Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Red Cabbage Juice (My thoughts on To Have and To Hold)

Yes.  Red cabbage juice.

I've even found you a picture. It is a dark purplish-blue liquid, and a natural color test for pH -- on the left, the juice turns turquoise in contact with a base, such as baking soda. On the right, it turns pink in contact with an acid like lemon juice. (You can read about this here.)

The point is, these color shifts are sudden, dramatic and complete. At one point you have a lovely indigo blue, the next you have magenta pink.  If you don't know this is going to happen, it's startling and just a trifle worrisome.

That's what I thought of as I read the second half of To Have and To Hold, the second of Patricia Gaffney's Wyckerley series.  It's the now-(in)famous romance in which there is forced sex (rape, if you prefer the term) between the hero and heroine.  That's in the first half.  In the second half, there is a tender generosity (he gives her a dog, three crates of books, and a conservatory complete with orangery -- you have to trust me that these are the most extraordinary kindnesses in context).  It's reconciling these two halves that is troubling me.

Turquoise, then magenta.

Mandatory Warning:  THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!

I'm just going to assume everyone has read this book at some point in time.  If you haven't, I (and the rest of the world) highly recommend it.

Rachel Wade, married at age 18 to a sadist and pedophile, endures a week of his torture before he's found dead.  She's tried and convicted of his murder; only the visible evidence that she had been savagely beaten saved her from being hanged for her crime.  She is imprisoned in Dartmoor; upon her release she is found indigent and is brought up before the magistrates in Wyckerley on charges, basically, of being an unacceptable burden on the parish rolls.

One of the magistrates is Sebastian, Lord d'Aubrey, the new heir to Lynton Hall.  He hires Mrs. Wade as his housekeeper, thus saving her from imprisonment and possible transportation.  It never looks like an act of generosity, though -- we know from the outset that his object is to bed her.  And really, we quickly learn, it's not merely sexual congress he wants.  It's something more; his actions seem akin to those of the boy who takes the wings off insects to see what what happens.  He wants to use Mrs. Wade's predicament as a stepping stone to his own conviction of his debauchery.

Gaffney portrays all of this so perfectly: Sebastian's cruelty, Rachel's passivity borne more of hopelessness than stoicism, the ratcheting up of tension as he tries to get closer to her and she tries to stay away.  Eventually, he rapes her (where the word rape connotes, quite properly, sexual congress without consent).  But it's not an act of violence in the strictest sense.  She says no and he touches her, then penetrates her, against her will.  His actions are perversely gentle; he'd have preferred that she consented and even enjoyed it.  That she doesn't is simply too bad.

Now, I just don't care.  I really don't.  And I don't care to debate it.  My reaction to the entire first half of the book was horror at Sebastian's cruelty, which comes to a head when some really vile Londoners come to visit and join in the humiliation he knows Rachel will endure.  The sexual violation seems the lesser crime.  That's because I have endured both the sexual violation and the cruelty, and I know which destroyed me.  So, I respect everyone else's opinion on the subject, but my reaction is mine alone.

At the joinder of the two halves of the story, Sebastian changes.  One of the Londoners, Sully (not a subtle name), decides he wants to rape Rachel and sets off obviously for that purpose.  Only then does Sebastian choose the other path, the one where Rachel is a human being, his employee, someone he cares about, someone he's responsible for.  It's hard to say what finally flips the switch from callous disregard to concern.  My difficulty was in understanding his treatment of her up to that point.  She seems to fascinate him far more than a sexual object would: he learns her schedule, he studies her.

All I have are questions.  Does he hope to break her in half?  Does he hope she'll lose her innate decorum and play the bawd so that he can discard her as he's discarded other women?  Is she some intricate thing he needs to take apart to understand, knowing he'll never put her back together once he's finished?  Or is she a fly, buzzing helplessly on a tabletop after he's pulled off her wings?

Rachel's situation is easy to grasp -- she's had all her options forcibly removed for so long that endurance is her only goal.  She has no past worth remembering and no future worth planning.  She simply wants to survive.  By contrast, Sebastian seems overwhelmed and even bored by his choices.  Judging by his actions, he repeatedly chooses the more morally dissolute option . . . up to the point where he doesn't.

After he stops Sully's rape (and gets stabbed along his torso for his pains), their relationship completely changes.  He's apologetic, she's understanding, he's appreciative, she's more willing to be appreciated.  They become lovers, both sexually and emotionally.  The rest of the book is lovely to read.  We're charmed right along with Rachel as Sebastian reverses course, deciding to supply her with every thing her imprisonment took away.

The second half of the book is classic romance: two wounded people find love in their relationship, which is threatened by outside forces until all the mysteries and loose ends are tied up and secured.

But what's the first half?  A meditation on the politics of the mid-19th century nobleman who's got too little to do and too much time in which to do it?  A treatise on the sexual politics of the period, as women are possessions and thus objects of amusement, titillation, and even perverse satisfaction?  (There's some evidence to support this last theory, as a secondary character is badly beaten by her father.)  If Gaffney's point is political, why doesn't Sebastian reflect some on the effort to rise above the tawdry nature of his life?  Why is the only self-examination we're given a truly surreal explanation, at the very end, of the moment he must have fallen in love with her, when her instinct to reassure him was an act of emotional empathy that makes him realize that she is the better person, the one with a pure heart.

The easy explanation is personal psychology: he grew up in a sexually perverse but emotionally detached and embittered household, so his life -- up to the point of preventing Sully's rape -- is an escalating recreation of the moral vacuum of his upbringing.  Only after he acts to save Rachel from a horror he set in motion does he reclaim his own humanity.

I dunno.  I'm unconvinced by all of these theories.  There is something so personal, almost enmeshed, about Sebastian's choices in the first half that seem bigger than his upbringing.  At the same time, he's fully engaged in his campaign to hurt himself through hurting Rachel or committed to the prosecution of his own amorality by seeing her as again an innocent victim (there are even suggestions that he wonders if he's done the same things that Wade did to Rachel; he half hopes he has and half hopes he hasn't) that it seems unlikely a political and cultural sexism could explain it all.

Of course, the reality is more likely to be that of the unknowable alchemy that happens when complicated characters take up residence in the mind of a better-than-average novelist.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if Gaffney was as shocked by some of Sebastian's actions while she was writing To Have and To Hold as we were to read about them.

A bit like seeing red cabbage juice change color all at once.

6 comments:

  1. Great post on a great book. Yes, the book is a mystery. And fascinating and repellent and wonderful. And probably couldn't be written now so we must be grateful it was written then.

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  2. TH&TH is one of my favorite romances, though I like the ending much less than the first half. I read the second half as increasingly genre-conventional and thus less interesting.

    In the scene in which Sebastian and his friends humiliate Rachel, I see him as experimenting on himself: wondering how he'll feel if he goes farther and farther, and whether there's a limit. Once he finds that out, he can abandon the game.

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  3. I had much the same questions as you did Magdalen - although I probably wouldn't have managed to put them across as eloquently as you did.

    My take, in the end, was that he had just reached the end of enough. Sebastian had finally reached his lowest common denominator where even he disgusted himself and that precipitated the change. Kind of like the way that some people can be told that fire it hot and stay away, others need to burn their fingers before they learn and still others have to set themselves on fire before they finally get it.

    I found the first half of the book painful to read - I disliked the cruelty and humiliation to which Rachel was subject but it was nevertheless compelling.

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  4. Miranda -- I completely agree that we're lucky to have this book. I hope it's not true, though, that daring genre-testing romances are dead forever.

    RfP -- In the key scene when Sully leaves to rape Rachel, Sebastian's internal monologue notes with dismay (?) that while things are going as he expected/planned, he doesn't feel the "wholeness" he expected to. Instead, he feels further torn apart. He drinks more brandy, and kisses the otherwise-pointless female in the room, and none of it works, none of it stitches him back up. That's when the fog clears and he runs to rescue Rachel.

    Now, this doesn't really explain anything to me beyond what I wrote in the post, but I do think it refutes your theory that he's testing himself to see how far he'll go. He had a goal all along; there was something (but what?) he expected to accomplish. He just never accomplished it.

    I think it's great that you prefer the first half, and would love to know more about that. I checked at Read For Pleasure but all I found was a 2007 post in which you say you've never read a Pat Gaffney book. Any chance you'll blog about why the first half is better?

    Kaetrin -- I like the idea that he had to set himself on fire before he figured out that he was burning himself, but why did self-immolation seem even attractive? There's an odd dialectic here: he's got to be a good guy at some level or he's ineligible to be a hero in the end. But his actions are those of a bad guy . . . until they aren't. Why does he cast himself as the bad guy when he's fundamentally not a bad guy?

    I agree completely that the first half is painful -- like the pins & needles sensation after your hand's fallen asleep and then "wakes up."

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  5. This plot reminds me of Catherine Cookson's The Dwelling Place that I read out of a Reader's Digest condensed book when I was a teen. Yes, there was forcible relations and a baby (!) but the two come to happiness at the end and it feels correct--even though I disapprove on principle. Riddle me that.

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  6. Keira -- Well, some authors can do that. They can take stuff you would have said you absolutely would never want to read about, and make glad you did even though your views weren't changed by the book.

    I think it's called good writing. And it works both ways; you and Debbie have gotten some people to read Betty Neels even though if asked in advance, they'd have said, "No way, Jose."

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