When Miss Bates turned the last page of To Love and To Cherish, she sighed with relief. It hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared. Nothing’d shocked her; nothing’d disturbed her all that much. On the contrary, in the end, her sensibilities were at ease; she thought Christy endearing and a great study of the meaning of Christian faith. Anne was a good, decent heroine, with integrity and had blossomed in the most wonderful way. All was well in Miss Bates’s romance universe. Gaffney’s first Wyckerley novel had inspired associations with many 19th century novels Miss Bates’d loved, still loved. It was all good and what need was there for any fuss? To Love and To Cherish was what its title claimed: loving and cherishing the other, making the other precious in one’s eyes. Christy comes to this state naturally; Anne has to learn it. There is a darkness to her understanding; there is a price, but it is one that she makes of her own free will. Then, Miss Bates read To Have and To Hold and is reeling. She doesn’t have much to say, hopes to reach some equanimity by the time a much-anticipated discussion takes place at Something More. For now, however, there are only half-formed thoughts.
There’s no waxing poetic about To Have and To Hold: it contains its title’s brutality. What does it mean to have someone and what is required to hold on to her? How does, as Martin Buber articulated, “It” become “Thou”? This is a brutal book that turns tender. Gaffney took the romance to the edge and came close to tossing it over to its death. Does she retrieve it from the precipice to plausibility? Miss Bates can’t articulate a response. As is her wont with first-time reads, she didn’t look at reviews, opinions, analyses. To get at the novel raw, without bias, or prejudice, or even sympathy. And maybe to those who’ve thought about Sebastian and Rachel’s story, read and reread and analysed and speculated about it, her gasp of reaction is banal.
In the “Preface” to the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë writes, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” (This is, in and of itself, a great motto for a spinster; Miss Bates holds it near and dear to her heart.) To Have and To Hold is not a conventional romance novel; indeed, after Sebastian’s “road to Damascus” moment, his subsequent guilt, repentance, atonement, even his backsliding (because we never thoroughly put off the “old Adam”) border on tedium. Miss Bates thinks it easy to judge this romance novel in light of conventions about what makes a hero and heroine and to do so “self-righteously”, indignantly, but Gaffney treats the interplay of power and desire, need and independence, love and control, self and other, deeply and interestingly. Miss Bates just wished she knew what to make of it.