Cover comment: This one (from the 2003 rerelease) is pretty bland. You already know how I feel about the older cover.
Setting: Wyckerley, rural England, 19th century
Series?: Yes, this is book two in Gaffney’s 3 book Wyckerley series.
Hero and Heroine: Sebastian Verlaine, Viscount D’Aubrey, handsome aimless aristocrat, a rake bored of his usual entertainments and looking for something new. Think the John Malkovich character in the film Dangerous Liaisons, also, coincidentally(?), a Viscount Sebastian (or, for you youngsters, the Ryan Phillippe version of Sebastian in Cruel Intentions). Mrs. Rachel Wade, 28 years old, recently released from an unjust 10 year prison sentence for murdering her husband, a shell of a person when we meet her, thanks to 10 plus years of victimization on too many levels to count.
Plot: Sebastian hires Rachel as his housekeeper in order to have a sexual and psychological plaything, and for other subconscious reasons which only become clear to him later in the book. Rachel agrees in order to stay out of prison. The main focus of the novel is their unfolding relationship, with a subplot involving a conspiracy to send her back to prison, a fate Rachael considers worse than death.
Distinctive Features: You mean you don’t know? This is probably the most infamous romance of the modern era (it was published in 1995), because the hero rapes the heroine. This book will be triggering for some readers, and you can read all about why I loathe that expression in the this post.
Word on the Web (I think there’s a self-selecting effect at work. The folks who try it are the ones who will tend to like it. The rest wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole):
Carol, AAR, A
Alicia, TGTBTU, B
Gwerp (AAR Rachel): A+ (Rachel links to some comments from Gaffney herself on THTH)
Jennie’s B[ook]log: 8 out of 10
Amazon.com 4 stars after 22 reviews
Looooong thread at AAR: Visit this one for contradictory analyses of nearly every bit of text in this book, and fantastic examples of reader response criticism!
Fun factoid: THTH is typically ranked fairly highly in the AAR poll of top romances. It was 34 in the most recent poll.
The Racy Romance Review:
I can’t seem to get away from rakes lately, and Sebastian is another one in a long distinguished line. But while most rakes harm no one but themselves with their promiscuity, gambling, drinking, and laziness, Sebastian’s pursuit of his own selfish pleasure comes to include the pursuit of others’ pain and humiliation, our heroine being his first and only target. Typically in romance novels, sadism is reserved for the bad guy (complete with gleeful cackle), so Gaffney has certainly done something unusual here. And she’s done something psychologically astute: It makes sense that this would be the next step for a truly libertine character, doesn’t it? It’s a wonder that sadism so rarely occurs to our rakish heroes.
For her part, the heroine is suffering a textbook case of PTSD. She had been married for a week at age 18 to a respectable man who turned out to be a rapist who enjoyed sodomizing and whipping her. When he was found dead one morning, she was sent to prison for ten years, where she endured additional physical and psychological abuse. Unemployable and homeless since her release from prison, she is anxious and depressed, emotionally numb, traumatized by flashbacks, socially stunted and closed off, and hopeless. Her mantra is: “I hope to be able to bear it.”
I’m used to power differentials between hero and a heroine: for one thing, he’s a man in a patriarchal society and she…isn’t; moreover, often he’s sexually experienced while she’s a virgin, often he’s worldly, while she’s provincial, often he’s rich and she’s poor, etc. But this relationship of servitude is the most extreme I can recall, at least in a historical. And the hero exploits his position of power consistently and cruelly, for his own selfish ends, with little regard for the heroine, for the first half of the book. The question for the reader is whether Gaffney can pull off the HEA under these conditions.
Well, if anyone can do it, Gaffney can. Gaffney’s ability to write is, in my view, almost unparalleled in this genre. I assure you, I will be busy glomming her for the next few months. She also has an incredible grasp of human motivation and the complexity of human psychology. Her characters, as a result, are so real they leap off the page.
Consider her portrayal of Rachel’s mental state when she arrives at Sebastian’s home. First, we have her experience of her new rooms:
“She fumbled with matches on her bedside table and lit the candle in the brass holder. The little thrill in her chest at the elementary but powerful act — controlling light and darkness in her own room — would probably fade soon, like her awareness that the bed was too soft. How quickly one could adjust to the unspeakable luxuries of freedom.”
Here’s another example of the caliber of the writing, and the self-awareness of the heroine:
“She reminded herself of some slow, plodding animal, a night creature turned out of its lair, blinking in the scary daylight, hoping no one would notice it and bash its brains out with a shovel.
What a violent metaphor, she thought, following Tess upstairs. It would have disturbed her, except she was grateful for the fact that her mind was thinking in analogies at all. It hadn’t in prison. Noting was like anything there. Everything was precisely, horribly, exactly what it was.”
Sebastian and Rachel are highly reflective and honest with themselves, even at their worst. Consider this passage from early in the book when Sebastian first sees Rachel:
“He felt pity for her, and curiosity, and an undeniably lurid sense of anticipation. Against all reason, she interested him sexually. 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. Watching the pale, silent, motionless figure behind the bar, Sebastian had to admit a reluctant but definite kinship, not with their sentencing practices, but with their prurient fervor.”
Sebastian is unusually aware of how he benefits — unfairly — from social injustices, both in terms of gender and class. For me, this was the most shocking feature of the book. The next most shocking feature was Rachel’s matching self-awareness. I’ve often asked myself why more downtrodden heroines don’t end up trading their bodies for protection or survival: certainly it happened often enough in the 19th century. Rachel had become cynical over the years, and she knew what she was in for when she accepted Sebastian’s offer of a job as housekeeper. She also knows she did not consent to sex with Sebastian, although she is reluctant to call it rape (again, this is realistic: it’s one reason rape is an under reported crime).
There’s lot one could say, morally, about the rapes in this book and I will, in another post. To her credit, Gaffney does not write them, at least not the first one, in a titillating way. And, although all rape is wrong, and this is definitely rape, and thus morally bad, bad, bad, both the law and morality recognize a distinction in badness between the threat of violence and the threat of something else, like job loss, to coerce sex from someone.
Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that the premise of the book is that sex with Sebastian, even if it’s nonconsensual, which it is, is an integral part of both Rachel’s own recovery, and the restoration of his own character. Call me crazy, but more traumatic stress is generally not the recommended treatment for post traumatic stress syndrome, and getting raped again is not generally the recommended treatment for survivors of sexual assault. And we also don’t generally suggest to the reprobate that he go out and rape someone to become a better person.
Then again, this is fiction. It’s fantasy. So, the question from a literary point of view is whether you are convinced that these two do eventually become whole through their relationship with one another, however abusive it was at the beginning. Great writers can make us believe in unbelievable things. Did you buy it when Claire raped Jamie by drugging him to get him over his own rape)? Did you buy it when sex with Bella cured Zsadist of his own traumatic sexual history? Did you buy it when Eve recovered from sexual and physical abuse as a child mainly via her relationship with Roarke? Did you buy it when Reggie was cured of his alcoholism by the love of a good woman in Putney’s The Rake? And, at the bottom of it all, knowing what you know about how hard relationships can be, about the likelihood that two people will truly be in love with each other, and only each other, their whole lives, do you buy it that any of these characters actually have an HEA?
I’m not saying that we cannot or should not separate out rape in romance for a higher level of scrutiny. I think we should — and I do that in this post. But I am trying to contextualize the transition from rapist/victim to lover/loved in this book within the genre, as one part of a continuum of frankly unbelievable things, that all serve to do the one thing everybody agrees romance is supposed to do: make us believe in the power of romantic love to overcome all obstacles, and to serve as a key component of a fulfilled happy human life.
Luckily for us readers, something happens, at the midpoint in the book, to change everything. There is a scene I think is the most emotionally gripping, horrifying, transformative scene I have ever read in the genre. This is not a sexual encounter, but one in which Sebastian allows, even encourages, his barbarian friends to humiliate Rachel for their amusement. As Sebastian watches the events unfold, the change that has been brewing in him all along — since even before we meet him — accelerates. If you’ve ever paddled, you know there is a tipping point in a canoe — you can only lean over so far before you are underwater.
In the scene, a dinner, Rachel can’t take any more, and finally runs from the room. Here’s how Gaffney describes it:
“No one spoke for a moment, then they all spoke at once, in low voices full of lewd enjoyment and manufactured shock. Sebastian couldn’t hear the words over the soft buzzing in his ears. Something was tearing inside. Something was coming completely apart.
He heard a snap in his head, exactly like a bone breaking, and at once the eerie fugue state evaporated. His past and his future had broken cleanly in two. This, now, was the present, a violent limbo he had to smash his way out of to survive.”
This, on page 159, is Sebastian’s tipping point, and his character, and the book, make, if not a full 180, then a very sharp 90 degree turn, for the next 200 pages.
In fact, the next 200 pages are easily, hands down, some of the most beautifully romantic and joyful pages I have ever read. These are scenes that I won’t even try to describe for you because they would sound too sappy coming from my keyboard. As I was reading them, I kept thinking: Nobody else could do this. Who can make clichéd scenes like this (a horseback ride in the rain, a gift of a puppy), between these two people of all people, fresh and believable and touching?
And yet, you realize that Gaffney had laid the groundwork for the changes expertly in those first 150 pages, and she stays true to her characters afterwards, which makes Sebastian’s epiphany and Rachel’s recovery believable. Sebastian continues, at times, to be, if not cruel, then thoughtless, and Rachel continues to worry about whether her feelings for Sebastian are real, or a manifestation of gratitude for helping her out of the gutter, or even a manifestation of Stockholm syndrome.
My feelings about this book are very mixed: In the middle, I thought it was the worst romance I ever read, and by the end I thought it was the best. When I went to write this review, and re-read the first rape, the pendulum swung back again. I’m in the middle of my thinking about this, but what I’ve come to is that my problems with the book are more moral than literary, so I’m going to post them in another entry.