Liz at Something More mentioned that she was planning to read Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy and post about it; I’d only read the middle book, To Have and to Hold, so I decided it would be fun to join in, and also post about my experience, in a rambling way. Spoilers ahead! Many of them!
To Love and to Cherish is first in the Wyckerley trilogy.
Here’s the summary: He is a local vicar, whose handsome, noble features resemble those of an angel. And with his golden-haired good looks and palpable strength, Christian “Christy” Morrell has unexpectedly become the single source of light in Anne Verlaine’s dark life. Almost from the moment they met, she realized she couldn’t help loving him.
But Anne is imprisoned by an unhappy marriage to the man who was once Christy’s closest friend. Yet when her husband leaves Anne behind in Wyckerley, she finds herself unable to deny the breathtaking passion Christy has awakened in her. She knows she has no right to ask Christy to love her, and no choice but to need him—-even though she risks both their ruin.
Like all Gaffney’s work that I’ve read so far, To Love and to Cherish features complex characters with significant barriers to their romantic relationship. The conflict for a good portion of this story is a simple one: Christy is the local vicar, and when he falls in love with her, Anne is married to his childhood friend, Geoffrey; he won’t commit adultery, and when he realizes he’s in love with her, he decides he can’t see her any more, end of story. Anne, meanwhile, is also in love with Christy, but feels emotionally trapped as well as being trapped within her marriage vows.
However, after both Christy and Anne believe Geoffrey has died in the Crimean War, the conflict shifts to a more subtle one, the fact that Anne is recently widowed, and Christy must at all times be more moral than his flock. He loves her and desperately wants sex with her, but marrying her too soon would bring the appearance of impropriety. This would likely damage Anne’s reputation and Christy’s credibility, and thus the work he does as vicar, which is an important part of his self-worth. Anne, whose marriage was mostly loveless and has been without sex for years, wants a sexual relationship as well, and is frustrated with Christy’s recalcitrance. Adding to all those conflicts is a more philosophical one: Christy is religious and Anne is an atheist. Overcoming these barriers – which they do – necessitates considerable negotiation between the two of them. Those negotiations are, I think, possibly the most important facet of their relationship. The other facet is curiosity. The two are endlessly curious about each other’s opinions. That, in turn, made them endlessly intriguing to me as a reader, and indicated they would never be bored with each other.
…Christy wanted to stare at her until she made sense to him, fit into some category of womanhood he could check off and set aside, a mystery solved. She was lovely–but that was obvious; a quality much more arresting than beauty simmered under her apparently unlimited composure. It drew him in spite of the faint mockery in her eyes–he was sure now that it was mockery–whenever she intercepted his curious glance.
And from Anne’s point of view:
I can come closer to being myself with Reverend Morrell than with anyone else–a huge, seductive, powerful relief, and the last thing in the world I’d have expected. We talk about everything. So far he hasn’t tried to convert me, but he wants to know how I “got this way.”
…Proprietary? I suppose. I flatter myself that we have a special relationship, and I find the thought of another woman–another person–hearing the things he says to me, private, confidential, fascinating things about his hopes for his life, his fears of failure–the thought of him sharing them with another person makes me feel . . . diminished. Cheated? I might almost say betrayed, but that’s too much–and–it exposes the vanity in all of this.
A major theme in this novel is love and sacrifice, including what a person needs to do for themselves in order to be able to do for others. Self-care is part of their caring for each other. With Christy, it’s obvious that he commits a great deal of himself to the villagers; he constantly worries that he is not giving enough, that he is not good enough, and that he is failing the people he wants to help. Meanwhile, Anne feels lingering guilt that her marriage to Geoffrey was a failure, even though she knows, objectively, that both of them failed each other. She feels she is not worthy of love or even friendship; she feels set apart from humanity. …I don’t think she will be my friend. She and the others will maintain the social gap they think is between us, in spite of anything I could do to bridge it. The irony is that it’s a false gap, this peeress-commoner nonsense. The real gap is even wider; it’s the one that separates goodness and simplicity (theirs) from emptiness and ennui (mine). Christy helps her to realize that people care for her as a person, as well. She helps Christy to realize that love of her begets more love for the villagers and for God, not less.
During the early portions of the novel, as Anne gets to know Christy, he is her only friend. … he fixed her with a burning blue stare and said soberly, “If you ever need help. If you ever need anything. You know that you can come to me, don’t you? I can help. I can do something. Anne, I will help you.”
She nodded matter-of-factly, but inside she felt breathless. The possibility…the possibility…. Against everything, all her experience, she found herself almost believing him. To have a friend, someone she could trust, someone who might really help her. …It was a heady sensation, like contemplating a dive from a great height. “Thank you,” she whispered, ambivalent. Oh, but the possibility…. She clings desperately to the hope of seeing him again, however briefly.
However, once she is widowed (or thinks she is), she also feels more free to reach out to the villagers, partly because she feels it is her duty, partly because she is desperately lonely. She slowly makes friends among them, though Christy helps her to realize that she has, in fact, made true friends. …and yet, the Weedies’ kindness to me was real, and for a few minutes I did not feel as if I were in disguise…. Her slow bonding with the village reflects her bonding with Christy, while also showing that she is no longer dependent on him for all caring and affection. Christy told her the latest village gossip, and Anne realized with a slight start that, far from being boring, it all fascinated her. By reaching out, she is made stronger in herself as well as in her relationship – self-care, again. Again and again, she and Christy lean on each other for emotional support, long before they become lovers.
“You were the one who needed a friendly ear tonight, and for some reason I decided to burden you even more with my problems.”
“You haven’t burdened me, you know that.”
“Ah, but that’s your attitude to everyone, all of us sheep in your flock, Reverend Morrell. You ought to guard yourself better. We’re heavy, and we’ll take advantage of you. If you’re not careful, we’ll bear you down to the ground.” She said it as a joke, but she could see the simple truth in it as soon as it was out. Christy would bear anything that was asked of him, and he would always think of himself last.
Christy’s Christian behavior (it’s no accident that his name is Christian!) throughout the novel brings to light facets of Anne’s personality that she’s had to hide for years. Her simple, straightforward kindness was so clear to him, and it drew him as irresistibly as her beauty. They have kindness in common, and it brings them together. It’s because of Christy’s active example that Anne is driven to reconsider her atheism as well as her future path in life as a vicar’s wife. I’m starting to think that believers are better off than nonbelievers if only because they have something to live by besides self-interest. Then why not simply join them? If I can’t accept all of it yet, maybe I will in time, little by little.
It’s fascinating to me that Anne’s spiritual conversion occurs almost as a result of her sexual relationship with Christy; I think, before that relationship, she would have been incapable of reaching out to the numinous for help. Her belief in Christy and in the love they share enables her to reach for concepts she would not allow herself to contemplate while trapped in marriage to Geoffrey.
I think I’ve gone on quite long enough for now!
Side note: I love this small mention of the Crimean War, since I read a couple of fascinating books about it, for a short story. I read the newspapers to keep up. Quiet old England turns out to be a shade bloodthirsty: everyone is dying for a good old-fashioned war again, which they haven’t had since Waterloo. The enemy seems to have been picked almost at random, as far as I can tell. The residents of Wyckerley are puzzled but proud of their new viscount for going off to keep Turkey safe from Russian encroachment (a murky and remote motive to me, but perhaps I don’t understand politics) and never fail to ask me what news I’ve had from my husband. I say the mails are unreliable, which is certainly true, and change the subject.
I wrote about Eroticism in To Have and To Hold here.