I recently read Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold for the first time. If I’d only read the first section of the book (a bit less than half), I could easily interpret it as an erotic novel, though one without much explicit sex. To explain why I think that, first I have to talk about the book as a whole.

There’s a lot of discussion of this novel mostly because of its hero, aristocrat Sebastian Verlaine. Sebastian enacts a “forced seduction” of the heroine, Rachel Wade, who was imprisoned for ten years for the death of her abusive husband. Sebastian later allows his acquaintances to verbally torment Rachel; if Sebastian had not acted at the last minute, he would have tacitly allowed her to be raped by one of them. However, after and because of these actions on Sebastian’s part, a switch flips in his personality and he becomes the Rake Reformed who’s hoping to be Redeemed. From then on he is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way as a romantic hero; “He had two immediate goals: to make her laugh and to make her come.”

I am vastly simplifying. It’s difficult to do otherwise with this complex and rewarding novel, which I’m still thinking about (I’ll no doubt have more to say a few months from now). Sebastian still has flaws in the book’s second section but, well, I can sum up his character shift by saying he gives her a puppy. And a conservatory. Both of these are things Rachel desperately desires and was denied while in prison; he responds to her deep needs with deep acuity.

In return, Rachel gives him a copy of an opera libretto which he truly loves. Throughout, she can often interpret the motives behind his actions. She becomes an expert on him. I think part of her skill at interpreting him is that she suffers from PTSD, because of her experiences with her husband and in prison; she’s hyperattentive to people who might be threats. However, she is also easily devastated by kindness and tenderness; after Sebastian’s reversal, she gives him her trust, which to me is much more impressive than Sebastian’s reform. The second section is the epitome of romantic fantasy; ultimate trust and ultimate knowledge of the other.

In both sections, Sebastian is extremely attuned to Rachel: first cruelly, then kindly; first focused on his own gratification through her, secondly on her gratification. But back to the eroticism. Rachel’s sexual desires are shut away for the first part of the novel. She cannot fully access that part of her until Sebastian changes, so I feel her true journey towards wholeness happens more in the second section than the first, when her erotic feelings are tightly bound up with emotional/romantic feelings (something our society perceives as normal for women).

Therefore, I looked at Sebastian’s erotic journey. At first, he can sense the barriers between him and Rachel. The only way he can allow himself to think of removing those barriers is with sex; he’s a dissipated rake; seduction is what he does. He cannot change his character except through sex. He thus makes her into an erotic object, and seeks to break her down to his level. “Her passivity irked him.” “He felt pity for her, and curiosity, and an undeniably lurid sense of anticipation.” “She was in his power, a virtual slave. The situation was unquestionably provocative, but it ought to have been more so, more stimulating. He hadn’t really gotten to her yet. She simply didn’t care enough.” “Because of her reserve, touching her seemed a daring encroachment, almost like the breaking of a taboo. But wasn’t that what made her irresistible?” “…that master-servant simulation had piquant sexual overtones he found stimulating.”

Then Sebastian begins to lose his emotional distance and is having trouble seeing her merely as an erotic object. He has to work harder at it. “He entertained himself by imagining her in lewd sexual situations, but the man in his fantasies was always himself; when he tried to put a deviant or a pervert in them with her, someone who hurt her or degraded her–someone other than himself–the fantasies evaporated, leaving him with a bad taste in the mouth.”

His feelings of distaste lead him into a little more self-awareness, and realization that he wants more from her than her body. He’s beginning to get the idea that there will be a form of exchange between them. “…he’d seen a change coming in himself for a while now. Out of boredom and cynicism, he was starting to become nasty. He didn’t approve of it, but in some ways he saw it as inevitable…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. There were no vices and few depravities he hadn’t tasted, with differing degrees of satisfaction. He worried that when he ran out, he would choose a few favorites and indulge in them until they killed him…he had some idea that if he could possess her, the essence of what he lacked and she had would be his. He would appropriate it.” “…he alternated between wanting to save her and wanting to push her to her limit.”

He doesn’t go about seduction very well at all. His thoughts here are far from romantic. But his analysis of his seductive maneuvers made me think of erotica, the sort with a psychological bent. “Her silence and her manner–completely withdrawn–suggested that their first time together was not going to be particularly transcendent, and that his best course would be simply to get it over with. That was one way. Another would be to exploit her provocative unwillingness, use it to heighten his pleasure–and hers, too, if she would let it. For the hundredth time he wondered what her husband had done to her. Since he didn’t know and she wouldn’t tell him, it seemed he had no choice but to enjoy her in any way he liked…He considered stopping everything and letting her go, but only for a split second, before the thought flew off to wherever bad ideas go.”

After the forced seduction (I use that term rather than rape because this is a novel, and a fantasy scenario), Gaffney complicates the encounter further with Rachel’s thoughts. “She understood why her fear of him had diminished…It was because she’d discovered from the most intimate experience that, unlike her husband, he was not thoroughly corrupt. He spoke of the “piquancy” of her unwillingness, and she didn’t doubt that he found it so, but he had never hurt her, not really, and she knew with a bone-deep certainty that he never would. His methods of coercion were subtler, and maybe it was sophistry to say that therefore they were kinder. But she had been used by men in both ways now, brutally and gently, and she could say without equivocation that she much preferred Sebastian’s.”

After they’ve been intimate, Sebastian tries to regain the self he was before, by encouraging himself to separate from her emotionally. While his acquaintances torment Rachel with invasive questions, he picks at the piano keys. “The unimaginativeness of his friends’ preoccupations ought not to have surprised him, but it did. Had they always been this shallow and insipid? This vicious? What made him think he was any different from them?” “…this was different. This was worse. He was letting it happen, watching it grow more beastly by the minute, because he wasn’t testing her anymore. He was testing himself.” “The worst for Sebastian was recognizing his own soft, mocking tone in Sully’s despicable cadence. He felt physically sick.” “He felt the tear down the middle of himself widening, and that was wrong; it should have been narrowing. He’d just done a thing to make himself whole again.”

And then emotion breaks through, and Sebastian changes. “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.”

The rest of the novel is all about emotional intimacy; even the sex scenes are about emotional intimacy. But in the first section, the sex and erotic thoughts are deeply tied with the hero’s journey to self-awareness, and the heroine’s journey towards feeling sexual desire through trust and intimacy.

Gossamer Obsessions has a terrific post on this novel from October 2013.