Suave, cynical, and too handsome for his own good, Sebastian Verlaine never expects to become a magistrate judging the petty crimes of his tenants and neighbors. Nor can the new Viscount D’Aubrey foresee that, when a fallen woman appears before him, he’ll find himself beguiled against all reason to alter her terrible fate….
Rachel Wade has served time in prison for her husband’s violent death, but she soon discovers that freedom has its own price. For no one will offer her a second chance but a jaded viscount who needs a housekeeper. Scorned by the townspeople of Wyckerley as D’Aubrey’s mistress, tempted beyond her will by the devilish lord, Rachel risks all she had to claim a life of her own…and a love that will last for all time.
This month’s prompt was “Kickin’ it Old School”, which meant reading a book that was at least ten years old. I chose this one because I’ve had it around for a while, but also because I know from reading reviews that it’s a “marmite” book (you either love it or you hate it!) and I felt like reading something that seemed like it would give me something to get my teeth into.
Originally published in 1995, To Have and to Hold is a book that has divided – and continues to divide – opinion because of the actions of its hero, Sebastian Verlaine, Viscount D’Aubrey. There’s absolutely no doubt that at the beginning of the story, he’s a pretty despicable character and it’s easy to see why some readers have hated the book, or just not bothered to finish it. There’s also no doubt that this is an extremely well-written, compelling and often quite dark story in which the central characters are fully-rounded, three dimensional individuals and the emotions are often so raw they’re hard to read.
Sebastian Verlaine is young, rich, handsome –and totally and utterly debauched. He’s a rake in the truest sense, not in the way that’s so often found in every other historical romance these days – he does everything to excess, is frequently given to acts of cruelty simply because he has no conscience and nobody to stop him and, at the grand old age of twenty-nine, has reached a stage where he’s so jaded he has to keep pushing the boundaries in order to feel anything.
”But the older he got, the less fun he was having. It took more every day to divert him, and lately he’d begun moving gradually, with misgivings, into excess.”
He takes up his duties as magistrate in the village of Wyckerley mostly because he agreed to it while drunk, but also because he thinks he might find something salacious going on that will alleviate his boredom. When Rachel Wade – a woman recently released from ten years of imprisonment following her conviction for the murder of her husband – is bought before him on a charge of vagrancy, he thinks he may have found a new plaything. There is something about her that intrigues him immediately; she’s not beautiful, she’s too thin and her clothes are dreadful, but there’s an “otherness” about her that makes him want her:
”What was it about a woman – a certain kind of woman – standing at the mercy of men – righteous, civic-minded men, with the moral force of public outrage on their side – that could sometimes be secretly, shamefacedly titillating? He thought of the hypocritical justices from England’s less than glorious past, men who had taken a lewd pleasure in sending women to the stake for witchcraft.”
He proceeds to offer Rachel a position as his housekeeper – although she knows right away that that’s not the only “position” she will be expected to adopt. But it’s working for the viscount or a return to prison for indigence – and she has no other choice but to accept.
Just as Ms Gaffney pulls no punches in her characterisation of Sebastian as a cruel, heartless bastard, so she doesn’t sugar-coat Rachel’s situation. Brutalised by her husband – even though only married for a week before his death – she learned to cope with the incredibly harsh prison regime by withdrawing into herself and walling off her emotions, her soul, even. As she says later in the book, she killed herself without dying. It’s this emotional distance that so attracts Sebastian, and makes him want to “test her, push her, see how far he could go before she broke.”
The thing is, although this is an absolutely horrible beginning to what eventually turns into an enthralling love story, the connection between these two emotionally damaged people is immediate. Each has an intuitive understanding of the other on a basic level, even though they still have much to learn – about themselves and each other – but that’s one of the things that makes the story so compelling.
The first sexual encounter between the pair is a deal breaker for many, because Sebastian won’t take “no” for an answer. He forces Rachel to have sex with him by threatening her with a return to prison, and even though she tells him she doesn’t want it, he goes ahead anyway. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but then it’s supposed to. This is rape at worst, dubious consent at best; even though Sebastian isn’t violent, what he does is nonetheless despicable. Yet the scenes are tastefully done – not meant to titillate, but to show the reader in no uncertain terms that Sebastian isn’t some kind of loveable rogue who just needs the right woman to tame him. Ms Gaffney doesn’t shy away from making Sebastian a truly unpleasant man, thus making his eventual redemption all the more remarkable.
The writing in these scenes is powerful and filled with raw emotion. They are written completely from Sebastian’s PoV, yet the reader is left in no doubt of what is going on in Rachel’s head which, in terms of sheer technical ability, is masterful. Sebastian wants Rachel to respond to him, to climax, and sets about rousing her in such a calculating manner that it’s like train-wreck reading; repulsive, but impossible to stop reading. In the end, he realises that Rachel isn’t going to give him what he wants, and actually worries about hurting her – which doesn’t make it any better, but does, I suppose at least show that there might just be a grain or two of him that’s worth saving.
Unfortunately, Sebastian’s cruelties don’t end there. The time he’s spent away from London has begun to change him, he realises. He finds himself enjoying the quiet beauty of the countryside around Lynton, interested in farming methods and estate management – and is appalled by it.
”The pastoral charms of Devon had begun to seduce him, incredible as it seemed, and he deemed that [his friends] were just the antidote he needed for all this cloying rusticity.”
Still bent on provoking some sort of reaction from Rachel, who is still very much “walled-off”, and almost desperate to repudiate the changes in himself and prove he still belongs among the debauched and dissolute, Sebastian invites a group of his most venal “friends” to visit his home and insists that Rachel serve as his hostess. She knows and they know that she’s to be their entertainment (not in a sexual way – but so they can pick her to pieces and taunt her about her experiences in prison and her late husband’s “unnatural” proclivities), and sure enough, over dinner, and then later, their questions become more and more personal and probing, culminating in a game of “Truth”. All the while Sebastian is watching from the fringes, gradually becoming more and more uncomfortable with the way things are progressing, but almost paralysed and unable to do anything about it, because of his desperation not to admit that he’s changing.
The fact that he’d lost the stomach for it himself didn’t signify; on the contrary, it pointed to a new and dangerous weakness in himself he didn’t like and was determined to snuff out. Sully and the rest could be his proxies while he regrouped, reminded himself of who he was and of what his purpose in life had always been – the pursuit of selfish pleasure.”
I actually found that scene harder to read than the rape scene, because in the latter, Rachel does at least have a coping mechanism – she separates her body from herself, and maintains her distance from events that way. In the card-game, however, she doesn’t maintain those emotional walls beneath the verbal assault of the intrusive questions, and her lack of adequate defences makes the scene incredibly powerful, but incredibly uncomfortable. And Sebastian’s reactions are of the type you can only bear to see from behind your hands, peeking out through your fingers. He watches from the sidelines and does nothing; even when one of his guests makes clear his intention to rape Rachel, he does nothing, because that’s how the Sebastian of old would react. But at the last possible moment he intervenes, admitting finally that he is sickened to hear “his own, mocking tone in Sully’s despicable cadence.” – and thus, his choice is made. This is the pivotal moment in the book – after this, he cuts himself off from Rachel and almost everyone around him, spending several days in a drunken stupor, until finally emerging as… not quite a different man, but one who has decided he wants to live a different life.
From this point on, both Sebastian and Rachel begin to change; she evolves from the shell of a woman she is at the beginning of the story, gradually throwing off the marks of her decade-long incarceration to reclaim her emotions and learn to live again. Sebastian finds purpose in caring for his estates and tenants, and in caring for Rachel, to whom he is tender, charming and affectionate. The change in him is vast – yet he’s the same man. It’s a skilful author who can redeem such a terrible character without making it seem as though he’s had a total personality transplant, but Ms Gaffney does it admirably.
The one false note struck in the book comes near the end. I don’t want to go into details, but the events of the final chapter or so were a little jarring and overly simplistic when contrasted with the complexities of the rest of the story.
But that’s a minor complaint – and is why I knocked off half a grade, because otherwise To Have and To Hold is a tremendous read. Because of the contentious nature of some of the material, I completely understand that it isn’t going to be a book for everyone. But the writing is superb and Ms Gaffney gets absolutely and completely into the heads of her protagonists in a way many other authors just… don’t.
Sebastian and Rachel’s HEA is undoubtedly one of the hardest-worked-for I’ve ever read, but that makes it all the more satisfying. I will admit that I did think once or twice that he should have grovelled a bit more, but actually, I’m not sure that would have worked or was necessary. What’s important is that these two people have been through hell and come to accept each other – emotional baggage, damaged pasts and all – and are going to move forward together, into a better life.