Desert Isle Keeper
To Have and To Hold (#89 on AAR's Top 100 Romances)
An AAR Top 100 Romance
originally reviewed on April 08, 1999
This is the second book of the Wyckerley trilogy, and features Sebastian, the new Viscount D’Aubrey, the son and heir of an extremely wealthy earl. Sebastian is a much better lord of the manor than his predecessor, Geoffrey, because he is smarter, knows his place in society and how to execute his duties. The book opens with his getting rid of a lightskirt he has been dallying with (via an expensive gift) and hustling into the village’s main building for his new position as one of three magistrates.
It is through Sebastians’s office as magistrate that he meets the heroine, Rachel, who has been imprisoned for ten years for murdering her husband. She was not executed because evidence showed that her husband had practiced deviant sexual acts on her. Someone has to supervise Rachel, however, in order for her to be released into the village. Sebastian volunteers to make her the housekeeper at his manor house in the village and the other magistrates agree.
The story turns on these two characters, who are very well detailed and not idealized. Sebastian is not a wonderful person through a good portion of the book. He is a jaded aristocrat who has done exactly as he pleased and spared himself no indulgence. His friends from London are of the same stamp and when they visit him in the village it brings out the very worst elements of his personality.
However, Sebastian’s inheritance has put him in charge of a potentially abundant agricultural estate that he can develop at a time in history when agriculture itself was vastly changing via great innovations in machinery. This interests Sebastian. He also has the chance to help Rachel who has aroused his curiosity. His motives are mixed, though as he is also considering a sexual liaison with her.
Rachel is as interesting a character as Sebastian. As a young woman, she was married to a deviant but acceptable older man in the village. When he was found murdered in their house, Rachel claimed she didn’t do it. No one believed her. Ten years in prison have affected Rachel’s character. She has survived by walling off her feelings to diminish her ability to experience pain. She expects Sebastian to take advantage of her as his employee; she is that used to being a pawn. Thus, both characters are going to require quite a bit of transformation in order to achieve a HEA ending.
One of the best scenes I have ever read in an English historical romance occurs with Sebastian. He is at his family’s home for his father’s funeral and discovers, no surprise to him, that his family is mired in the morass of rules that go along with being aristocrats. They don’t care for one another and are bored. They all have affairs of short duration, going from one sexual intrigue to another to quell the emptiness of their lives. Sebastian tells them about all the agricultural projects he’s involved in back in the village and the new machinery he’s bought and using. They don’t know or even care what he’s talking about; how can he be enthusiastic over working with agriculture? He returns to Wyckerley knowing he will not see his family again until the next funeral. He has paid them off with a lot of money which came to him from being the new earl so they don’t even have to see one another again. He has no interest in living at the earl’s estate where he grew up, preferring his less ostentatious life in Wyckerley.
This book is filled with excellent scenes like this. I adored this book and would have to count it as my favorite of the Wyckerley books. When we meet Sebastian, he embodies everything that a person who was indulged his whole life (albeit with expectations of duties) would exemplify, but he is not an evil man. Rachel embodies every quality of a woman who has been used by a patriarchy: her family, her husband, the legal system, the village, and now her employer, Sebastian. I love seeing how these two people grow and change through the course of the novel.
Part of this book involves a mystery: if Rachel didn’t kill her husband, who did? And is that murderer still living in the village, ready for more nefarious activity? This is not a major part of the book but it is well done. For those of you who like mysteries in your romances, this book blends the two genres well.
Once again the secondary characters are extremely well done. The village people vary in their reaction to and treatment of Rachel. Christy, the vicar, and Anne, now his wife, (from the first book of the series, To Love and To Cherish) reappear to reach out and help her the most. The women in the village are suspicious of Rachel and her relationship with Sebastian, and they tend to fawn over Sebastian since he is single and highly eligible. Sebastian and Christy become close as well and this has a positive influence on improving Sebastian’s character.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. While it is an excellent historical novel, it is the unusual characters and their exquisite delineation which really makes To Have and To Hold the classic it is.