Desert Isle Keeper
To Have and to Hold
Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, published in 1995, is the middle book of her Wyckerley trilogy. Its male protagonist, Sebastian Verlaine is twenty-nine, handsome as sin, rich and morally bankrupt and the whole story has some very dark overtones that make it hard to read at times.
Sebastian’s pleasure-seeking lifestyle has reached the stage where he’s so steeped in dissipation that he doesn’t feel anything anymore.
“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.”
Having agreed – while drunk – to take his place as local magistrate in the village of Wyckerley in Devon, he turns up at the hearings and discovers that he may have found his latest plaything – a widow called Rachel Wade who has just served ten years in prison for the murder of her husband. Mrs Wade, unable to secure employment, has been arrested for vagrancy, and even though she’s skinny, dowdy and very poorly dressed, Sebastian is surprised to find that she interests him sexually. He offers her a position as his housekeeper and, knowing straight away that won’t be the only “position” she is expected to adopt, Rachel agrees. It’s that or back to prison, so she really has no other choice.
Although he wants to have sex with her, what Sebastian wants just as much is to destroy Rachel’s outer shell of composure; he wants to “test her, push her, see how far he could go before she broke.”
What is already an uncomfortable power-dynamic is pushed even further when Sebastian eventually takes Rachel to bed. She makes it clear she doesn’t want it – but he doesn’t listen, and it’s not surprising that his behaviour here is a deal-breaker for many. He’s not violent, but this is non-consensual sex, and rape at worst – and shows the reader once and for all, that Sebastian really isn’t a good-hearted rogue deep down, like so many of the other so-called rakes that abound in historical romance. He goes about Rachel’s “seduction” in a very calculating way – wanting to force her to respond to him, and even though the scene is written completely from Sebastian’s point-of-view, the reader is in absolutely no doubt about what is going on in Rachel’s head. From a technical standpoint, it’s masterful and the writing is incredibly powerful.
Unfortunately for Rachel, Sebastian’s cruelty doesn’t end there. He’s begun to enjoy the quiet beauty of the countryside and to become interested in farming methods and the running of his estates, things which he can’t reconcile with his self-image as a heartless sybarite. To pull himself out of these odd fancies, he invites some of his most dissolute acquaintances to Lynton Hall for a short stay, and insists that Rachel serve as his hostess.
Once again, Rachel has no choice but to agree, knowing that she is to provide the entertainment during the course of the visit. It starts on the first evening, as Sebastian throws her to the wolves, watching from the sidelines as his so-called friends ply her with increasingly personal questions about her imprisonment and the indignities she suffered at the hands of her late husband. I found this scene harder to read than the rape actually, for various reasons, not least is the way Rachel actually allows herself to be affected in a way she didn’t during the earlier scene, when she made use of her coping mechanism of divorcing mind and body. And the stark cruelty of what Sebastian is doing by letting it happen is just stunning – it’s like train-wreck reading; horrible but impossible to look away from. At the last possible moment, when he finally realises that what he is seeing and hearing from Rachel’s tormentors is like looking in a mirror, he finally stops trying to pretend he hasn’t changed and intervenes. This is the pivotal point in the story, because after it, Sebastian spends days in a drunken stupor refusing to see anyone, until he finally emerges as a man who wants to live a different life –with Rachel at his side.
Reading all that, anyone who hasn’t read the book is likely to think – “why on earth would I want to read this when the supposed “hero” is such an arsehole?” – and I wouldn’t blame you. But there really is a lot to enjoy about the story, even when it goes to some pretty dark places. Sebastian and Rachel go through fire and rise from the ashes, if you will, and it’s not easy for either of them. Rachel learns to live again, and Sebastian finds purpose in caring for her and for his lands and tenants. He has to learn to be a decent human being, but we’re left in no doubt that he will get there, even though he will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way.
To Have and to Hold is a terrific read, even though I recognise that it’s not a book that will suit everyone. The writing is incredibly powerful and Ms Gaffney gets under the skin and into the heads of her protagonists in a way that many other authors just don’t manage to do. Even if you don’t baulk at Sebastian’s actions, there are a couple of things that didn’t quite gel for me in terms of the plot towards the end, but those really are minor points, and don’t take away from the overall impact and enjoyment of the story.