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.
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
Jessica’s review (from way back)
Rosario’s review (also from way back)