectiveness) about the women in their lives.

    Maybe because I don’t gravitate especially toward books with damaged heroes or heroes in need of redemption, I seem to find them all over the place. There might be fewer of them in historical romance, but they’re certainly around in NA, paranormals, and other subgenres. So I’m not seeing that the genre is somehow excluding them. Especially since 50, we have a ton of emotionally unhealthy heroes, but they didn’t seem thin on the ground before that, at least not to me.

    As for what Rachel might have done aside from marrying Sebastian, she could have done what a lot of women in the second half of the 19thC did (and increasingly undertook on their own): emigrate. She could have worked, suffered his attentions, put some money aside, and gotten the hell out of Dodge. Obviously that would have been a different story (and not a romance, although she could have fallen in love with him and still thought she should get away from him). I think it’s interesting that in historical romance of this era, we see so little mention of emigration, even though it was a huge part of social movement in the UK and Europe.

    • It’s the redemptive arc and optimistic ending that would have excluded it from the category of lit fic. It’s hard to find it fic that is this optimistic about human nature.

      I haven’t read much NA but in the paranormals I read, the heroes may be emotionally wounded but I don’t often see their flaws approached as serious flaws in need of moral repair. Instead their possessiveness, dominance, violence or what have you are usually approached as desirable traits in a partner.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        “It’s the redemptive arc and optimistic ending that would have excluded it from the category of lit fic. It’s hard to find lit fic that is this optimistic about human nature.”

        I really don’t agree with this. Well, maybe not THIS optimistic. Maybe. I don’t think all contemporary literary fiction is as bleak as this suggests, though maybe more pessimistic about the amount of change that’s really possible or likely for most people. But then it’s hard to cite examples because a lot of what I read, given my work, is not recent literary fiction. The redemptive arc and optimism are a pretty big feature of 19th-century literature. I read a fair amount of children’s lit, too, which is optimistic.

        I think that Sebastian’s change is not so much in his underlying nature/personality (which is very hard to change) but in the choices he makes. And that’s much more believable than if he became a whole different person. Most of us know of examples of people who have turned their lives around in some major way. I don’t see why there couldn’t be a “literary” representation of such a change. At the same time, I admit the very end struck me as kind of sentimental and not of a piece, in tone, with much of the rest of the book. I think that’s less likely to be true in literary fiction which doesn’t have the generic demand for an HEA resolution (meaning not just a hopeful ending or one with the couple together but a really rosy one where most/all problems seem resolved, which is what a lot of readers today seem to demand in an HEA).

      • Sunita says:

        I’m sorry, I’m not sure I’m following you, Janine. Are you saying this particular redemptive arc and optimistic ending categorially exclude THATH from being considered lit fic, or are you saying that these characteristics are excluded more generally?

        If it’s the former, redemption is a pretty common theme in lit fic, at least in the lit fic I’ve read. It comes in a difference package, of course, but I wouldn’t say that either redemption or optimism are that hard to find in literary/general fiction. I’m aware of the conventional wisdom among genre readers, but it doesn’t fit my own reading experience. Or maybe we have different assessments of what constitutes an optimistic view.

      • @Liz

        I really don’t agree with this. Well, maybe not THIS optimistic. Maybe. I don’t think all contemporary literary fiction is as bleak as this suggests, though maybe more pessimistic about the amount of change that’s really possible or likely for most people.

        Yes! I think you’ve articulated the difference here. Lit fic deals in what’s realistic for most people. To Have and to Hold is more of a best case scenario. Sebastian is a larger-than-life character to begin with and while I agree 100% that he changes his behavior, not his personality, i still don’t see this steep an arc in contemporary lit fic, one where someone who starts out that consciously, knowingly villainous ends up not only realizing the depths of his wrongs and doing so much to atone for them, but also comes out a happy, fulfilled and productive person at the end. If you or Sunita can point me in the direction of something like that in lit fic, please do, because I would love to read it.

        @Sunita,

        Or maybe we have different assessments of what constitutes an optimistic view.

        Yeah, we probably do and I probably did not articulate my position well enough. I love stories that dramatize redemption in a powerful and emotionally uplifting way and I haven’t found those in lit fic.

        I don’t read much lit fic anymore, not because I think it’s all depressing, but because I encountered enough bleak lit fic when I read it (mostly in the 1990s, actually) to eventually decide that for my own well being, it was better for me to avoid that category of fiction. I have read some lit fic that was quite dark and that I loved and don’t regret reading (like Morrison’s Beloved, or Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever) and there is some humorous but dark lit fic I adore, like a few of George Saunders’ dystopian stories. And I found Byatt’s Possession, one of my favorite books, romantic and optimistic, but not redemptive on the level of THATH. William Kennedy’s Ironweed was a redemption story but not one with a steep arc. The most sunny lit fic I’ve read is Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which I adore, but I haven’t come across much else in lit fic with that quality, so in general, I don’t think of optimistic and lit fic as going together.

        Maybe things have changed in the past decade or so, I don’t know. But I don’t buy that Gaffney could have published THATH as lit fic back in 1995.

  11. Sunita says:

    Argh, sorry for the typos/brain glitches. I meant “if it’s the latter” not “former,” and different not difference.

  12. Barb in Maryland says:

    It’s official now, reading all of these very perceptive and persuasive comments have broken my brain–so much to think about. I read the book several years ago (and I’m glad I did) but I just could not bring myself to re-read it. You ladies have nicely articulated why i found it so painful, difficult, and a bit disappointing. Thank you.
    (slinking back into the shadows now)

  13. Liz Mc2 says:

    @Janine Well, literary fiction also encompasses things like magic realism. Just as in romance, what is being published now/the major trend of any moment doesn’t reflect everything that is possible to write in that genre. I’m not quite sure whether you’re talking about publishing trends or a genre definition when you talk about literary fiction. I do agree that such stories–i.e. the kind of steep arc you describe–are not prominent at the moment (to the extent that I can’t think of an example, though there may be some).

    I suspect Gaffney’s novel, much as it pushes the romance envelope, may also be too indebted to genre conventions to have looked like “literary fiction” (whatever that means, exactly) either in the 90s or now. Byatt’s POSSESSION is a good counter-example, actually–it’s got a solid romance arc in the modern story, and it’s subtitled “A Romance,” but it also has a lot of intellectual concerns that make it not look like genre fiction. I’m not saying Gaffney doesn’t also raise serious questions, but they are questions more firmly within the romance genre (sex and power, e.g.) than many of those raised by Byatt. This is kind of a tangent, I guess, but it’s a testament to the power and complexity of Gaffney’s novel that it can take us on all these tangents about generic definitions, etc.

    • Well, literary fiction also encompasses things like magic realism. Just as in romance, what is being published now/the major trend of any moment doesn’t reflect everything that is possible to write in that genre.

      I do know that!

      I’m not quite sure whether you’re talking about publishing trends or a genre definition when you talk about literary fiction.

      That’s hard for me to answer because (a) I’m not that well-versed in lit fic, and (b) I’m not sure how you define lit fic as a genre. Some readers consider 19th century classics the same genre as lit fic, but I don’t (and I’m not sure whether or not you do). I think contemporary lit fic defines itself at least somewhat in contrast to other genres published today.

      This conversation has gone far afield of my original thought, which was that even had Gaffney wanted to put more emphasis on Sebastian’s being redeemed outside his relationship with Rachel to a greater degree, as you suggested was needed, I don’t see where she could have published the resulting novel (especially as an American novelist writing in the 1990s).

      Perhaps that question seems irrelevant to you, but it interests me because the parameters of genres like romance and lit fic are among the factors that decide authors on what genres to tell their stories in, and determine what kinds of stories are made available to readers, as well.

      I have the feeling (and I may be wrong) that you are coming at this from a very different angle from mine, You seem to be focused on all the possibilities open to readers from an array of fiction written throughout the ages and in a variety of geographic locations, whereas I (likely since I am also a fiction writer) am focused on the possibilities available to Gaffney wanting to tell this story at a specific place in a specific time — as well as what possibilities might be open to the writer of such a novel as THATH here and now.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I don’t think we’re disagreeing. I just wasn’t sure whether we were talking about stories that can be TOLD in a genre/type of fiction or stories that can be PUBLISHED, which is obviously (to me, at least) and sadly a narrower category.

        I don’t really like the term “literary” fiction because I don’t think it HAS a clear definition (and I don’t really think that it’s a “genre” except in the broadest sense that fiction, poetry and drama are “genres”–what would the conventions be? it makes more sense to me to think of it in subsets like “magic realism” or “domestic fiction” that don’t always have much in common). The understanding of what is “literary” has obviously changed a lot over time. So when I invoke 19th-century classics in this conversation (not all of which would have been considered “literary” when they were written) I’m suggesting that the idea of what “literary” fiction can be or do or what could be published as a “literary” novel would have been much more likely to include a redemption arc like Sebastian’s and a story like this one than is the case today.

      • Yeah, I’m in agreement with most of what you said just now, so I think we’re largely on the same page. And yeah, I was thinking of publication. A writer can write any kind of story but if readers don’t have access to it, then has it really been told? But that seems like a philosophical question along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest…” and I don’t want to digress further.

        Whether or not it is better to think of literary fiction in terms of subsets is an interesting question. I will have to give it thought.

  14. Sunita says:

    @Janine: I think it might be helpful to separate literary fiction from mainstream or general fiction. For whatever reason, Romlandia conversations rarely seem to talk about general fiction. But there are plenty of examples out there from the 1990s: Rosamunde Pilcher, Colleen McCullough, Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Maeve Binchy, just to name a few. They wrote books ranging from historical fiction to family sagas to books that look awfully like genre romance. Had Gaffney wanted to write a different kind of book, presumably she could have tried to go that route (and maybe she did; I have no idea and no basis from which to speculate). In the 1990s I read very narrowly within “traditional” genre romance (mostly categories and regency trads), but I read plenty of historical and contemporary general fiction with subsidiary romantic storylines. They would probably have been categorized in RWA’s Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category.

    Looking at the Top 10 lists for the 1990s and 2000s, it does seem as if there were more options in the 1990s than there are now for such books (although there are probably more mainstream fiction examples further down the lists). But publishing has changed for everyone now, so it’s difficult to say that a different THATH couldn’t be published now strictly because of its content. Maybe Gaffney would never be accepted in literary fiction, but that doesn’t mean she could only have been published in genre romance.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Good points–and aren’t Gaffney’s more recent books categorized as women’s fiction? There are lots of reasons why an author makes a shift like that, of course, but I’m thinking that one would be the desire to tell stories that don’t exactly fit into genre constraints.

      The other thing I’d say is that I don’t see why a book that paid a little more attention to Sebastian’s life outside of his relationship with Rachel couldn’t be categorized as a romance (though I think my earlier comment suggested that). I often find romances take the “central love story” a bit too literally/seriously, showing so little of the characters’ lives apart from each other. We do actually see Rachel at work, making friends, etc. but (at least as I remember it) less of that for Sebastian, though there’s a little. I just wanted *some* more of that.

      • I’ve read three of Gaffney’s women’s fiction and they are a very different kettle of fish from her historical romances. The main focus is women’s relationships with themselves or with other women. It is interesting though, at the time Gaffney left historical romance, so did many other authors. I think the genre boundaries constricted somewhat around that time and fewer historicals were published.

        I think I get what you mean now with regard to wanting more of Sebastian’s life apart from Rachel. I actually feel there is a fair amount of that — Sebastian thinking about the cottages on his estate requiring fixing, taking on the role of magistrate, “sheep dyeing and barley-sowing, orchard pruning and field manuring,” inviting Captain Carnock to dinner to pick his brains about farming, hosting Christy and dining with him, investing in Sophie’s mine, pouring over seed catalogs with Holyoake, fixing the roof of Lynton, consulting with Christy and Holyoake about Sidony, delegating his responsibilities in Rye, planning on sitting in the House of Lords — but I would say that it is dramatized very differently.

        A lot of it is referenced but happens off screen. Also, Sebastian is a lot more conflicted than Rachel about the changes in himself and for a good portion of the story he thinks thoughts along the lines of “The pastoral charms of Devon had begun to seduce him, incredible as it seemed, and he deemed that Sully and the others were just the antidote he needed for all this cloying rusticity.” For half the book, every time he invests in the community he feels he has to mock and deride that investment. But I see him doing it throughout the novel.

    • THATH as a saga is a fascinating idea that never occurred to me. I read a number of saga type novels in the 1980s and 1990s and I’m not sure that genre would support the ambiguity and irony Liz and Carolyn Jewel brought up earlier, and which enrich THATH so much. But maybe I’m doing the saga genre a disservice in saying that. I’m sure others would say similar things about romance.

  15. Miss Bates says:

    The digressions that Gaffney’s novel has taken here are so interesting, especially this idea of lit. fic. which, I’m not sure who I may be agreeing or disagreeing with, is a pretty nebulous concept for me. I also tend to think that it can be an “artificial” category, insular maybe? élitist at its worst? (think … shudder … Margaret Atwood). I think the problem may lie more in the fact that reading has been pushed and pushed and pushed to a narrower and tighter place; it’s now found on two ends of a spectrum: popular fiction read by the majority of readers, which really is largely romance fiction in all its variations and let’s call it for want of a better word … high-brow (nose firmly in the air) fiction read by a small margin of the reading population. There is no middle ground/middle brow doesn’t exist any longer … take a “middle-brow” writer like James Mitchener (‘member him?) who could still carry an audience book after book after book and build a career and there were many more of him/her as well because, at least in the English-speaking world, reading was a primary form of entertainment (Dickens!!). I don’t think that that kind of reading world exists anymore. Most Americans (and Canadians) read about one book a year … that’s why we tend to see that phenomenon of a Dan Brown or a 50 Shades, etc; reading has become a cachet experience like going out for an exotic meal, raw food, or an obscure cuisine, or something avant-garde. You’ll do it about once a year, but the meat-and-potatoes of your daily dose of fantasy-life does NOT lie between the pages of a book. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I do know that most people around me are not engrossed, passionate, discerning readers. They may be consuming narrative in other forms, but rarely in books.

    [On a side note, I think it was Ian McEwan (who wrote the anti-romance, ATONEMENT) who took books from his shelves and, with his son, went to a nearby park, where people lunched in the mid-day sun, and tried to give his books away to them. Apparently, most men refused the offer, and of those who took a book, every one was a woman. Maybe his story is apocryphal, but he was trying to say that novel reading would die out were it not for women readers. I’ll bet most of them were hoping to get a romance, but ended up with a copy of a Coetzee novel.]

    • I think there is still a middle ground, you just have to look elsewhere (and maybe search harder?) for it. For example in YA you have books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a huge bestseller which Lev Grossman of Time Magazine rated as the best novel of 2012. Or, less popular but still on the bestseller lists, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series — Taylor is the finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category. I could list more writers than just these. In romance Cecilia Grant is an example of an author whose writing falls into that middle ground.

      • Miss Bates says:

        You’re absolutely right: these are all worthy books. My students loved The Fault In Our Stars and other Green titles! They were less keen on Taylor’s series. Middle brow is not dead at all. I do think, however, that (novel) reading is not as ubiquitous a form of entertainment as it used to be; it’s only one choice among many and it’s one that requires a significant time commitment. I’m not sure that the choice is being made as often as it used to be. I guess that changed with other mass forms of entertainment like radio, film, television .. and, of course, add the Internet and other digital forms of entertainment for us and it’s a case of “water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink.”

      • Yeah, that’s true. But discussions like this one are one of the new forms of entertainment now open to us, so it isn’t all a net loss.

  16. “We don’t want sex and power to be morally ambiguous (at least I don’t). We want there to be a clear line between right and wrong.”

    I have to say, I disagree (I think, though, that I’m possibly out of step with other readers on this). One of the things I like most about romance is, in fact, edges and margins around sex and power and yes, that includes ambiguity around consent – again, this an unpopular view, I think.

    In common with other readers, whilst I loved this book, I thought the first half was more successful than the second half. It is perhaps troubling that Sebastian is a more intriguing and attractive character when he is being horrific. There is something really quite fundamental here in this kind of romance: the hero (or at least this type of hero) as ‘big game’. At the start of he book he’s a magnificent wild beast, but once he’s tamed, he inevitably loses much of his lustre.

  17. Las says:

    I’ll preface my comments by saying that this book had the misfortune of being read at a time when I’m analyzing and reanalyzing my thoughts on many issues that happened to come up in THATH. That, and about 3/4 of the way through a certain (non-Romland related) twitter meltdown occurred that made my already negative feelings about the book and characters turn all the way to full-blown hate. So for what it’s worth…

    I started reading reading THATH knowing about many of the big plot points, and I was interested to see if the writing would make them work for me. It didn’t, and it’s precisely because of what worked for so many–Sebastien’s point of view. There was never a chance for me to give him the benefit of the doubt–I knew exactly what he was thinking during his most vile acts, and it made everything, especially the rape, so much more brutal. He delights in hurting her, in messing with her mind. So many times he acknowledges to himself that he’s being horrible and sometimes even feels bad about it, and then he continues with the behavior. Not only that, but I felt the beginning of the book had already shown him changing, which made his actions even less understandable.

    No one who knew him would have credited it, but the process of farming was actually beginning to interest him. He wanted to observe the full cycle at least one time, witness cases and effects-planting and harvesting-maybe test his own resources against natures.

    They spent hours in conversation together, and Sebastien couldn’t deny that it was warming to see William’s estimation of him go up a little, day by day.

    To go from that to this:

    Out of boredom and cynicism, he was starting to become nasty.

    was jarring. Is he a selfish, depraved waste of space in the beginning or isn’t he? If those earlier bits were about making Sebastien sympathetic, they failed, because I have a hard time buying the redemption of a man who is that aware of himself at the time of his worst acts, especially if the redemption includes being in a romantic relationship with the woman he abused. I don’t believe a person could get into the habit of thinking of and treating another as subhuman and ever really be able to see some as an equal.He might be able to be a better man for someone else, but not her.

    I also took issue with the obvious gear turning. It’s like Gaffney made all this effort to show us the harsh reality of someone like Sebastien, and then hastily backed away when she realized the hole she was digging was getting too deep. That Sebastien’s come to Jesus moment happened when he witnessed–no, when he enabled and encouraged–his friends behaving even worse then he had towards Rachel, was, I felt, incredibly lazy. It’s also a derailing tactic, and I see it too often to be anything but intolerant towards it. Same with that scene with his mother and sister near the end–they were so much more perverted that he was. (And notice how it was his mother’s promiscuity that started him down that path. His father was just stupid, but his mother was the true evil.)

    I wasn’t bothered by the second half the same way that others were. I thought the change in tone, that godforsaken puppy, fit in perfectly with what I felt was a story about a relationship that was in the middle of the abuse cycle. Sebastien’s superficial change in behavior made sense in that context. He never truly changes, though. He never sees Rachel as an individual. She’s just the opposite of him, something that will redeem him if he can just get her to act like he thinks she’s supposed to act. He has this idealized view of simplicity–that it will save him somehow, as if the root of his problems is opulence. We see this when he goes home after his father’s death, the way he compares his mother and sister to Rachel, the priest to Christy. I was reminded a bit of the “noble savage” mentality and I’ve been mulling that over ever since.

    And now for Rachel:

    She understood why her fear of him was diminished, though. It was because she’d discovered from the most intimate experience that, unlike her husband, he was not thoroughly corrupt. […] But she had been used by men in both ways now, brutally and gently, and she could say without equivocation that she much preferred Sebastien’s.

    That pretty much sums her and the entire “romance” up perfectly. I know so many women like her, women who stayed with the first man who was less horrible than the rest. And it’s the realism that makes the story so unromantic to me. Everything Rachel thinks and does is completely believable, and that’s sad. It would have been one thing if she were simply being practical in kowtowing to Sebastien, but that she loves him, and starts to love him almost immediately after the rape, makes the whole situation intolerable to me.

    My patience with Rachel starts to wanewhen Sidony tells her:

    I could never go back, though. Even though I forgive him, I can’t be his daughter anymore.

    I know it’s wrong to compare them, to expect a victim to act how I wish she would, and yet that conversation was where I started to lose patience with Rachel. How is it possible that a teenager who’s grown up knowing nothing but abuse at the hands of her father has that kind awareness, when Rachel had, at the very least, a stable childhood? Why does Sidony know better than her? I felt that Gaffney was once again making Sebastien look better by comparing him to someone else, this time to Sidony’s father. But all she managed was to convince me that Rachel is too damaged right now to be able to make a healthy decision regarding Sebastien. She’s never angry (not until much later), and while it makes sense that she let go of anger as a way to survive in prison when she had no options, her lack of anger at Sebastian’s actions felt a bit…preachy? I have issues with the way anger is discussed generally, as if the lack is a virtue when it’s often a legitimate and completely rational response. I don’t like the popular sentiment that anger should be suppressed, that forgiveness will set us free, because so often it’s used to give abusers a pass. That’s what Gaffney did with this story. Rachel only gets angry once, near the end, because Sebastien laughed at the suggestion that he marry her. She doesn’t express anger over the rape, over his cruel mental games, ever his overriding any decision she makes, but that she gets angry and leaves over him mocking the idea of marriage…that sends a message that I’m extremely uncomfortable with.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, Las. Because while we can talk about this in narrative, structural, symbolic, literary etc. terms, it’s also true that the narrative is built on patterns that can be observed in real abusive relationships. And sometimes in discussions people use the literary to de-legitimize readers who want to point out those dynamics and who can’t enjoy the story because of them, or can’t see past them, or don’t want to see past them (I’m not saying anyone here did that, but “It’s just a story/it’s just fantasy” comes up a lot in a way that means we can’t explore the issues you raise.

      While I was on vacation–when I had written this post but it hadn’t gone up yet–I heard a sermon preached by a friend of my dad’s who is a retired law professor. It was on the Lord’s Prayer (the Biblical passage where Jesus teaches it to his followers). And the preacher talked about forgiveness in a way I found really useful: he said, think of it as a term from accounting. It’s like the cancellation of a debt. It’s not about denying your hurt feelings or not being angry. It is about not demanding or expecting a response from the person who wronged you (like contrition). Obviously, this idea can have its own problems. But it does mean that you have stopped giving the other person power over you and the situation. You have let go a relationship with them over this issue, in a sense–you deal with it, but you don’t depend on any action from the other person to do so. You don’t need to have a relationship with them unless and until they have made some restitution, if you don’t want to, but you stop waiting around for repayment of the debt. I felt like the model of forgiveness here, as you say, is quite different. Rachel basically never allows herself to feel angry or wronged. In some ways, that sets her free–she didn’t let Sebastian “get” her–but in other ways, she remains in his power to the very end of the book.

      I think maybe the model of forgiveness here is meant to be Christian–Rachel doesn’t demand anything from Sebastian in exchange for her forgiveness; she forgives him in advance of any restitution, pretty much. OK, I guess. But she also gives up any anger or bad feelings. This essentially erases his actions rather than cancelling his debt. And out of this, in part, come the changes in him. But I think that version makes Rachel Christ-like rather than human, and I didn’t care for that, though I can understand how it works narratively.

      I’m not sure I articulated that clearly at all but I was thinking about this book as I sat in church that day.

  18. Pingback: Crooked Romance: what is it with Patricia Gaffney? | Badass Romance

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