Book Discussion: Forever and Ever, Patricia Gaffney

I’m not sure how many people will have read this last and least known book of the Wyckerley trilogy, so I’m going to make the above-the-fold part spoiler free. Spoilers are welcome in the comments.

In my Grad School Years I read a lot of “Condition of England” novels, in many of which the romance plot provides a symbolic resolution to the class conflict and social changes the novel explores. Gaskell’s North and South is my favorite example, and the one best known to most romance readers: Margaret represents the South; the past; the power of the gentry/aristocracy; a paternalistic, almost feudal view of charity. Thornton is the North; the future; the power of industrial wealth and the rising middle class; individualism and a belief in the self-made man. Their interactions change both their views of class relations, and their marriage represents a union of the best in both their worlds.

Gaffney’s Forever and Ever, in its opening, presents a similar opposition. Sophie Deene is a mine-owner, the niece of Wyckerley’s mayor, secure in her status in her small world. Proud of it. Connor Pendarvis is from a Cornish mining family [my husband was born in Cornwall, where his dad was studying to be a mining engineer; I loved the references to Redruth] and he’s undercover (of his brother Jack’s name) to expose conditions in Sophie’s mine for a reforming politician.

They meet on the village green, which works in this novel as a place where class differences are temporarily set aside (at the Midsummer festival, for instance, where the whole village mingles). “Jack” rescues her when her hair gets tangled in a little girl’s button. They’re instantly attracted to each other. When he comes seeking work at the mine, Sophie is disappointed: he’s not, as she thought, a gentleman, and nothing can come of her attraction to a miner–especially one who’s her employee.

But something does come of it, of course, in a series of meetings in Sophie’s rose garden, another natural space set apart from spaces where social hierarchy divides them (the mine, her house with its servants). Still, the reader (and Connor) knows a confrontation with reality will eventually come, and it does, with a vengeance.

I loved the beginning of this novel. The class conflict is real and openly debated between them, including through a lively discussion of Austen’s Emma. Though class and power are an issue between them, they make a much less dramatic barrier than those in the previous two novels (where Anne is initially married, and Sebastian . . . well, you know). This book allows me to enjoy the fizz of mutual attraction. Each has some power here, Sophie as the boss and a “lady,” Connor because of his secret investigation. While that power leads to them hurting each other, it also makes them equals. Their first kiss is a great example of this: Sophie has hurt and angered Connor by condescending to him (she uses his “inferiority” to goad her uncle). She apologizes–an act that recognizes him as an equal. On that footing, he kisses her, and Sophie thinks:

If she’d seen anything in his eyes like triumph, anything like complacency, she’d have bolted, heartsick. But all she saw was the same gladness she was feeling.

There is a mutuality here, right from the start, that I appreciated after the fraught power dynamics of To Have and to Hold.

I think each of the novels in this trilogy sets up a high-conflict situation between the hero and heroine. For me, this one felt most “natural,” probably just because it reminded me of Victorian novels I’d read and because I didn’t know exactly what was coming so it didn’t feel like a “set up” for a particular later situation. I enjoyed the first part of the novel very much and found it the most romantic of the three–the attraction between the heroine and hero made the most sense to me or felt most effectively described. The second half didn’t work as well, mainly because it piled on one traumatic event after another and I felt to some extent it went for drama over a deep exploration of the class issues that open the novel. That’s mostly to do with my personal tastes as a reader, though.

SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT.

After Connor’s deception is revealed and he leaves Wyckerley, Sophie learns she’s pregnant and in a panic confesses this to the conservative brewery heir Robert whose suit she’s rejected in the past. (It was interesting that she saw him as socially beneath her when she’s also “in trade” of a kind). And of course he rejects her in horror. I wondered why this humiliating scene was necessary. Wasn’t it hard enough for her to have to go to Connor and beg him to marry her? I wasn’t sure why she had to be brought quite so low (when her cousin Honoria, whose class prejudices are depicted as worse, is not). It felt like angst for angst’s sake.

I liked the way Sophie reacts to the revelations in Connor’s mine report (which were exaggerated by his compatriots). She’s always meant well, and conditions at her mine are better than some–she doesn’t let children go down until 14, for instance–but she has not been down to see them for herself. Once she does, spurred by the report, she makes changes. I felt, though, that this happened too easily. It could have made a lot of the conflict in the second half of the novel, along with her shame over Connor’s origins, and his political ambitions. Instead, it was easily resolved before their reunion, and the conflict in the second half was high-drama stuff like her walk through the storm and subsequent miscarriage, the theft from the mine, and another mine disaster, which felt like a retread of book one. I did enjoy parts of this. I thought Sophie’s depression/despair post miscarriage and the way their love couldn’t help her out of it–discussed in this post by Victoria Janssen–was beautifully rendered. But I would have liked a story with the Big Events dialed back better.

Marriage of Convenience is my favorite trope, and I liked a lot about how Sophie came to admire and believe in Connor and he came to trust that she didn’t see him as “beneath” her. They really felt like partners at the end, as well as lovers. That’s my favorite thing about the MoC trope: how do these disparate people, forced together by circumstance, learn to be a couple? (The novel’s original title, From This Day Forward, would have fit it better in some ways). There was also some of the “captivity” element that Robin finds interesting about MoC. Each feels trapped in some way by the other: Sophie’s lost her legal power over the mine that was her identity; Connor has to ask her for the money that is legally his, as if he were still her employee.

This scene on their honeymoon is a great example of the early tension and struggles of their marriage:

She caught him staring at her, and she didn’t like the speculation in his eyes. He was waiting for something, and it didn’t take her long to realize what it was. . . . Something in his expression assured her he was aware of, probably amused by, her discomfort. “I have a say in this,” she burst out suddenly, apropos of nothing.

“Not much of one,” he shot back, understanding her perfectly.

“Because you’re my lord and master?”

“Now you’re getting the idea.”

“In a pig’s eye.”

Connor is not Sebastian. He doesn’t force her. These two fight it out, and neither gains supremacy. Neither worships the other. I think Sophie’s professional role is actually important here, because it provides her a model for or experience of power relations outside the domestic, female sphere. That helps them create something new out of the various power roles they’ve occupied before, something that works for both of them.

At first, I thought the big ending with brother Jack as first villain and then hero was a distraction from the central romance plot, except that it provides an opportunity for Sophie to demonstrate her faith in Connor. But it does assert other themes of the whole trilogy: community, home, finding a place to belong. The novel, and thus the trilogy, ends with almost everyone (even secondary characters) paired off, everyone with a place that suits him or her–it ends, in fact, like Emma, though “place” is much less determined by class hierarchies here.

In that sense, it is firmly in the tradition of Classical Romance, which ends with the restoration and renewal of community. Thinking back to the opening of the trilogy, where the ineffective viscount is dying in his dilapidated house, alone with an insecure priest, and then the awful heir shows up, we can see how much stronger and better this community is, how much injustice has been righted. Despite all the angst and tragedy of the stories, then, this is romance as a subset of Comedy. The happy ending reaches beyond the romance of the individual couples to the whole community.

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11 Responses to Book Discussion: Forever and Ever, Patricia Gaffney

  1. meoskop says:

    Katy Madison’s All About Seduction reminded me of this Gaffney book in a number of ways I no longer recall. I do remember wishing I still had it to do a combo review. This was one of my favorite Gaffney books actually. You’d think I’d have a lot to say about it, but no.

    When it came out we were having an all too brief run of books where class differences mattered and the social turmoil of the eras were really being looked at. I so miss that and think it is a component in my CM addiction.

  2. victoriajanssen says:

    My post is here: http://ow.ly/nR3jk

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Victoria! I enjoyed it very much and I see we’re in agreement on fighting it out and equality.

      I couldn’t find any other posts at my usual suspect places, but if anyone has any, please post links!

  3. victoriajanssen says:

    I love the way that, at the very end, there’s description of the physical setting of Wyckerley, as if the camera is slowly pulling back, giving as you said a view of the whole community and how it has changed.

    The second half is definitely OTT! I was very disappointed that she was pregnant – it’s such a common plot twist in romances, and I had hoped something more complex would bring them back together. Gaffney had other things she wanted to address though, I think, which required them to be together.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree about the pregnancy–it was a quick way to bring them back together and then explore other things (just as Sophie’s decision to make changes wasn’t really Gaffney’s preoccupation; that could have been used to reunite them).

      I have even more problems with how miscarriage is often used in romance (I’ve seen it more than once as a way for the hero to realize he loves the heroine, and it can feel cheap). I thought Gaffney mostly avoided that; the way grief distances them from each other felt real (though it’s ALSO a miscarriage plot I’ve often seen in romance). And she also avoided making it seem as if without an impending baby, there was no reason to be together. It was more that Connor couldn’t reach her or fix anything that made them give up. Still, I felt this, too, seemed kind of an easy way to divide them and create a dark moment. That could have happened given the scene at the dinner party even if she hadn’t miscarried, because they were both so angry. On the other hand, readers would probably have judged him really harshly for leaving her while pregnant.

      Doesn’t Connor suggest divorce? Or am I confusing this with another book? I thought that was a really ahistorical moment. I think this book is set just after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, but still, he would have had to prove she’d committed adultery OR she would have had to prove he’d committed adultery + something else awful (abuse, incest, bestiality, e.g.). That would be ruinous for her as well as him.

  4. Sunita says:

    I’m so glad you provided a lengthy discussion with plot points and spoilers (and I read Victoria’s great post as well), because while I remembered some of the story, I’d forgotten a lot of the large and small details. I just recalled that she had the mine and it was a cross-class relationship with her having the status and money advantages.

    It’s interesting that the second halves of the books in this trilogy tend to take a sharp turn (or really, an unsharp turn into something more conventional). Even #1 did, but it wasn’t as jarring and fit better with the first half. For me, it’s great that romance authors take on these social and political issues, but when the issues are softened or quickly wrapped up in order to create the HEA, I find it almost more disappointing.

    I liked this one the least, but it was still a worthwhile read. I admit, though, that by the time I was done I felt as if I had spent enough time in Wyckerley.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Reading this, I thought a LOT about the first-half/second-half problems in the whole trilogy, and how romance endings, in general, are often a bit disappointing. Not disappointing in the sense that the HEA isn’t convincing, but maybe because they feel hastily/neatly wrapped up, or they rely on big plot contrivances (Grand Gesture, last-minute Big Mis, some kind of threat to a character, etc.), or just the air goes out of the balloon as tensions are resolved. I don’t think this *has* to feel disappointing (the gradual diminution of some tensions worked for me in the latest Cecilia Grant, for instance) but it can.

      I don’t like the idea that romance is formulaic or that it’s lesser because you “know how it will end” (I don’t think that’s ultimately any less true of other genre fiction, for the most part). But it does seem like strong endings–in the sense of the later parts of the novel–are hard to pull off because of the HEA. Or rather, maybe, because of the fairly limited understanding of HEA/an “emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” that prevails.

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    I haven’t started rereading this yet so I skipped most of your post and only read the spoiler-free section. I’ve forgotten a lot of the book and I’d rather be reminded by reading it. Though truthfully, I’m not looking forward to rereading it. I’ve read F&E a couple times in the long-ago past, and both times it was my least favorite of the three books in the trilogy.

    SPOILER TERRITORY In the interview we did with Gaffney, she said that if she had to do it again, she would not have Sophie suffer the miscarriage. I was glad she said that because I’ve always thought that that miscarriage was (no pun intended) overkill. There was just too much misery heaped on in the later parts of the book. The best thing I can say about that plot turn is it prevented us from having to suffer through a three-baby epilogue at the end of the novel and trilogy. Other than that– well, the depiction of post-miscarriage depression felt believable but again, too much suffering. But I did like that Sophie was ambitious for her child.

    I recall having such a tough time with the William/Sidony subplot that I skimmed some of that section. I just couldn’t stand to read about Sidony hurting William. He was one of my favorite characters in the two books and while I loved the unconventional way Gaffney told his story throughout the trilogy, I didn’t love the turn it took in this one. I have a high tolerance for adultery and other forms of cheating or betrayal in romances but Gaffney had so endeared Holyoake to me that I couldn’t stand to see him go through that.

    Other than that, well, while I liked the opening scenes, I wasn’t as engaged by Connor/Sophie and the mining stuff as it sounds like you may have been. I remember that I was more interested in Rachel and Sebastian’s cameo appearances and even Christy and Anne’s than I was in the main romance.

    It will be interesting to see if I still feel that way when I reread the book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really hated the way the Sidony/William plot went, partly because, like you, I love him (he reminds me of Caleb Garth in Middlemarch, who is one of my most favorite characters ever and probably, though not consciously, part of why my son is named Caleb). I hated that he was hurt for no apparent reason, except, I guess, so that Jack could nobly give up Sidony (but then it was fine for him to take up with Maris? UGH. I guess she deserved no better). And I hated that the two men treated Sidony like an object to be handed back and forth between them, with no power to decide for herself. That whole plot thread was just awful to me.

      LOL on the three-baby epilogue, but if you come back later to read the whole thing you’ll see why I think the happy babies work here in some ways. It’s interesting she said that about the miscarriage. As soon as Sophie stepped out into the storm, I thought “Oh yuck, a miscarriage is JUST what this book needs.” Because you know in a romance walking two miles in a raging storm is going to bring one on. It did feel like a pile-on of misery that detracted from what I found most interesting in the book, angst for angst’s sake, which I didn’t really feel about THatH (and only sort of felt about the rape-ish scene at the end of TLatC).

      I think this was the book of the trilogy I most enjoyed, at least at first, partly because it was unspoiled for me and partly because it reminded me of Victorian novels I love. But it did really go off the rails for me in the later parts, and I also thought it was the least interesting and original/unusual of the books in many ways. It took the fewest risks, I guess I mean.

      Anyway, thanks again for lending these! I am very glad to have read them. And after a little Gaffney break, looking forward to Wild at Heart.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Yes, I agree with everything you said about William and Sidony. And on further thought, I realize that their romance was structured poorly, too. On the rare occasion that we see a protagonist (and I consider William one) by the person they end up with in a romance, it typically is in the backstory of the relationship, something that takes the whole novel for the couple to recover from. Here it comes in what is at the earliest the second act of this couple’s story. I don’t know if there’s a good way to treat the cheating thoughtfully when that’s the case.

        Interesting that William reminded you of a character from Middlemarch. In the interview, Gaffney said he was inspired by Gabriel Oak from Far from the Madding Crowd. But she did credit Eliot as having been an influence on her romances.

        I think two babies works, but three (especially if they’d all been shown together in that last scene) would have felt contrived. That’s what I meant about that being a beneficial aspect of the miscarriage plot device (which I agree felt like a plot device). It kept the last scene from being too sugary.

        I agree about “angst for angst’s sake” in FAE, and I never felt that way about THATH either. In TLATC, Geoffrey’s return and especially the moment where Anne thinks she contracted Syphilis felt that way to me, but most of the book did not.

        I’m glad you were able to enjoy one of these unspoiled. Spoilers often ruin books for me as well. And it’s funny, because I would not have sent you this one to read at all if you hadn’t indicated you wanted the whole trilogy. I expected you would like To Love and to Cherish best because Christy is such a non-traditional hero and the book deals with religion and spirituality.

        I think even Crooked Hearts and Sweet Everlasting are stronger books than Forever and Ever, but I may feel differently when I reread it.

        I am very curious to see what you think of the Kathleen Gilles Seidel I sent you, too. I hope you have the opportunity to read it before anyone reveals spoilers.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        That was supposed to be “On the rare occasion that we see a protagonist (and I consider William one) cheated on by the person they end up with.”

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