Review: To Have and to Hold, Patricia Gaffney

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

Rosario: 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.

25 responses

  1. What a wonderful analysis of this book – much more in depth and explanatory then a review *g*. Though it’s been years since I’ve read it and only recently discovered I had somehow mistakenly got rid of it, I had to get another copy, which has again managed to lose itself in my pile somewhere, this one has stayed with me since the first time I read it.
    It’s only in the face of brilliant writing can we have a turnaround in our thinking of the vile and despicable Sebastian in the first half into a hero we route for. And watching Rachel, slowly come back to life (because she is pretty much dead – only her body is still working) is (and I know this is a MUCH overused word) awesome. I can see why so many hate this book, but as you say it’s ended up on many favourite lists – because the writer makes us BELIEVE in the transformation of these two people.

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  2. What a great post. I’m so glad you read this — I knew you would have something interesting to say about it. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Gaffney’s other books, too.

    As I think I said on the AAR thread (I post there as LFL), this is in my opinion the most brilliant book ever written in the romance genre. I completely understand why it’s controversial and why some people hate it, but I can’t help but love it to bits. On the old AAR boards, a discussion of it once got so heated that a lady who worked with battered women compared Robin and me to KKK members because we defended this book.

    While I agree that in real life for a relationship that begins this way to become what it becomes is extremely unlikely, I think romance in general isn’t a genre that deals in what is realistically possible for most people, but rather in the best of all possible outcomes. That Gaffney was able to begin the reader’s journey in such a dark place and then bring us out into the light is a lot of what makes the books so uplifting to me as well as so incredibly romantic.

    Do I find it disturbing that this is so? Yes, I do, but I also think that for all that some people argue that this book’s message could be harmful to women in abusive relationships, it also has a tremendously positive message. In making us, as Kristie put it, “BELIEVE in the transformation of these two people,” I think the book makes us believe that it is possible for all of us to become happier and better people.

    That’s my argument in favor of this book, for what it’s worth.

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  3. oh wow. What a brilliant post. I loved your thoughts on the book. I didn’t read and frankly, I don’t think I ever will for I know my own limits and I am pretty sure I will loathe to read about this hero. But this post is certainly amazing, can’t wait to read the next one.

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  4. I had to come back and comment more. I read your review and I was so shocked to read about the actions of the hero – I am still surprised at my visceral reaction of pure
    loathing. I don’t think I could ever have the guts to read the book – I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to get through the first 150 pages even with the prospect of the ensuing transformation and this the point I would like to comment on your questions:

    Yes, I can believe Reggie can be a recovering alcoholic (but it’s not only because of love, he was already half way there when he met his heroine)
    Yes, I can buy when Eve recovered from sexual and physical abuse as a child mainly via her relationship with Roarke. I can not comment of the Ward’s book (because I haven’t read it) and I would prefer not to start on Outlander (the whole Jamie being raped thing was so so so over the top) .

    But basically, yes I believe in the power of love – and I believe that in those instances a transformation is possible and believable ,specially because the characters were already somewhat prepared for it. AND (this is the main point for me, at least) all of the “injuries”, psychological or physical were NOT inflicted by the hero or heroine of these books.

    What you describe happens in To have and to Hold seems to be completely different – we are talking about Sadism and pure, downright cruelty from the hero towards the heroine *shudders* – I don’t think that can ever be redeemed, and I just can’t buy SUCH transformation. Personally speaking it makes me physically sick to read about a “hero” specially in a romance novel being capable of such acts. It just pushes all the wrong buttons to this particular reader. Yes, this is a more moral and personal opinion than a literary one – the book may be well written, the writer may succeed in telling a good story but still, at the end of the day, even what is considered a literary masterpiece is subject to be relativism – there are no absolutes in art.

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  5. I’m just going to echo Ana:

    Personally speaking it makes me physically sick to read about a “hero” specially in a romance novel being capable of such acts. It just pushes all the wrong buttons to this particular reader.

    Just reading your review this morning made me feel upset and it’s taken me until now to feel able to come back and leave a comment.

    I noticed that at the Word Wenches you were considering using this novel in your classes. From a not-very-academic point of view, and just imagining how I’d feel as a student if I had to read a novel with the storyline you’ve described (I found it traumatic enough to have to study Tess of the d’Urbervilles in class), I wonder if it might be more pleasant for your students to be given something like Crusie’s Crazy for You to read, because although it does deal with male violence and attempted rape, it isn’t being perpetrated by the hero.

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  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments so far. At any given moment, I agree with each of you.

    Laura, it is very academic to consider the impact which instructional material may have on students, and I do. My teaching load includes the mainly very controversial material, and this is something I wrestle with constantly. Thanks for the reminder that I may need to give special consideration to using this text!

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  7. I also found it very traumatic to study Tess of the D’Urbervilles, so I can sympathize with where Laura is coming from. And it’s actually interesting to compare to Tess, because Gaffney says she was influenced by Hardy, and there’s a melancholy feel that runs through the Wyckerley trilogy that is somewhat reminiscent of Hardy’s work (though not nearly as depressing, IMO).

    For me, though, reading To Have and to Hold, as horrifying as portions of the first half were, was ultimately an enormously positive experience. I think that in some ways it is the antithesis of Tess, a book that made me feel that humanity is doomed becasue people cannot change their nature or escape their painful destinies. To Have and to Hold is IMO a much more optimistic work — possibly the most optimistic book I have ever read, because its message is exactly opposite.

    I also think it is so brilliantly written that it anyone who studies the genre should read it. To study the genre without reading it is a bit like studying Shakespeare but never reading Hamlet, IMO. A huge gaping hole in one’s education. With all respect to Crusie, I don’t think this book can be substitued for with another. There are some books that were traumatizing to me to read but which I’m nevertheless glad I read because reading them enriched my education so much. This book is IMO nothing less than a masterpiece of the genre, and therefore should be read more, not less.

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  8. With all respect to Crusie, I don’t think this book can be substitued for with another.

    It really depends what Jessica is/was planning to do with the novel. If it were merely going to be used to kick-start a discussion about rape/male violence against women and different ways that’s been dealt with in women’s fiction, then one might be able to substitute the Crusie for the Gaffney. If, however, Jessica wanted to explore the redemption of a rapist, then no, it certainly wouldn’t be possible to replace the Gaffney with the Crusie, though there are plenty of other romances which do have that as part of their plot. If what she wanted was to examine how Gaffney’s characterisation makes the redemption seem emotionally acceptable/possible (to some readers) then no substitution would be possible at all.

    To study the genre without reading it is a bit like studying Shakespeare but never reading Hamlet, IMO. A huge gaping hole in one’s education.

    There are so many novels in the genre that there’s no way I could possibly read them all, so my education in it would never be complete, even were I to read Gaffney’s entire oeuvre. I would never attempt to write an overview of the whole genre, and I would never think of myself as a scholar of the entire genre. I study (a) some clearly defined parts of the genre (e.g. I’ve written a comparison of two Harlequin Mills & Boon lines, and even so I wouldn’t think of myself as an expert in them) (b) particular books/authors e.g. Crusie’s romances, or (c) certain recurring themes in the genre, but always acknowledging that I can only give an introduction to them, not a comprehensive survey of how they appear in the entire genre.

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  9. I’m sure it’s true that it would be impossible to read all the novels in the genre, but I think it might be possible to read the top few hundred most loved or debated by readers. AAR’s Top 100 list, which this book is on, is certainly a good starting place for someone who wants to become familiar with some of the genre’s more popular or discussed works.

    I was coming at it from the perspective that yes, Jessica would want to study the characterization and how it makes the redemption believable, since that was something she highlighted in her review. But I was also taking into account these statements:

    Gaffney’s ability to write is, in my view, almost unparalleled in this genre.

    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.

    Given these words, I thought that another reason she might want to teach this novel is its literary merit. Since I think that from a literary perspective, there isn’t a better-written romance out there, and since it sounds like Jessica’s assessment may be similar (she states that her objections are more moral than literary), I thought this might be one of her motives for wanting to teach the book.

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  10. I thought that another reason she might want to teach this novel is its literary merit.

    Jessica’s described herself as “an academic who teaches (among other things) feminist theory and gender studies” which is why I thought it possible that she might be more interested in teaching the book from the point of view of the gender issues it raises, in the context of a genre that’s often portrayed as being written “by women, for women”.

    I’m sure it’s true that it would be impossible to read all the novels in the genre, but I think it might be possible to read the top few hundred most loved or debated by readers. AAR’s Top 100 list, which this book is on, is certainly a good starting place for someone who wants to become familiar with some of the genre’s more popular or discussed works.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve read at least one novel by most of the authors on that list, even if I haven’t come across the precise novel(s) listed at AAR. It’s interesting that the list includes no Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, which make up the bulk of romances available in the UK, and an extremely significant proportion of the genre in the US. One of my main interests is Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances (mostly post 1990, given availability, though I’ve read quite a lot of older ones).

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  11. I did read Jessica’s self-description, and I did think that gender issues would be one of her reasons for teaching THATH, but when I took feminist theory and gender studies classes at a university lo these many years ago, we frequently studied works that were considered meritorious in addition to raising interesting gender issues.

    I also think that (in my admittedly subjective opinion) there is just so much to dig into both from the gender issues/feminist theory perspective and from the literary criticism perspective in this book that it would be difficult to find another book in the romance genre that would generate as much food for thought and debate. To Have and to Hold is so rich, layered and complex and there is so much to explore in it, but it is difficult to convey what a treasure trove it is to someone who hasn’t read it.

    Re. the AAR Top 100 — yes, there are certainly oversights and it’s not a comprehensive survey of the genre. It’s not perfect, just a good starting place. I’m very glad to hear you’ve read at least one book by most of the authors on that list, though in the case of Gaffney, some of her earlier works are much lesser books than To Have and to Hold IMO, and the growth of her writing over the course of her career is impressive. I would hate for anyone to take Sweet Treason or Fortune’s Lady as a definitive example of her writing and think that it was all that she was capable of.

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  12. we frequently studied works that were considered meritorious in addition to raising interesting gender issues.

    I think the Crusie I suggested, although you might not consider it as “meritorious in addition to raising interesting gender issues” as the Gaffney, is not lacking in merit. Of course, it may well be that it isn’t at all suitable for inclusion in this particular course. I merely very tentatively offered it as an alternative because, given my reaction to the review of To Have and to Hold, which echoed Ana’s, I suspected that some students might find exposure to the novel itself very difficult to deal with emotionally. However, given that Jessica’s “teaching load includes [...] mainly very controversial material” it may well be that students who would react badly to THATH would already avoid taking the course because they’d know they’d react badly to the other material included on the course.

    I apologise, Jessica, if I’ve drawn incorrect conclusions about your work or your students.

    I would hate for anyone to take Sweet Treason or Fortune’s Lady as a definitive example of her writing and think that it was all that she was capable of.

    I began Another Eden but couldn’t finish it because of the way in which the heroine was being abused by her husband.

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  13. I also apologize since it’s very possible I’ve drawn incorrect conclusions abotu Jessica’s classes too.

    I also didn’t mean to imply that the Crusie book is lacking in merit — I haven’t read that particular one but the four Crusies I’ve read so far have all been better than average. No doubt Crusie’s writing deserves the attention it has received from academics yet I believe there are other romances just as deserving that have been overlooked by academia. To Have and to Hold seems like such a book to me, which is why I’ve been so ardent (perhaps a little too much so?) in its defense.

    Re. Another Eden, I don’t think it’s one of Gaffney’s strongest romances but it’s not her weakest either. IMO it’s squarely in the middle between her strongest and weakest works. If you want to avoid abused heroines and read one of her stronger books, I’d recommend Wild at Heart — the heroine is never abused in that book although the hero (who is gentle and sweet) does suffer some injustices on the road to happiness.

    Gaffney also has two humorous books, Crooked Hearts and Outlaw in Paradise. I didn’t care that much for the latter but I think the former is better than Another Eden. Neither is as strong as strong as Wild at Heart or To Have and to Hold in my estimation, though.

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  14. Gosh, even my colleagues aren’t this helpful with syllabi! Thank you for the suggestions!

    Yes, I was thinking of THTH in terms of gender issues. When you teach women’s studies or fem theory you are talking about power, oppression, gender, sexuality — things everyone has a stake in and feels passionately about, and also, concrete issues like rape, pornography, sexual harassment, work and family, etc. So those (upper level, WST majors) students are used to it.

    The other course I was thinking of was an ethics in/of/and fiction course which I teach every other year or so, where students are not necessarily expecting difficult material, but where I have taught material with tough subject matter in the past.

    I think you both make great points: This book raises loads of important question about gender and the ethics of fiction, (I have at least two other drafts of posts on it), but it may also be too much for some students, so I would want think a lot about how and when it is introduced, and to whom.

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  15. I believe there are other romances just as deserving that have been overlooked by academia.

    This latest wave of scholarship on the genre is still very, very new, so I think it’s a bit early to talk about any particular books/authors being “overlooked.” For all we know, someone may already be working on Gaffney, or may be thinking about it.

    At the moment what constitutes “academia” as far as romance scholarship is concerned is really still very small (though growing), and the genre is a huge one, so each of us has to be selective. This is likely to mean that each of us will choose to work in areas of the genre that interest us and/or on books that appeal to/interest each of us personally (apart from the people teaching survey courses about the genre, who might teach books that are important in the genre and/or provide lots of material for discussion/study with students, but aren’t their personal favourites).

    The original disciplines/subject areas from which academics studying romance come varies greatly. The particular subject area a scholar is coming from may well affect the romance novels they’d find it interesting to study, as well as the approach they might take to them. For example, the forthcoming conference to be held at Princeton is being sponsored by the “Department of English, the Program in American Studies, The Center for African American Studies, the Program in the Study of Women and Gender and the Center for the Study of Religion.”

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  16. Gosh, even my colleagues aren’t this helpful with syllabi! Thank you for the suggestions!

    My suggestions were actually directed at Laura, should she ever want to try Gaffney again. Not that I think any of Gaffney’s other works are as great as THATH, but Gaffney does have a few books that might fit what Laura enjoys reading.

    Yes, I was thinking of THTH in terms of gender issues. When you teach women’s studies or fem theory you are talking about power, oppression, gender, sexuality — things everyone has a stake in and feels passionately about, and also, concrete issues like rape, pornography, sexual harassment, work and family, etc. So those (upper level, WST majors) students are used to it.

    Jessica, though I hope you will stick with THATH, if you’re looking for other Gaffney suggestions for your syllabi, I would say that on the gender issue the Wyckerley trilogy is probably most interesting. To Love and to Cherish is a very good book and has some interesting takes on gender, in that it flips genre stereotypes in some ways (the heroine is the cynical one, while the hero is trusting) but not in others (arguably, the heroine is raped, but not by the hero, and it’s not a controversial book like THATH). Forever and Ever isn’t as strong, IMO, as the other two, but it’s also interesting from a gender perspective. The heroine is a mine owner and the hero is an activist who wants better conditions for the miners.

    The other course I was thinking of was an ethics in/of/and fiction course which I teach every other year or so, where students are not necessarily expecting difficult material, but where I have taught material with tough subject matter in the past.

    For that I really can’t think of another book in the romance genre that you could have as interesting a discussion of morality and fiction around. Its morality still gets argued on romance boards semi-regularly 13 years after its publication.

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  17. Pingback: A Rape by Any Other Name « Racy Romance Reviews

  18. Hi Jessica, I just wanted to chime in a say that I really like how you handled your review of this book. It’s definitely not an easy book to review. I think sometimes that a book might have content that I don’t like, but the book itself can still be well written and a good book. I find that those books are the hardest to grade. Do you give it a high grade because it’s well written, or do you give it a low grade because you don’t like how the characters behaved?

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  19. Jill — thank you for visiting! I hope the review reflects my ambivalence. I am very glad I read the book — I’m glad when I read anything that makes me think.

    Janine and Laura – Actually, the big impediment will likely be getting enough copies!

    even if I don’t teach it, I can do a “Women’s Studies Luncheon Series” talk at my uni on it, and bring the discussion to a fairly wide audience (we get faculty, students, and staff). Either way, I’m definitely interested in working through the issues more.

    Hardy’s Tess also raises a lot of the issues about the difference between seduction and sexual assault that THATH got me thinking about, and I’m pretty sure it’s not out of print…

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  20. Pingback: Romance Novels in The Journal of Sex Research « Racy Romance Reviews

  21. Pardon my disjointed late-night thoughts.

    I was traumatized by Tess of the d’Urbervilles too. Yech. I didn’t even want it on my shelf.

    Like Janine, I see To Have and To Hold as an anti-Tess. However, I feel that way for different reasons than what Janine expressed above (and following your post on rape).

    Janine: That Gaffney was able to begin the reader’s journey in such a dark place and then bring us out into the light is a lot of what makes the books so uplifting to me as well as so incredibly romantic. … and

    the core message I feel the book has… is that making the moral choice over the selfish one is not only possible no matter how selfish we’ve been in the past

    I don’t see it as uplifting; I simply don’t think of it in such big-picture terms. To me, the power of the writing is that it’s NOT “about” rape per se, nor “about” triumphing over selfishness. This is one of the rare books I would say transcends genre (if I knew exactly what that meant), because I see it as not about the genre’s usual axes to grind but about two specific, highly individual characters and the way *they* grind against each other’s weak spots. They both prove strong enough characters (and the moment is right for each) to face those weaknesses and change their trajectories.

    I also don’t see the darkness-to-light aspect as romantic. That sounds like a savior story. What I like in TH&TH‘s romance is that the hero/ine are different in precisely the right ways to be complementary; to my mind, that serendipity makes the relationship special–not any moral dimension, and not even the happy ending.

    The characters are in such sharp focus that they cancel my usual romance-conditioned expectations for the story. And because the characters are so specific, the rape story doesn’t seem to me to hit either extreme: it doesn’t come across as didactic, but it doesn’t unreflectedly torture the heroine for drama. I also don’t see it as dehumanizing Rachel; if anything, she spends much of the book finding herself again. In contrast, I felt that Tess dehumanized Tess over the course of the book and I definitely read Tess as a lesson. That didactic message was a large part of what upset me, particularly being young when I read it.

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  22. Wow, this sounds like a very interesting book, excellent book. I do love most when characters are self-aware and questioning. It adds so much to the book, another entire layer. Have you read Claiming the Courtesan by Ann Campbell?

    It’s another case of the hero raping the heroine, though his motivation is not sadism. The author treats it more realistically than many of her peers. She never explores the darker side of human nature as it sounds like Gaffney does in this book, but you do get the impression that the hero is desperate in resorting to such measures and he has little hope himself that he can win the heroine; it seems like a last, failing effort. The question is if the author can bring an HEA from this. Certainly we can’t imagine a real couple enacting these stories, but the emotions they invoke are something else, the depths of human nature plumbed. Isn’t this why we love art and drama? I recommend you read it, if only out of curiosity. (Her next books involve no rape, fear not.)

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  23. Pingback: Review: Lily, by Patricia Gaffney | Read React Review

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