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Class difference is a popular theme in historical romance novels: lords and servants, ladies and their doctors, etc., but this is the first time I've read about a titled lord falling in love with a convicted criminal. (This also happens to be my first time to read Patricia Gaffney -- and what an impression she has made!)
Sebastian Verlaine, the new Viscount D’Aubrey, doesn't know why he is in Wyckerley when he should be in London with his friends. But London bores him now, and Wyckerley is just Wyckerley, so our rakish hero is biding is time, and going through the motions of being a responsible landowner.
For the past ten years as a prisoner, Rachel had been reduced to a number. She's finally free, but has discovered she has little to no options: her family had abandoned her and, as a convicted criminal, no one would hire her.
Sebastian first meets Rachel at her hearing/sentencing for vagrancy -- the fascination is instantaneous, and Sebastian steps in and hires Rachel as his housekeeper. It's quite shocking to see inside the mind of Sebastian Verlaine, who performs this "act of charity" not out of kindness for Rachel, but for his own purpose and pleasure. Sebastian Verlaine is wicked -- and unrepentant in his wickedness. His intentions towards Rachel aren't honorable at all.
He came farther into the room, and she had no choice but to back up. An invasion of her privacy. He did it deliberately, even as he wondered what in the world it was that made him want to test her, push her, see how far he could go before she broke.
- Chapter 5
I have to admit I felt a bit uneasy about how predatory Sebastian was, and how he had intended, from the beginning, to take advantage of his position and power over Rachel. I can't really justify or explain his motivations, except to say that such people do exist -- and that Gaffney had not intended her town of Wyckerley to be ideal or to exist in a vacuum. There is bleakness and inequality in Gaffney's world, and it's a very different, and unapologetic view of Victorian England outside of the glitter and dazzle of the ballrooms. Consider the injustice done to Rachel, and to the other petty criminals:
... he even got an old moral lesson hammered home anew: the poor go to gaol for the same crimes with which the rich aren't even charged.
- Chapter 1
The greatest draw of this story is the silent battle between the truly wicked and the truly good. There is such a purity and integrity to Rachel that breaks through Sebastian's cynical shell. Rachel is such an inspirational heroine -- she endured so much with her abusive husband, and then suffered the greatest inhumanity while in prison -- and, then, now, to be subjected to the whims of Sebastian Verlaine, she has managed to be honest -- and to preserve that small, indestructible part of herself.
Rachel watched him stride away, swinging his walking stick in the loose, arrogant way that seemed natural to him, not affected. He must be feeling quite satisfied with his morning's work: he had not only shocked two of Wyckerley's most respectable ladies, he'd also shamed her in front of them for his personal amusement. What she didn't understand was why. What perverse pleasure did he take in tormenting, her? [sic] It wasn't anything as simple as cruelty, she was sure of that, because his mind was too subtle, his depravities too complex. Whatever his motive, she told herself it didn't matter, that the joke was on him because she had no pride or public honor left to humiliate.
- Chapter 7
What looms over Rachel is the question of her guilt/innocence -- did she truly kill her husband? Her former friend (and daughter in-law) is also a curious presence in the story -- and hints at the darkness and depravity that Rachel suffered while married. What's heartbreaking about Rachel is the loss of her innocence (NOT her virginity), but her guilelessness and trust in the world. I thought it was very poignant how she had kept that family photograph, and how she could no longer recognize the young girl in the picture.
... As always, her first impression of the small, sepia-colored image shocked her. Not me; oh no, she can't be me. The girl, the stranger in the picture was a happy child on the brink of womanhood, smiling into the camera with artless self-confidence. An ingenue.
- Chapter 3
When a story begins with a rake, it usually ends with him reforming his wicked ways -- even from the start of the story, Sebastian was already questioning the life he lead, but it's really Rachel who shows him a clear path to redemption. What's great about Gaffney's story is that it isn't a complete 180 -- there is still a bit of the wicked rake in Sebastian, but he is a man whose view of the world (and women) has been transformed by one extraordinary person.
To Have and to Hold is Book 2 in Patricia Gaffney's Wyckerley Trilogy. To find out more about Patricia Gaffney and her books, click below: